In case you missed it, all the big countries competing in the 2014 Olympics in hockey announced their respective orientation camp rosters earlier this week. Among the invitees were five Leafs: Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Jake Gardiner for USA, Dion Phaneuf for Canada and Nikolai Kulemin for Russia. (It should also be noted that Leo Komarov was invited to Finland’s camp. While he’s still technically Leafs’ property, he signed with a KHL team this off-season and I won’t mention him again in this piece.) James Gleason already took a look at the Leafs’ American invitees, so I’ll look a little deeper into the selections of Phaneuf and Kulemin.
The inclusion of Phaneuf for Team Canada’s camp was surprising to me, given how stacked Canada’s blueline will be in Sochi. The shoo-ins to make the team, in my opinion, are Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, while general manger Steve Yzerman and company will have a tough time choosing between the likes of Kris Letang, Brent Seabrook, PK Subban, Marc Staal, Alex Pietrangelo and Dan Boyle for the remaining four or five spots. That means Phaneuf will almost assuredly be one of the odd-men out, but nonetheless, making Canada’s camp roster is an accomplishment in itself.
Phaneuf is an easy whipping boy for Leafs fans for the same reason that Zdeno Chara became an inexplicable whipping boy for Bruins fans during the playoffs: He’s on the ice all the time. Phaneuf averaged over 25 minutes-per-game during the regular season, good for 11th-most in the league and surprisingly more than Chara. But it wasn’t only the amount of minutes that stands out for the Leaf captain, but also how tough those minutes were. Phaneuf faced the third-toughest quality of competition in the entire league last year, behind only Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek (minimum ten games played). When you’re on the ice for nearly 42 per cent of the game against the best players in the world shift after shift, people are going to notice some glaring mistakes once in a while.
It’s clear that pretty much everybody in the league sees Dion Phaneuf as a top defenseman, and fans should see him the same way. The bottom line is the Leafs probably don’t have anybody else on the team who can fill those minutes as well as Phaneuf, and the team’s defensive depth is shallow enough as it is. There’s a reason why guys like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Kris Letang receive long-term contracts worth over $7-million per season, and it’s because number one defensemen don’t grow on trees. Phaneuf might not be at their level, but he’s definitely in the same ballpark.
Unlike Phaneuf’s chances with Team Canada, I fully expect Nikolai Kulemin to make Team Russia. As Mohamed Mohamed pointed out, Kulemin was among the league leaders (right behind Phaneuf) in quality of competition. On top of that, he started only 35.5 per cent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone, the second-lowest mark on the team behind only Jay McClement. Despite his role as a shutdown forward, he still managed 23 points and seven goals in 48 games. It’s highly unlikely Kulemin will ever score 30 goals again, but if put in the right situation, he could be a perennial 15- to 20-goal scorer. Given his versatility and two-way ability, he should be a very important piece on an uber-talented Russian squad as they push to win gold on home soil.
What about the Leafs that deserved to receive a camp invite but didn’t? Atop that list has to be goaltender James Reimer. Braden Holtby has only played 57 NHL games in his career, but for some reason Yzerman and Co. felt he has a better chance of making Team Canada over Reimer, who has 104 games under his belt and posted a better save percentage than Holtby last season. I think Reimer proved last year he deserves a spot at that camp, and I would even go as far as putting him ahead of Carey Price as a favourite for that third goalie spot.
The other snub that sticks out to me is Carl Gunnarsson. Team Sweden somehow surmised that a 26-year-old defenseman with 224 NHL games of experience, a career 20 minutes-per-game average and the second-toughest quality of competition among Leaf defenseman last year (minimum 10 games played) doesn’t warrant consideration for their Olympic team. Gunnar at least deserves to be on that squad over 33-year-old Douglas Murray, who got absolutely killed in pillow-soft minutes last year. But “toughness!” and “experience!” or something. Then again, when you have Henrik Lundqvist back-stopping your team, maybe you don’t give as much thought to the guys who play in front of him.
I’m gonna go drink some chai tea or do yoga or something to calm down, but in the meantime, why don’t you leave an answer in this nifty-looking poll? Thank you kindly! (It’s important to note that players who didn’t receive an invite to a national team camp still have an opportunity to make the team.)