Canada made dominance look elementary during the 2014 Winter Olympics. The forward group was patient, waiting for the opposition to make mistakes while the defense was stifling, strong and smart. The nation’s biggest strength is down the center of the ice, but Canada’s group of defenseman is every bit as impressive.
The last two years have brought some changes to the NHL’s landscape, with younger players emerging to push the old guard for spots in international competition. That’s what will make the World Cup so interesting. We won’t have to wait four years to see the changing of the guard anymore.
Now we could potentially see options like Jake Muzzin and Aaron Ekblad nosing their way into talks. The former could make the World Cup roster, but he isn’t part of the opening group we’ve selected here. The latter isn’t old enough to play for Canada in this tournament, based on the unique rules that have been set up for the September event.
Manager Doug Armstrong will need to commit to 16 players by the March 1 deadline, and we will get a look at the selections on March 2 as each nation rolls out the first part of their teams. Here we’re going to look at which defenseman and goalies we’d include in this opening round of picks.
As we mentioned in our forward projections, this is an interesting exercise because the general managers aren’t being forced to name a certain number of players at each position. If Armstrong wanted to, he could commit to seven defenseman and no goalies. Or three goalies while only naming a handful of defenders, and so on. We picked eight forwards before, so now we’ll take a look at six defenseman and two netminders here.
It’s worth noting that to be eligible for this roster, players must have been 24 by no later than October 1. Each roster much consist of 20 skaters and three netminders.
Drew Doughty: If Sidney Crosby is the no-brainer at forward, then Drew Doughty earns that same distinction on the blue line. He’s not going to be the league’s leader in points from a defenseman, but he could very well be the best at his position. We’re splitting hairs between him and other top Canadian blueliners who will make the roster, but Doughty will play big minutes once the World Cup rolls around — something he should be used to given his usage in Los Angeles. No Canadian defenseman plays more each night than he does, and it’s not even close.
Duncan Keith: Canada could potentially choose to roll out a top 5-on-5 line of Crosby, Taylor Hall, Steven Stamkos, Doughty and Duncan Keith. Ho-hum, just another best-on-best tournament for the Canadians. Mike Babcock could either load up with a Doughty-Keith pairing, or he could split them and essentially have one of them out on the ice constantly. The latter is more likely, as it seemed to work out pretty well in Sochi. Keith can play monster minutes too, as evidenced by how much time he logged during the Chicago Blackhawks’ run to the Stanley Cup last season.
Shea Weber: The 30-year-old may be usurped by the next Olympic Games, assuming the NHL participates, but he’s still one of the strongest options available to Canada right now. Intangibles like grit and tenacity don’t mean as much as they used to, but Shea Weber is the perfect complement to an offensive-minded defenseman, of which Canada will have plenty. He’s been quietly doing this in Nashville over the course of his career, and will continue to do it at the World Cup.
P.K. Subban: One of the league’s most divisive figures, P.K. Subban is arguably the best puck mover that the Canadians could call on. Brent Burns has more points, but he can’t skate the puck out of trouble like the Montreal Canadiens blue liner. His team’s struggles will be behind him by September, and Babcock could look to utilize him as the team’s power play quarterback while skating third-pairing minutes. Not a bad gig, all things considered.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic: If Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in a major market, he’d be more of a household name than he is now. He supplies the San Jose Sharks with incredibly consistent play in all three zones on a nightly basis and has one particular thing going for him: he’s a left-handed shot. With Subban, Weber and Doughty all shooting right, Canada will need some lefties. Babcock doesn’t like to ice pairings with same-handed defenseman, and Vlasic is Canada’s most steady left-handed defender.
Mark Giordano: The Calgary Flames’ captain isn’t having the strongest of seasons, but he falls under the same heading as Vlasic. He’s a left-handed shot and Canada doesn’t really have many other options they could lean on here. He’s not a lock like Keith or Doughty, but it’d be difficult to leave his skating and offensive prowess on the couch for this tournament.
Braden Holtby: Given the way this season has gone for Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals, he likely has the inside track on the No. 1 job for Canada’a World Cup squad. That might not be the case if Carey Price was healthy, but he’s not. Even if he was, Holtby would still be pushing him for the Vezina Trophy and the top spot on this team. Canada had questions in net a few years ago. That isn’t the case anymore as options like Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith fade into the background in favor of Holtby and Price when he can play.
Corey Crawford: It’s tough to be a good goalie on an outstanding team. If Corey Crawford can backstop the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cups, then he should be trusted to play behind this Canadian squad should Holtby go off the rails or get hurt. He’ll never be considered elite — it seems like people go out of their way to deny him that title — but he’s perfectly steady and capable of playing under the most intense spotlights.
We know what you’re thinking: where the hell is Price?
That’s a fair question, but it’d make no sense for Armstrong to commit to the Canadiens’ goalie this soon. We don’t even know if he’s going to appear in another game this season. If the Habs do shut him down, it isn’t realistic to expect them to release him for what amounts to a for-fun tourney a month before the 2016-17 regular season begins.
We’ve all seen how Montreal performs without Price. They simply won’t risk losing him to an injury at the World Cup. It’s a fluid situation and he could be included in the next round of players, but he won’t make the cut this time around. Armstrong will insulate himself with Holtby and Crawford while awaiting word on Price.
There are also a few vulnerable defenseman listed above. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Giordano left off the roster for Muzzin. The latter is also left handed and is one of the best defenders in the NHL according to various possession metrics. He could anchor the third unit while Keith and Doughty eat up the big minutes, making Canada (once again) quite difficult to score against.