patrice Bergeron 2What is Steve Yzerman’s role as the general manager for Team Canada? Without getting too technical, his job is to take the players to Sochi that will have the best chance at medalling.

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.

Comments (9)

  1. If Kunitz can score like that with Crosby, what could the 2x as talented Hall do? Role players in a knock out tournament unfettered by money doesn’t make sense to me.

    I would think it a NHL coaches dream to run 4 responsible scoring lines and overwhelm the competition. It is still one advantage Canada has in international play, more better players.

  2. Can you please not do TL;DR at the end of your column? You’re writing on a major blog site, and I want to read your articles. If I click on the read more a TL;DR is insulting to me as a reader.

  3. This topic will be debated until all the worlds ice melts.

    the problem with skill guys is they are not necessarily good without possession or getting the puck back from another group of skilled guys. Most skill guys have good hands and can skate well so you think they can get the puck back or mark another highly skilled guy. The problem is sometimes they don’t want to do that type of stuff. Look at 2 Russians Semin vs Datsyuk. Close talent wise on the Offense side but 2 completely different guys without possession. Give me 12 Datsyuks and the debate is over.

    I side with you need some guys that aren’t the flashiest guys but can get the puck back and play d. Do you need a shutdown line in the Olympics: probably not. do you need 3-6 guys that will muck/work to regain possession: probably,

  4. “ask any dedicated (non Penguins or Bruins) fan (about Bergeron vs Kunitz)”

    In the interest of fairness, you’d have to search far and wide to find a Pens fan that thinks Kunitz is better than Bergeron.

    “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).”

    Here’s a simple way to explain it. Last time around, the (probable) three most-talented offensive forwards (Nash, Crosby and Staal) that Canada took to the Olympics were put on the same line. Makes sense, right? The three most gifted players will create the most offense.

    Well, no. This line failed miserably.

    Crosby likes to get the puck with speed or have it cycled to him when the play is going the opposite direction. He wants his linemates to look for open space when he’s got the puck.

    Nash, in the Olympics, seemed to want his linemates to just act as decoys (despite both being, you know, better than him) while he took the puck the entire length of the ice, went one on four, then turned it over.

    Take Nash off the line, put Jarome Iginla there (a shooter who is happy to work give and gos, but who did not, at that point, have the physical skills of Nash) and boom–first line’s producing like a first line again.

    It’s better to take a slightly less talented guy who isn’t going to work at cross-purposes with his linemates, than a more talented guy who is. Hall’s got too many similarities with Nash to make me think it’s a good idea to put him on a line with Crosby.

    That said, taking Kunitz strikes me as nuts when you look at some of the guys being left home, St Louis in particular.

    One wonders why the REIGNING ART ROSS WINNER (a guy who is happy to share the puck, happy to cycle, happy to work give and gos, happy to look for open space, and has long-established chemistry with the other “wing” penciled in on line #1) isn’t being given very much consideration for the spot on Crosby’s left. He does everything Kunitz does (apart from hitting on the forecheck, which isn’t a factor in international play) a Hell of a lot better.

  5. Bergeron is hands down one of the best players in the world. He wins more faceoffs than anyone, he makes everyone on his team better when he’s on the ice, his puck possession is unparalleled, his vision is immaculate. Put him with someone who can snipe and the combo is lethal. Look at Seguin when he was taken away from Bergeron. His production dropped so far off he went from being the Bruins top scorer to being traded. Bergeron doesn’t score as much as Datsyuk or Toews, but his intelligence/puck possession/defensive skills are even better. In the playoffs Bergeron held Crosby to 0 points. Crosby wasn’t in a slump, he was shadowed by Bergeron the entire time and was unable to maneuver.

  6. A team of 4 talented scoring lines will beat a traditional team with “role-player” lines. That said, Bergeron is a first line player…not a “role-player”…Hall is a superstar talent…
    E. Stall
    St. Louis

    All Canada has to do is make 4 lines out of those 12 guys.

  7. I’d maybe go..
    Crosby centering St.Louis and Stamkos
    Toews centering Duchene and Tavares
    Giroux centering Getzlaf and Nash
    Bergeron centering Hall and Staal.

    No statistical basis for these lines…I just envision these lines playing really well together.

  8. The stereotype of bang-n-crash role players needs to be reconsidered for Sochi, anyway. The bigger ice means fewer opportunities for checking on the boards, same with hustling to stop icing. Positional awareness will be so very key during the Olympics. That’s why Yzerman’s choices for defensemen will probably require more care than the forwards.

  9. Bergeron plays a role so vital the NHL invented an award to give to Bob Gainey for being the best at it, unrewarded and unrecognized by casual fans, for several years: the Selke. The great Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov once said Bob Gainey was the best player in the NHL. Perhaps he was exaggerating, but he had a point. Gainey played a two way, all out effort selfless game, and was a reliable 15 goal a year guy. He could have scored more, but knew he could provide what no no else on those great Canadien rosters in the 70s could, shut down, text book, ego free hockey. That’s what Bergeron does.

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