Canada's starting Olympic goalie job up for grabs
CALGARY-- Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith joked that the five goalies on the floor were the best players during Canada's ball hockey-style walk-through workout at its Olympic orientation camp on Monday.
Even if that were actually true (the goalies didn't do much at all, by the way), it wouldn't make the decision facing Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and coach Mike Babcock any easier.
Goaltending historically has been an area of strength and continuity for Canada at international tournaments, going back to Ken Dryden and on to Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. Those days are gone, and the competition for Canada's goaltender at the 2014 Winter Olympics is as wide-open as it has ever been and filled with far more questions than any other position.
The answers will come over the course of the first three months of the NHL season as the evaluation process plays out and the schedule enhances the chances for some and weeds out others. But for now there are five goaltenders in the orientation camp who all legitimately have a chance to become Canada's starting goalie on Feb. 13 when it opens the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, against Norway -- Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford and Smith.
"One of these goalies will be real good," Babcock said. "One of these goalies will be hot going in so that everyone will know who's playing goal for Canada."
That's the hope. But as the evaluation process begins there are enough concerns about all the goalies here -- and even a few who didn't make the initial cut -- that have put the position in the Canadian spotlight.
For instance, Luongo may be the incumbent gold-medal winner and the most experienced of the goalies considered to be in the competition, but he was mainly a backup last season and has to prove he can still be a No. 1 again for Vancouver this season.
"He should [have an advantage]," Holtby told NHL.com of Luongo. "Obviously winning gold four years ago, he should have the advantage."
For all intents and purposes Price had a successful 2012-13 season, but he faded down the stretch and was not good in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he posted a 3.26 goals-against average and .894 save percentage in four appearances against the Ottawa Senators.
"At the end of the day your performance is on the ice and it'll take whoever is playing the best at that time," Price said. "That's the way I choose to look at it."
Holtby admitted that he was "pretty shocked actually" that he was invited to the orientation camp.
"It came out of nowhere," he said.
That's because Holtby is still trying to become a household name in the NHL, something he has never been with Hockey Canada. The only international tournament he has appeared in is the 2007 Under-18 World Championships, and it wasn't until last season that he established himself as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL for the Capitals.
"I guess the underdog factor is there, but I'm still a young goalie in the NHL and I still have to prove myself at that level first," Holtby said. "I want to have a good year, make sure we have a good start and that's the main goal. You put the other stuff aside and let the guys in charge here make the decisions."
Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said the pressure of being Canada's goalie would not faze the unflappable Holtby.
"He's here knowing that there is a spot up for grabs and he's just got to play his game and have fun with it, and that's usually when he's at his best," Alzner told NHL.com. "When he gets hard on himself it's not good, but he's been looking great, last year was awesome to see and he's got a legitimate shot. I'm really happy to see that."
Crawford wasn't even remotely close to Hockey Canada's radar at this time last year, but he started to generate national-team buzz during the playoffs and it only picked up steam when he helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. However, if he were to make the Olympic team it would be his first time representing Canada on the international stage.
"It's pretty cool, man. It's pretty cool," Crawford said when asked what it's like just to be at the orientation camp. "Obviously my goal as a hockey player was to win the Stanley Cup -- but also to have a chance to represent your country, that'd be pretty cool, too. Hopefully it can happen. It's maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith sees no reason why Crawford's lack of experience with Hockey Canada would play a role in his ability to make the team.
"There's no reason that he can't," Keith told NHL.com. "Everybody saw what he was able to do for us."
Smith is another wild card who doesn't have much experience on the international level. His national-team resume is limited to the four appearances he made in the 2013 IIHF World Championship. He went 2-2 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .944 save percentage.
Smith's numbers also declined last season from 2011-12, when he was in the Vezina Trophy discussion for a while with 38 wins, eight shutouts, a 2.10 GAA and a .930 save percentage. He was 15-12-5 last season with five shutouts, a 2.58 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
"All you can do is play well when you get the chance to, take advantage of that, and not worry what everyone's saying about you," Smith said.
There is also a strong possibility that guys not here in Calgary this week, including Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury and Devan Dubnyk, could play their way into this discussion -- one that will likely rage across Canada and probably the hockey world until someone is finally standing between the pipes on Feb. 13 facing Norway.
"All the guys that are here are capable of making this team," Smith said. "I think a lot of guys who aren't here are too. Saying that, you have to prove you belong, be a great teammate, and stop the puck."