Somehow, this isn’t accomplished by Yzerman simply taking the best players. Stephen Whyno of The Canadian Press noted that “Yzerman has made it clear he’s not constructing an all-star team, but rather wants a mix of role players”. Before the 2010 Olympics, something called the Hockey Family Advisor suggested that “Yzerman’s job is not to pick the 20 best players in Canada. It is to pick the right 23 players. The 23 players who compliment each other, who are great team players and most importantly who are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to win.”
I think there’s a sentiment in Canada that you can’t construct a hockey pool team and expect them to compete, and that’s fair. Among the parts of the blogosphere I read, the mere idea that Chris Kunitz would make Team Canada above Taylor Hall is blasphemous. It’s a fun contrast to see the people that generally agree with Yzerman’s premise in the above paragraph turn around and suggest that Kunitz should be on the team. Nothing against Kunitz, but he wouldn’t have been considered for Orientation Camp if he hadn’t been 19th among Canadian players in point-scoring in the last three seasons. He wouldn’t have earned three MVP votes without 52 points in 48 games in 2013, but those were mostly acquired thanks to playing alongside Sidney Crosby, and Crosby has shown in his career that he doesn’t need Kunitz alongside him to score a bundle of points.
The definition of a “role player” is loose. Most players on a team play a role, whether it be shutdown defenceman or a scoring centreman, but it tends to apply to players that have less discernible talent than the top players. A winger with limited offensive capability that bangs somebody against the boards is a “role player”. Those role players are generally interchangeable, and the ones that can actually provide offence in that limited role wind up being very useful players. Think Raffi Torres, Viktor Stalberg, or, uh, Nik Kulemin or somebody.
“Role player” also refers to shutdown players. While there’s a large segment of the hockey population that knows just how good Patrice Bergeron is numerically, there’s a big segment of hockey fans that doesn’t think so. In February of 2010, a Hockey News columnist named John Grigg wrote that “Bergeron’s numbers are so bad that his inclusion on one of Canada’s top-two scoring lines and, even on the team itself, has been summed up by many—including, it would seem, the coach—to be the result of supposed chemistry with Sidney Crosby.”
If you’re worried about Canada bringing one too many role players, remember that people consider Bergeron to be one. Bergeron is 25th in points in the last three seasons among Canadian-born players in the NHL, behind Ray Whitney, P.A. Parenteau and Mike Ribeiro.
And yet Bergeron has become one of the least polarizing players in the NHL. For him to not be included on Team Canada’s Sochi roster would likely be due to injury. He’s one of the many players that advanced analysts and old-timers can agree on. He’s possibly the best two-way centreman in the game, a puck-possession wizard that plays against some of the toughest competition the NHL has to offer. While Kunitz had more Hart Trophy votes than Bergeron, ask any dedicated (non Penguins or Bruins) fan and they’d suggest Bergeron is the better player. It’s not even close.
Hockey pool rosters tend to be frowned upon by fans. Remember Stan Bowman’s words at the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Hockey players in those depth roles are easier to give high subjective rankings to after games because their roles are easier. They aren’t counted on to score, and when a scorer goes a few games without scoring, they become frustrating since it doesn’t look like they’re doing things that help the team.
The idea that Yzerman shouldn’t look into taking the best forwards is strange. Clearly, there are no NHL teams that would turn down Taylor Hall if they were going into the postseason, and no reasonable human being would take any other centreman to take an important faceoff late in the game and up by a goal other than Bergeron (although there is an argument for Jonathan Toews). To a degree, Yzerman has a pretty easy job here, but it’s easy to overthink certain roles and not account for the fact that lineups rarely look at the end of the tournament the way they did at the beginning of one. Injuries can wreak havoc with a lineup, and the extra information we get in the first three months of the NHL season is going to change our perception of certain players.
Ultimately, the components of a roster aren’t what matters, but how the players perform in those roles. The model for success seems to change every season when you look at the different make-up of Stanley Cup-winning teams, and if there were some über secret formula for winning that was a secret among Cup-winning managers and coaches, the same teams would contend every year.
It’s a lot simpler than that.
tl;dr Canada should take the best players, and the best players aren’t always found on the best pool team. Taylor Hall and Patrice Bergeron are much more useful than Chris Kunitz and Mike Ribeiro because they can do things on the ice other than score. Everybody’s definition of a “role player” varies, and if Yzerman’s definition would fit a player like Bergeron, then I’m happy with him taking all the role players he wants.