Having NHL players participate in the Winter Olympics is always fun, giving the quadrennial tournament a distinct best-of-the-best feel. As we saw in 2010, Olympic hockey is a tremendous selling point for the sport in America, especially when the games are played at reasonable hours for most of the country.
The Olympics won’t have that advantage this year, as western Russia is several hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. Still, the time difference won’t be terrible, and with every game televised in some shape or form, Sochi 2014 should be another win for hockey.
What’s difficult for diehard NHL fans, however, is when your favorite team’s players oppose your homeland. I can remember pulling hard for the Czech Republic in 1998 because Pittsburgh Penguins forwards Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Jan Hrdina and Robert Lang were all on the team that won a surprise gold in Nagano, Japan.
I had similar emotions in 2002 and 2010, as Penguins’ franchise players Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby toiled for Canada. On both occasions, they downed the United States in the final game to win it all, but any patriotic sadness was blunted by the ultimate triumphs of Pittsburgh hockey legends.
There will be a similar conflict this time around, with Crosby set to lead Canada once more. Team USA should have two Penguins on its roster in defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, so Pittsburgh fans can hedge their emotional bets if the continental powers collide in an elimination game.
A potential border showdown with Canada could be even more difficult for American-born Penguins fans, since native Canucks James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury all have legitimate claims to roster spots. Hockey Canada will announce its 25-man team Tuesday morning in Vancouver – conveniently with Crosby and the Pens in town to battle the local club that evening.
I made my case for Neal last month, but I’ll add an addendum after his three-point performance against Winnipeg on Saturday. This season, the only player with more points per game than Neal’s 1.42 is Crosby, who is at 1.43. Neal is far from a one-year wonder, as he’s been producing at or near his current rate since 2011, but his inclusion on Team Canada is nowhere near a lock with fellow wingers Corey Perry, Martin St. Louis, Patrick Sharp, Matt Duchene, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau all competing for spots.
Those players mentioned above make it an even tougher sell for Kunitz. Still, he’s shown an ability to put up more points than you would expect, even as he’s flanked elite centers Evgeni Malkin (2011-12) and Crosby (2012-present). Kunitz doesn’t have any particular skill that floors you, but he’s willing to battle in the corners and in front of the net, and he can keep up with the most skilled players in the world. In a short tournament like the Olympics, Kunitz and Crosby would provide sharpness right from the start.
As far as Fleury goes, he wasn’t among the five goalies invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp last summer. But since then, he’s been playing his way back into the conversation for Sochi, once again getting consideration as one of the True North’s top netminders. Fellow countrymen Carey Price, Ben Bishop, Josh Harding, Ben Scrivens, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer all have save percentages comparable to or better than Fleury’s this season, but none of the above have put together long stretches of high-pressure goaltending like “Flower” has in his career.
Yes, Fleury has struggled in recent postseasons, but he has also performed well under heavy scrutiny. If I were Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman, I’d probably go with Price as my No. 1 and bring along Roberto Luongo and Fleury as direct challengers. If Luongo is hurt long-term, the up-and-coming Bernier would be my third goalie.
Fleury, along with Pittsburgh teammates Neal and Kunitz, has a track record, but he’s also playing well now. How much current production should take precedent is up for debate, but I know I’d rather have someone who’s persevered after adverse circumstances, as Fleury has done so far this season.
One thing I definitely know is this: if Canada leaves any of Neal, Kunitz or Fleury at home, I’d feel a little more comfortable about the United States’ chances should those two North American nations meet again under the Olympic rings.