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Monday, January 6, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins Team Canada Selection Preview by @PandaPSU

(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Sun)
When trying to guess how many Pittsburgh Penguins will be selected to Team Canada, there is only one sure bet. Sidney Crosby will be among the first and easiest selections on a team that features monumental talent, but after that things get a bit muddled. When Scott Burnside of ESPN released his article on Team USA's selection process, it gave the general population an unprecedented look into just how difficult this process can be. Make no mistake about it, while Team USA's process was difficult, it just means Team Canada's will be nearly impossible. Let's take a look at which Penguins are on the short list to make Team Canada and whether you should expect to be rooting for, or against, your favorite Penguins in Sochi a month from now.

First, let's take a look at the Penguins who were invited to the Orientation Camp which was held at the end of August. There were four Penguins at this camp: Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Kris Letang. Sidney Crosby is a shoe-in, and Kris Letang is a shoe-out? With such a competitive roster, maybe Letang deserves to make the team on skill alone, but he will not be there. He has only played in 25 of the 44 Penguins' games this season with six goals and six assists. His sample size is simply too small to be included on such an elite team. So far, that is Crosby: IN / Letang: OUT.

Next, let's take a look at James Neal. To my surprise, Neal has actually played in one less game this season than Letang at 24. However, he is second in the league in points per game at 1.42, which is .01 behind Sidney Crosby. Currently Neal is tied for 20th in the NHL with sixteen goals, and is tied for 12th in the NHL among Canadians. As for points, Neal is tied for 36th in the NHL with 34 points, and tied for 16th among Canadians. Looking at Neal's points-per-game, impressive production, and sharpshooter wrist shot, he would make a great addition to Team Canada. Unfortunately, Neal ultimately will suffer from the same problem as Kris Letang, he just does not have enough games played to justify a roster spot on this elite team. If he would have been able to play another 8-10 games, he would be a definite, but he will be left out in the end. James Neal: OUT.

(Photo courtesy of Ferrisstatebulldogs.com)
We now get to the most talked about Penguin in terms of whether or not he will make Team Canada. Chris Kunitz has never had any olympic experience, and quite frankly, while he has been good the past few years, he has not been "Team Canada" good ...until this year. There is just no logical explanation to leave him off of the team. He is third in the league in scoring with 47 points behind Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. He is tied for fourth in the league in goals with Sidney Crosby at 23 goals. He is also tied for second in the league in both +/- at +22, and power play goals with 11. Also, let's not leave out the most obvious reason to pick Kunitz. He comes with built-in chemistry with Sidney Crosby and should immediately help to elevate Crosby's game. In case anyone forgot, Crosby had a fairly uneventful olympics in 2010 until he scored the golden goal and everyone forgot about the rest of his tournament. The only possible reason I have heard to leave Kunitz off of the roster is because teams want to pick players they know will be able to compete and contribute at the international level. While this is understandable, the obvious flaw in this argument is that a person cannot gain experience unless they are first given the chance to do so. Which is why if Chris Kunitz is left off of the team for a Jamie Benn, Logan Couture, or Rick Nash, it would be an absolute travesty. Not a Bobby Ryan travesty, but much much worse. I will give Mike Babcock and the crew making these decisions the benefit of intelligence and I'll say Kunitz: IN.

(Photo courtesy of http://jasonhuskins.files.wordpress.com)
Now let's turn to one final Penguin that has not been discussed very much. Marc-Andre Fleury did not receive an invitation to the orientation camp. None of us have forgotten his collapse in last year's playoffs. It was a collapse that led his career to life support, at least with the Pittsburgh Penguins. After an offseason with a new goaltending coach in Mike Bales and a few visits to a sports psychologist, Fleury has turned his career around. The three goaltenders I have seen as the most likely selections are Corey Price, Roberto Luongo, and Mike Smith. The other potentials are Josh Harding and Corey Crawford. Josh Harding does not seem to be getting consideration as he has been facing serious health issues recently, so I will be leaving him out of my serious consideration as well. Fleury is currently leading the NHL with 24 wins. He is also tied with Roberto Luongo at 2.23 for first in GAA among the "serious" contenders. Carey Price is sitting at 2.26, while Crawford is at 2.49, and Smith at 2.89. For what it is worth, Harding is at an almost unimaginable 1.65. In terms of save %, Fleury sits at third with .919 behind Price at .927 and Luongo at .922. Meanwhile, Smith sits at .911 and Crawford at .907. Once again, for the record, Harding is at .933, incredibly impressive. As for how it all shakes out, this will get a little confusing, but here goes. I think Luongo and Price are locks for the team, and so the third spot is the only spot up for grabs. If everyone was healthy, I would give the third spot to Harding, but as I said before, he has had too many health issues crop up recently. If they do not give the spot to him, it should go to Fleury based on statistics alone. However, I do think a bit of politics go into these decisions and memory/eye test, and that will hurt Fleury's chances. Last year's playoffs will be fresh in the minds of the committee, and while I think he deserves a shot on Team Canada, for this reason alone I say Fleury: OUT.

Team Canada's selection will be announced this Tuesday at noon. It seems only one Penguin is a lock in Sidney Crosby. That number should easily be two locks with Chris Kunitz, and if he does not make the team, expect plenty of uproar from fans. I feel pretty confident both Letang and Neal will not make the team, but I was really on the fence about Fleury. In any case, who are the people looking most forward to Tuesday at noon you ask? Well, that is easy, Brian Burke and Team USA are looking forward to having their names out of the headlines for a week.

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