In the end, Steve Yzerman kept it in house.
On Thursday, the man in charge of both Team Canada and the Lightning selected Martin St. Louis to replace the injured Tampa Bay teammate Steven Stamkos on the Canadian roster for the Winter Olympics. Stamkos, who is rehabbing a broken lower leg sustained in November, was ruled out for the tournament on Wednesday, setting speculation in motion as far as who would replace him.
Pittsburgh Penguins winger James Neal was one of the prime candidates to take Stamkos’ place, if only because Neal is one of the few players in the NHL who can come close to matching Stamkos’ pure goal-scoring ability. I made the argument for Neal last week, but Yzerman’s turning to St. Louis is completely reasonable – and understandable.
St. Louis, 38, admitted he was “bitter” over being passed over by his general manager last month when Canada’s 25-man roster was finalized, but one would imagine he will be able to get past that before the Olympic tournament starts next week. Perhaps Yzerman was relieved to have a second chance to please his veteran star.
I still maintain that if Yzerman wanted to replace Stamkos’ sniper-like skill, the 26-year-old Neal was the choice. The idea of an all-Penguins line of Neal, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz was also tantalizing for its familiarity and potential potency.
However, Yzerman indicated Wednesday that Canada was seeking a player who would be comfortable in any role, which led me to believe St. Louis and Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux had the best odds to join their countrymen in Sochi, Russia.
Neal, who has scored goals in back-to-back games after going seven contests without, has 19 goals and 24 assists in 36 games this season. He’s been on a goal-every-other-game pace since arriving via trade from Dallas nearly three years ago.
St. Louis, last year’s NHL scoring champion after Crosby’s broken jaw opened the door, is 16th in this year’s points race, with 54 (25g, 29a) in 56 games.