It is now officially less than 100 days to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. As each day passes, we're another step closer to seeing what the national teams will look like. All of the decision makers have plenty to digest.
Perhaps no one has as difficult a job for selecting his final roster than Canada's Steve Yzerman. It's difficult only because he has to figure out which superstar to pick for every single position and which superstar he'll have to leave home. Poor guy.
That's what makes the candidacy of reigning Norris Trophy winner and Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban so intriguing. Subban is not without his detractors, but even so, it seems odd that he's not often mentioned as a stone-cold lock for Team Canada. In fact, according to Darren Dreger's information, he's a… long shot?
If I were picking the CDN Oly team, Subban would be on it. Based on intel gathered, at this pt, he's a longshot...behind Boyle and Letang.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) October 31, 2013
...Doesn't mean P.K won't make the Oly team, but, management concerns with high risk play still outweigh his offensive strengths.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) October 31, 2013
Maybe it's not that odd with Canada's utter ridiculous depth on the blue line, but when you've got a point-producing defenseman with speed and physicality of Subban's caliber, he just seems like a natural fit, especially on the big ice.
Dreger aluded to the perception that Subban is a risk taker and that those risks, particularly with the puck on his stick, make him a potential liability on the bigger ice surface.
Subban was credited with 42 giveaways last season, a somewhat deceiving statistic, but interesting nonetheless (players that have the puck more naturally will give it away more, but it's still something players should look to limit, obviously). That worked out to an average of one per game.
That giveaway number has dipped slightly this young season – nine in 13 games -- while Subban's point production has not. Even if there's risk, and it's really only moderate risk, it seems as though the reward would be higher.
Subban is tied for the league lead among defensemen with 11 points. He is averaging 24:33 a night, has put 36 shots on net and looks every bit as good as he did last season when he was voted the league's best defenseman.
Now mistakes are indeed magnified on the bigger ice surface. Turnovers can be punished more harshly depending on the location on the ice as defenders' gaps are naturally bigger on the wider surface. That said, Subban's combination of speed, strength and skill suggest he'd be a weapon on an Olympic sheet, enough of one where the risk factor could be negated. Take, for example, this terrific stretch pass to Rene Bourque:
That pass will be there sometimes in Sochi, too. Not only that, but the ability to skate the puck out of trouble, something Subban can do with regularity, is even more important with the extra time and space to keep the puck out of harm's way.
Ever since he entered the league, Subban has had his detractors, whether it was his puck management, trash talk on the ice, the odd dive or that maybe it seems to be having too much fun. However, Subban is now a 24-year-old veteran defenseman. He's young, but he's been around.
That maturity is showing more and more in his play this season. As he explained to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com:
"I still play the same game that I played when I was 16 years old in Belleville [OHL]," Subban told ESPN.com this week. "The difference now is that I'm 24, not 16; I'm into my fourth NHL season, I have some experience under my belt, I've played for multiple coaches now, I'm just a little bit older and that helps you.
"But in terms of how I play my game, I haven't changed much. I've grown as a person, I think I've matured a little bit, and I still have more maturing to do just like most players, especially young players. But I still play the game like I always have."
Subban mentioned Belleville, where he spent four years in the Ontario Hockey League. Here is why that is particularly relevant to his Olympic candidacy. The Bulls' home ice surface at Yardmen Arena is Olympic-sized, the only such sheet in the OHL. In four seasons with Belleville, Subban posted 190 points, including 76 in his last season.
That may seem insignificant, since he's four years removed from it, but this is a guy who knows how to use big ice. He's been on it a lot more in his career than most of his Canadian counterparts. That experience is relevant.
Subban is also a two-time gold medalist at the World Junior Championship, which at his age is about the best international experience you could hope for in a candidate.
Kris Letang and Dan Boyle may be Subban's biggest competition. While both bring terrific offensive tools to the table, Subban's are at a similar level at this point in his career. Then he has the added edge of being a physical player.
The Olympic style is less physical than the NHL, but contradictory to popular belief, there is still value in playing a physical game on big ice. The wider surface makes it a little tougher, but there are still opportunities to deliver those big open-ice checks that Subban has made part of his game.
The detractors are quieting down a lot more now and probably only will continue to do so. Subban is an explosive player, who brings a skill set that should kill on the big ice at both ends. He won't need to play top-pairing minutes to be an effective player for Canada, which means whatever risk he has in his game will be somewhat limited by his usage.
There aren't as many differences to the Olympic-sized and NHL-sized ice surfaces in terms of how the game is played, but the key skills Subban brings to the table should exploit those few differences in Sochi. Maybe Canada's management is overthinking things a bit here. P.K. Subban should be on that team.
Team Canada Olympic Tracker
From now until the Olympics, we'll occasionally be checking in on select candidates for the Canadian Olympic Hockey Team, particularly those on the bubble as well as calling to attention some of the stronger candidates' performances to date.
|Marc-Edouard Vlasic (USATSI)|
One of the trendiest names in Olympic chatter over the last week has been Vlasic's. Based on his play this season, it shouldn't be surprising. Vlasic is not a guy that is often mentioned in the same breath as Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, and/or Subban, but as the best defenseman on the league's most dangerous team, he is earning due credit. Vlasic was invited to Canada's orientation camp this summer, but not considered a huge threat to make the team.
He's been so good at both ends of the ice this year, with a surprising nine points in 12 games. He also has 24 blocked shots this season and averages more than 20 minutes a night. Canada can take eight defensemen and if they're looking for a mobile shutdown specialist, they have a terrific option in Vlasic. He's still on the bubble due to depth in his competition, but his name has to be firmly in the mix, especially as a left-shot defenseman. Canada wants to keep defenders on their natural points and the right is vastly deeper than the left. Smart defensemen that can help shutdown the skill players in Sochi can't be overlooked.
Dan Boyle – San Jose Sharks
If any defenseman from the Sharks was going to make Team Canada heading into the season, it was Dan Boyle, who was also on Team Canada's gold-medal squad in 2010. Boyle has been out since Oct. 15, when he was taken off on a stretcher after getting hit from behind by Maxim Lapierre. He is expected to return soon, but the question becomes whether or not younger guys have surpassed the 37-year-old rearguard. Unquestionably, Boyle still has the ability, but with competition like Kris Letang and P.K. Subban as right-shot defensensemen, the Sharks blueliner will have to have one heck of a run in the last few months of the calendar year. As a returning player, he's going to be given every chance to make the club, though.
The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to keep winning. They're still getting outshot pretty much every night, but their captain has been mostly solid and should get a long look from Team Canada. Steve Yzerman was recently in Toronto to see some Olympic candidates, Phaneuf included.
Like Vlasic, Phaneuf benefits from the fact that his competition down the left side is not as great. He's also one of the bigger guys among those in serious contention. Phaneuf has seven points in 14 games and is averaging nearly 24 minutes a night. He's one of the guys that might have a tougher time with the bigger ice as his game seems to be a lot more fit for the North American arenas. He's most likely a longshot, but his play has to be earning him some extra consideration.
Canada is not going to have any trouble putting together a terrific forward group and Duchene seems to be inching his way up the depth chart with his remarkable play this season. He is third in the NHL with nine goals and has 13 points in leading the resurgent Avalanche. Duchene has apparently changed a lot about his game over the offseason, including subscribing to a new diet and shortening his stick. Subtle changes like that can sometimes make a big difference. A big reason Duchene's candidacy will remain strong and possibly lead to inclusion on the team is his explosive speed, which is huge on bigger ice surfaces. It's been on display a bunch this year.
Canada's Achilles heel is goaltending, no question. With Roberto Luongo looking like a lock to at least make the team as a returnee and Carey Price seemingly solidifying his inclusion, Fleury has managed better numbers than other candidates Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford and Mike Smith, not to mention Luongo as well. Fleury was not invited to Canada's summer orientation camp. Holtby, Crawford and Smith were. Based on his last few trips to the playoffs, Fleury's candidacy is flimsy at best, but his 1.81 goals-against average and .927 save percentage so far this year make him a goalie worth watching more closely. No one in the group has really established himself definitively to take the reins as Canada's No. 1, either.