Team Canada coach Babcock agonizes over lineup decisions for game vs. Finland
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, February 15, 2014
SOCHI, Russia -- Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman hasn't been surprised by his team's play so far at the Sochi Olympics. Coach Mike Babcock, on the other hand, says "lots of guys are different" than he expected.
While Yzerman had months to scout and piece together the 25-man roster, Babcock has less than 48 hours from the end of Canada's victory over Austria to decide on his lineup for Sunday's game against Finland -- Canada's biggest challenge so far.
Babcock has the luxury of having some of the best talent in the world at his disposal and the burden of telling two skaters they won't suit up and one goalie he won't start in net.
"Believe me, these decisions aren't easy," Babcock said. "The great thing about it, we don't have to make a decision yet, we can just talk about it, kick it around. We spoke last night, Steve and I spoke this morning, I spoke to the coaching staff already here today. We'll kick it around all day."It was clear early Saturday afternoon when Babcock told reporters he was agonizing over those decisions as his players enjoyed a day off.
Eventually decisions must be made. Canada plays banged-up Finland at 9 p.m. local time Sunday, and the winner is guaranteed a bye into the quarter-finals for finishing atop Group B.
What Babcock has already confirmed is that forward Patrick Sharp and defenceman Dan Hamhuis, scratched against Austria, will be back in the lineup. It's very likely that P.K. Subban will come out, but there's no easy candidate to remove up front.
"Lots goes into it," Babcock said. "Who's going to be on the power play and on the penalty kill, who's playing the best down the middle, who can support that person, who's playing better than we thought, who's not quite as good as we thought. All those things go into play."
Canada's most controversial forward choice is also the player who hasn't been as good as most thought. Here because of his natural chemistry with Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz has been ineffective at best and lost at worst.
Though Crosby has only one point in two games -- a secondary assist -- Babcock was complimentary of the play of the first line, which has featured Kunitz on left wing, Canada's captain in the middle and Jeff Carter and Martin St. Louis on the right.
"The first line in the last two games has generated a ton of scoring chances, point-blankers," Babcock said. "They haven't gone in. So do we worry that much about that, or do we just know good players score in the end?"
The biggest question is: Can Kunitz be a good enough player at this level? The veteran, whose Olympic candidacy generated months of debate, is in a unique position that he's likely either Crosby's left-winger or out of the lineup entirely.
Babcock isn't saying one way or the other.
"I've got lots of plans," he said. "The day is young. I haven't been to curling yet. I haven't been to the Russian game. We'll see what happens."
Even more difficult than the decision to keep Kunitz in a prominent spot or drop him is the notion of who would replace him. Babcock has already tried two wingers on Crosby's right, and putting even a one-game stop on the Kunitz experiment would mean having to spin the wheel to find someone on the left.
Whether it's Matt Duchene or Jamie Benn or perhaps even John Tavares, it's a gamble with no guarantees. But given the strong play down the lineup, it's a bit like a game of Jenga in that removing one piece could cause Canada's whole structure to collapse.
"I'm not worried about one line. I'm worried about all the lines," Babcock said. "To steal from one to make another one ... one's going really good, and you're going to wreck that."
There's already going to be some juggling given that Sharp is returning. Benn and Carter were arguably the best player in each of the first two games, doing so with the least ice time of any forward, but there's no telling if that'll mean more substantial roles or sticking to the same ones that led to success.
"We talked about who can play with who, (what we can do) to make a better line, who has been your best players -- they're not necessarily who you thought they'd be and that kind of stuff -- you talk about everything," assistant coach Claude Julien said.
Even if the decisions are easy on defence -- keeping Duncan Keith with Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic with Drew Doughty and then Jay Bouwmeester with Alex Pietrangelo -- Babcock has a crucial 50/50 choice to make in goal.
Carey Price made 19 saves on 20 shots against Norway, the only goal allowed coming after he made a puck-handling blunder, and Roberto Luongo had a 23-save shutout to beat Austria. Babcock had a goaltender rotation in mind going in.
"They've both been real good," he said. "Haven't changed our minds."
Babcock said he would inform the goaltenders of his decision later Saturday. Luongo said Friday night he'd have no anxiety over waiting to learn that, and he wasn't going to present an argument.
"I'm not here to plead my case, man," Luongo said. "It's not about personal agendas."
Still, Babcock knows these decisions aren't just about business.
"They're personal because it's about a player and when you have interaction with a players, that's personal," he said. "But it's not about them, it's about our country and making the right decisions."
Babcock doesn't have the benefit of countless hours of video study and in-person scouting to make those decisions. Yzerman and his management team had that in selecting the roster, and he said nothing so far has caught that group off-guard.
"Managers, coaches, we all have these ideas, and ultimately the coaching staff decides who plays where and when and how much," Yzerman said. "That's their responsibility. But we all have our ideas. I've been through it enough that it never goes according to plan -- never does -- and coaches will make changes on the fly."
Plenty of talk goes into that, between Babcock and his staff and with Yzerman and his. Through two games against weak competition, it all boils down to one thing.
"Who really is the best," Babcock said. "Not who we thought, but who really is."