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Canada overflowing with Olympic talent at center

Thursday, 08.29.2013 / 1:48 PM / Los Angeles Kings | News
By Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Staff Writer
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Canada overflowing with Olympic talent at center

CALGARY -- Steve Yzerman won't do it, but the option is available to Canada's executive director.

The fact Yzerman could select at least 12 centers to be on Canada's Olympic team says all anybody needs to know about the depth the country has at the position.

"For other teams maybe it's wing or maybe it's [defensemen], but with us everyone seems to talk about center ice," Sidney Crosby told NHL.com. "But a lot of the guys have played different positions, and if they have to play wing they'll be comfortable there."

They'd better be, because that will be the case when Canada gets to Sochi, Russia, in February for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Yzerman told NHL.com on Tuesday he will not be taking 12 centers, but he all but guaranteed some natural centers will have to make the team as wings.

That message was sent Monday when coach Mike Babcock put the 45 players in attendance here at Canada's Olympic orientation camp through a ball hockey-style walkthrough on the international-sized rink.

Natural centers Steven Stamkos, Logan Couture and Eric Staal were on the wing. Jeff Carter, who occasionally plays in the middle, also was on the wing. Two more centers would have been if Claude Giroux (injury rehab) and Joe Thornton (family matter) were here.

Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron and Jordan Staal were centers on their respective lines.

"If you're here and you're standing on the wing, you think you've been told anything?" Babcock asked rhetorically in an interview with NHL.com Tuesday morning.

The answer is yes, they're going to play wing for Canada if they make the Olympic team. Fine by us, the centers say.

"Every player is willing to play a different role on this team to make the team," Stamkos said.

Canada could have a distinct advantage up front over other countries because of how its center depth will move over onto the wings. For example, one of the biggest requirements to make this team, according to Yzerman and the coaches, is the ability to play a 200-foot game. Centers are used to that, so the more the merrier, Babcock said.

"The game is played with the first guy back playing down low, and centers are better down low because they spend more time down low," Babcock said. "Well, I'll take three centers."

Crosby echoed that thought.

"As a centerman, sometimes you're not always able to get [down low] right away and sometimes the wingers aren't comfortable there, so to have guys who are comfortable and are used to covering all areas of the ice that can definitely help," he said. "You have to be responsible down low."

Crosby also mentioned how having extra centers on the ice will help Canada play a puck-possession style, an important part of the international game.

"Even carrying the puck, especially on the big ice, there will be centers carrying it more, and that could help," he said.

Faceoffs are another point of emphasis, and the more centers a team has on the ice the better chance it has to win the draw.

"If you get tossed out you've got another natural centerman taking the draw," assistant coach Claude Julien told NHL.com. "It's a strength."

It also will be an adjustment for the centers to move to wing. It's not as big a challenge as it would be for a wing to move to the middle when he's not used to the extra responsibilities in the defensive zone, but Stamkos said he had to learn and adjust to the differences when he played on Giroux's wing at the IIHF World Championship earlier this year.

"Every player is willing to play a different role on this team to make the team."
-- Steven Stamkos

Yzerman said it could have been a bit of foreshadowing for Sochi.

"As a centerman you can kind of roam around," Stamkos said. "I found myself trying to creep into the middle of the ice a bit, but once you realize that you stay wide and you can utilize your speed to stay down the boards and create chances, that's when it clicked. It was fine after a couple of games."

Tavares, who has been a center since joining the NHL, went through a similar adjustment playing in Switzerland during the lockout last year. He played 25 games as a left wing then continued to play there at the Spengler Cup.

"I had to do a better job when I was first getting adjusted to take more ice, whether it's to the boards or the middle, just to give myself more time and more space and a better gap to be able to attack offensively and be more dynamic that way," Tavares told NHL.com. "Your responsibilities are different."

That's one reason Yzerman won't take 12 centers, even though he could and Canada would still be able to ice a gold-medal contender. Although centers are capable of handling a more in depth workload, Yzerman said he can't ignore the importance of having wings doing what they do best.

"You have to appreciate the little things wingers do and that's being good on the wall, picking up pucks, getting them out of the zone, angling on forechecking position," Yzerman said. "We're not going to bring 13 or 14 centermen. We have to have some wingers who are used to playing those positions, but it's fair to say we'll probably bring more than four centermen."