Thursday, February 23, 2006

What The Hell Happened To Canada?

After being the heavy favorite going into the Olympics, Team Canada was eliminated in the quarter finals. They will not even make the medal round. They will be unsuccessful in defending their gold medal.

Naturally, there is a bunch of excuse making that follows this debacle. The blogosphere is alive with second guessing. Some of it is a very good balanced well thought out address of the situation - for example Sisu Hockey. Many others are more hysterical blaming and second guessing everything including the good moves.

So what happened? Canada didn't play very well. Almost to a man, the team did not produce as well as would have been expected. If before the tournament, I told you that throughout six games, no player on Team Canada would score more than two goals, you would have likely thought I was making a stupid prediction. But nevertheless it happened. Sometimes these thing happen. Sometimes a great offence has a bad week (actually it was a bad 8 days that the tournament has been played over so far). A group of several good players can have a bad week. It happens all the time. Any good NHL team has had poor weeks in a season. Does it really mean anything? Its just hockey. Sometimes weird stuff happens and we don't need to concoct a complicated explanation for it.

Canada was a very good team. No other team in the tournament has the talent that Canada has. That talent just didn't produce this week.

Did Canada have the absolute best group of available players? Probably not. Every team that is picked has some compromises in its selections and there is always somebody on the outside looking in who might have been a better player. But lets face it, had Canada chosen Eric Staal over Shane Doan or Rod Brind'Amour over Kris Draper would we likely have seen much difference?

Canada's offence did not work out this week. Nevertheless, Canada had a great group of offensive players who had a bad week. As proof, we can look at the top 50 scorers in the NHL so far this year and assign those who played in the Olympics by team.

Canada- 7 players - Bertuzzi, Gagne, Heatley, McCabe, Richards, Sakic, Thornton
USA- 6 players - Cole, Conroy, Gionta, Gomez, Modano, Rolston
Russia- 5 players - Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Kozlov, Ovechkin, Zetterberg
Czech Republic - 4 players - Hemsky, Jagr, Prospal, Straka
Sweden- 4 players - Alfredsson, Forsberg, Lidstrom, HSedin
Slovakia- 3 players - Demitra, Hossa, Visnovsky
Finland- 2 players - Jokinen, Selanne
19 players in the top 50 scorers were absent due to either injury or omission from their team

We see that by this metric (which for many reasons may not be the world's best metric) the Canadian Olympic team had the best offence on their team - at least on paper. We also see that the lead is not huge over any of the other major hockey powers. A poor week by a few of the offensive stars in Canada and the difference is more than made up. Of the 19 players in the top 50 scorers omitted from the Olympics here are their nationalities.

Canada - 16 players - Arnott, Cheechoo, Crosby, Horcoff, Kariya, Marleau, McDonald, Recchi, Savard, Shanahan, Spezza, Staal, Stillman, Stoll, Tanguay, Williams
Sweden - 2 players - Naslund, Nylander
Slovakia - 1 player- Nagy

Almost all of them were Canadian. This is part of the burden of having the deepest team. 22 players in the top 50 scorers in the NHL are Canadian (21 are forwards). Canada will have to have some players omitted who are better than the omissions on other teams. Aside from Michael Nylander, no team voluntarily left a top 50 scorer at home (Nylander would have been selected had Peter Forsberg not been healthy enough to play in Canada).

Could Canada have selected a couple more of these top 50 scorers to their team? Of course they could have. If they did that they would have omitted other players who are established talented NHL players. Likely it is like shuffling the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks. Its easy to second guess, but it doesn't change much.

The team that Canada had should have scored much more than they did. In any given week, some talented player will have a great week. In the Olympic week on such player has been Finland's Teemu Selanne, who is the leading goal scorer in the Olympics so far with six goals. Canada has about a dozen players with equal offensive credentials to Selanne over the last two or three NHL seasons who could have had such a week, but for whatever reason (mostly just bad luck - they tried and failed) didn't.

The NFL has a motto "Any Given Week...". This is true in hockey as well. In any given week, any of several hundred NHL players might be the player of the week. The superstar NHL players have the best chance - and tend to win it most often - but any of the players who deserve a regular shift on their team can have that great week. This week, players who are unable to make the NHL such as Yevgeniy Koreshkov of Kazakhstan, Paul DiPietro of Switzerland and John Parco of Italy scored more goals then any of the NHL stars on Team Canada. What are the odds of that? The odds are quite long, but nevertheless it happened.

The Canadian team clearly had the most depth of any team in the tournament. What exactly is depth worth? Having a deep team may prevent your team from having a player who is so hopelessly outskilled that he gets burned regularly when he plays his shift, but at the level of the Olympic teams no major teams have such players on their rosters.

Almost every hockey game I have seen in my life was won by the team that had the player or two who played the best game that day. These players may not be the best player on their team over the course of a season, they are merely the first star in the game that day. On any given day, that player can be one of many. A deep team may have a few more candidates to be the best player in a given game. However, in the major Canada games, the best player on the ice was not a Canadian. The best players in the Olympics have not been Canadian players. This is why they lost. In fact, if you made a list of the five or ten best players in the Olympics so far (I'd pick a group like Selanne, Hossa, Koivu, Alfresson, Lehtinen, Datsyuk, Kaberle, Chara, Nabokov, Niittymaki in no particular order) you would have no Canadian players. This is why Canada lost.

They have several players who have shown themselves over the course of the season to be as good or better than players on that list of 10 players on Team Canada, but they didn't show it this week.

In the end the team as a whole had a bad week. It happens in hockey. It needs to explanation beyond that. Nevertheless, people will manufacture some theories which are largely unproveable.

Most theories are like this. Canada's group of players which include several NHL captains and several other players known for their leadership ability lacked leadership. These players who have shown time and time again that they had character and knew how to win, with both NHL and international success, lacked character and didn't know how to win. This team coached by several top NHL coaches who have several coach of the year awards between them didn't have good enough coaching.

All of those are excuses, which can be used to explain it, but all of those are likely just reaches to blame somebody.

Why did Canada lose, they lost because despite having the best team in the tournament (although by a smaller margin then most Canadian fans admit) they had a bad week. These things happen. That's hockey. That's why they play the games. Should they play another tournament starting today with exactly the same team in an alternate reality, I think I would still pick Canada as the gold medal favorite. They have the most players who could potentially be the best player in any given game then any other team in the tournament. Maybe in an alternate reality they would actually succeed in accomplishing it.

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