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Analysis: Lineup decisions big storyline for Canada

Saturday, 02.15.2014 / 1:13 PM / News
By Arpon Basu  - LNH.com Managing Editor
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Analysis: Lineup decisions big storyline for Canada
Canada\u2019s game Sunday against Finland will provide a glimpse into what coach Mike Babcock and his staff are thinking as the team moves into the knockout phase of the tournament.
Patrick Sharp should return to Canada's lineup on Sunday (Getty Images).

SOCHI -- Canada’s game Sunday against Finland to close out Group B play (noon ET, USA, CBC) is really of little importance, in the grand scheme of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Both teams will live to play again, and really the only thing on the line is which one will get a guaranteed bye into the quarterfinals. But the loser Sunday could still wind up in the quarters by being the best second-place finisher in the tournament, so even the bye is not that big of a prize.

No, the game is important for one main reason for Canada: It will provide a glimpse into what coach Mike Babcock and his staff are thinking as the team moves into the knockout phase of the tournament.

Babcock refused to announce Saturday who his starting goaltender will be against Finland and which two players will be scratched among the skaters. While he insisted the decisions made in both cases are not guaranteed to last past the game Sunday, it is fair to assume they will, especially if Canada wins handily.

So these decisions matter and people across Canada will likely spend every minute between now and the game Sunday debating the merits of every decision Babcock has on his plate.

While that will be raging more than 5,000 miles away, Babcock says he and his staff will be totally isolated from it here. So the potential drawback of creating a distraction by not announcing his lineup or his goalie Saturday is a non-factor, as far as Babcock’s concerned.

“In 1997 I was coaching Canada at the World Juniors [in Switzerland] and I was a young coach just getting started in my career,” Babcock said Saturday. “I didn’t know how bad I was getting beat up back in Canada as a coach and I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it.

“Now I’d be ready to handle it, but I don’t look and I don’t care.”

All Babcock cares about now as his players enjoyed a day off Saturday is putting together the best possible team to allow Canada to repeat as Olympic champions.

The biggest decision Babcock and his staff face will be who to hand the starting goaltending job to, and it appears to come down to a debate that is not unlike what we see in the NHL.

Should they go with Roberto Luongo, who won gold on the international stage for Babcock at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and also at the 2004 IIHF World Championship?

Coaches generally have a certain level of comfort with a goalie that’s gotten it done for him in the past, and Luongo has certainly done that for Babcock.

“I’ve been with him twice when he’s won gold medals, in ’04 at the World Championships and 2010,” Babcock said Tuesday, after Canada’s second practice here. “To me he’s a really good goaltender. Winning, to me, leads to winning. I think when you get a certain amount of confidence, it’s a positive.”

On the other hand, if you shorten the sample size to this NHL season Carey Price has been the better goalie, posting better numbers across the board and coming in to the tournament as one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL with a .967 save percentage in his past six starts for the Montreal Canadiens prior to the Olympic break.

Then there’s another somewhat strange factor at play here in which Luongo’s experience in these events may actually hurt him. Luongo was not initially the No. 1 guy in Vancouver four years ago, but he came off the bench and led Canada to gold. Babcock knows Luongo can handle that situation from a mental standpoint, yet he doesn’t know that when it comes to Price.

That inexperience, ironically, might actually benefit Price in this situation.

Whichever way Babcock chooses to go, he doesn’t see the Finland game as the final determining game for what happens in the medal round.

“I’ve had lots of time, so we as a management team and a coaching staff, we watched the NHL all year and so then we picked the two goalies that we think have got an opportunity,” Babcock said Saturday. “We had a plan. We understand, and I said this a number of times, you get one [goalie] change in this tournament and you can still win.”

When it comes to the decisions among the skaters, it’s much more complicated.

On defense, Babcock has already announced Dan Hamhuis will draw back in the lineup against Finland, and it’s very likely P.K. Subban will be out.

Subban’s biggest problem actually has very little to do with him aside from the way he shoots.

As a right-handed shot, Subban was taking shifts away from Shea Weber and Drew Doughty when he played his first game Friday. Weber and Doughty have two goals apiece in two games and have been among Canada’s best players in the tournament. The more time they spend on the bench, the worse it is for Canada in Babcock’s eyes.

Hamhuis, however, as a left-handed shot can rotate in with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jay Bouwmeester on the left side, two players Babcock probably can live with missing a few shifts here and there.

One of the many factors Babcock said Saturday goes into his decision on the lineup is “how we get the best people on the ice.” If Babcock absolutely wants to maintain the righty-lefty balance, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, Hamhuis allows him to do that.

Subban doesn’t.

Another factor Babcock mentioned was how the player integrates on special teams. In the game Friday, Babcock scratched Patrick Sharp -- a forward who plays the point on the power play -- to make room for Subban to play there next to Duncan Keith. Again, that is taking a valuable forward out of the lineup for Subban.

Hamhuis, meanwhile, plays on the penalty kill with Vlasic, a pairing that has remained stable ever since Canada arrived in Sochi and one that requires no other lineup moves in order to work.

“Lots goes into it,” Babcock said. “On the back end, who are the best pairs, who’s playing together, 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.”

Up front, that last point Babcock made is probably the most important, the one about which players are living up to expectations and which aren’t.

Canada came to Sochi with three pairs of forwards who play together in the NHL: Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins; Jonathan Toews and Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks; and Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks.

Matt Duchene is the player on the bubble here. He didn’t play against Norway on Thursday but played well against Austria with Getzlaf and Perry.

If the pairs of forwards remain intact it leaves very little wiggle room to make other changes, but this is also an area where Babcock and his staff will most likely stick with the “work in progress” mantra that’s been repeated every day Canada has been here.

Babcock said Saturday how he’s been pleasantly surprised with Jamie Benn and how good of a start Patrice Bergeron is off to in the tournament. That makes up two-thirds of Babcock’s so-called fourth line, with John Tavares at center. It was Canada’s best line in its opening game Thursday against Norway.

The best line Friday was Toews with Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter, who had a natural hat trick in the second period and finished the game a plus-5.

“So [lines] one and two are due,” Babcock said.

If line one doesn’t start to produce, Crosby’s line, then Babcock may have to consider the possibility of splitting him from Kunitz. That would open a door for Duchene to get in the lineup at some point because if Kunitz isn’t playing with Crosby, it’s hard to justify putting him in the lineup. The pre-existing chemistry between the two was supposed to be an asset, but it’s one that hasn’t manifested itself in points.

“From a purely statistical point of view you’d say no,” Babcock said. “From the way they played I think so. I think they do a lot of good things together. But we’re talking about one line.

“I’m not worried about one line. I’m worried about all the lines.”

So is his country.