Team USA eases Ryan Kesler into inevitable heel turn and other Olympic notes

NHL players spent Sunday travelling to Sochi on a series of charter flights, and got right down to it on Monday by practicing with their respective national teams. 

Where in the lineup are Canucks players slotting in for Teams Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Latvia and the United States? Who has replaced Henrik Sedin for the Tre Kronor? Are you ready to deal with hating Ryan Kesler for a couple of weeks? Read past the jump.

Ryan Kesler and the Art of the Olympic Heel Turn:

For many of us who were born and raised in the city, walking around downtown Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games was a treat, an unforgettable highlight. Whether it was simply an outpouring of pride or a vague sense of kinetic energy that evenloped the downtown core; the atmosphere made it incomparably fun to take in events and free shows, party ridiculously hard, watch Team Canada’s games on the big sceen at the Vogue, and celebrate victories in the streets. I also recall that I spent an inordinate amount of time – well, not an inordinate amount of time for me, but for an average human person surely – arguing about hockey with strangers.

On Monday at Team USA’s practice in Sochi, Canucks forward Ryan Kesler took line rushes with odious Kings forward Dustin Brown, who Kesler beat up less than a month ago, and widely disliked (among Canucks fans) Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane, who has personally murdered the hopes and dreams of the Canucks fanbase on more than one occassion. Upon reading about Team USA’s practice lineup, I was taken back to those Vancouver streets and the many arguments I had with hockey fans about Ryan Kesler during the 2010 Winter Games.

"I hope Kesler is traded," I remember a significant number of Canucks fans wearing red and white telling me emphatically. "I hope he never wears a Canucks jersey again. He said he hates Canada!" I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that many Canucks fans have an occassional tendency to become a wee bit sensitive and overly emotional at times… 

The animosity many Canucks fans came to feel towards Kesler developed organically during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the natural byproduct of the intensity that he plays the game with. The dislike began to mount after Kesler sealed Canada’s fate during a preliminary round loss to Team USA, when he beat Corey Perry to a loose puck and deposited a backbreaking empty net goal into the Canadian net.

Later on in the tournament, Kesler was quoted saying that he hated Canada. While he was rather clearly referring to the Canadian national men’s ice hockey team, that’s really not how Vancouver natives took it at the time.

Then Kesler scored a huge goal in the gold medal game, beating Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo with a deflection to cut Team Canada’s two goal lead to one. During a second intermission interview (which you can see at the outset of this post), Kesler predicted that Team Canada would blow their remaining one goal lead, opined that Luongo was fighting the puck, and was vindicated when Zach Parise beat Luongo to force overtime…

Perhaps in the wake of more recent events – 40 goal seasons, a run to the Cup Finals, and the nauseating and widespread appropriation of Marshawn Lynch’s nickname – the enmity Canucks fans felt for Ryan Kesler during the 2010 Olympics has been forgotten. Or perhaps Kesler ceased to be a pantomime villain deserving off hisses and jeers whenever he appeared on stage right, at nearly the precise moment he returned to the fold to play for a team that Canucks fans root for. Personally I favour the latter theory.

So don’t be surprised if come Thursday morning a majority of Canucks fans are treated to a phenomenon familiar to fans of 29-other NHL teams. This is just fair warning: you may wake up suddenly on Thursday morning and find it impossible to supress your overwhelming dislike of Kesler.

Too often players in hockey are said to be types of guys "you hate to play against but love to have on your team."  With Kesler though – at least for fans – it’s not a cliche. Certainly Canucks fans really seem to feel that "hate" when Team Canada faces Kesler in international competition.

Kesler is such an unrepentant heel that even those fans who’ve spent the past decade watching the American Olympian develop from a low-upside fourth liner into a 40-goal scorer and Selke winner can’t stand him when he’s playing for a team they don’t root for. At least by putting Kelser on a line with fan least-favorites Patrick Kane and Dustin Brown, Team USA coach Dan Bylsma is helping Canucks fans ease into this…

Chemistry: Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler

There’s been a lot of discussion and griping in the Vancouver market over the past few years about Ryan Kesler’s line-mates. Whether or not Kesler is using his line-mates sufficiently, whether the team needs to find a playmaker for him to play with, or whether or not he’s better suited to playing as a center or as a winger; it’s a pretty persistent topic.

There was little question, however, about who Kesler would skate alongside for Team USA. Kane and Kesler had instant chemistry back in 2010, and in a lot of ways it makes sense. Kesler is definitely a center because of his play without the puck and his effectiveness in the face-off circle. But when you consider his offensive skill set (that ability to win battles down low, the speed, the quick wrist shot, his effectiveness at the net front), it’s not totally preposterous when a smart hockey guy like John Tortorella suggests that Kesler is better suited to playing the wing. 

The thing about Patrick Kane is that while Kane is a winger, he’s an odd type of winger in that he dominates the puck like you’d expect a playmaking centerman to. Kane is one of the NHL’s premiere neutral zone players, and all he’s really looking for from his linemates is for them to win puck battles and go to the net. Kesler can go to the net, and he can play some mean defense, so he’s a pretty ideal Sancho Panza for Kane.

If Kane and Kesler are as effective this time around as they were in 2010, perhaps the Canucks should consider targeting players with a similar-ish skill set for Kesler to play with next season. Obviously the best the team will able to find is a guy capable of a pale impression of what Kane can do, but perhaps a player like Ales Hemsky or Mike Cammalleri would fit the bill…

Roberto Luongo knocks his teammates shootout ability

Team Canada’s coaching staff wasn’t tipping their hand as to which of Luongo or Carey Price would start on Wednesday and which netminder would start on Thursday, but we know the two Canadian goalies will alternate starts in the prelminary round.

Because Luongo has won three international tournaments for Mike Babcock, because his resume in international play is sterling, and because the identity of Team Canada’s starter is usually governed by Hobbes-ian principles; I think it’s fair to say that he remains the incumbent starter. But Luongo has struggled over the past couple of weeks, and that string of recent poor performance may have loosened his grasp on the starters mantle.

“It’s been a rough couple of weeks, myself included,” said Luongo of his and his team’s struggles in 2014. “Obviously, I want to be better and help the guys get some wins and some points. It’s good the change of scenery for two weeks, and have a different approach, and maybe get back in a couple of weeks and feel better about ourselves.”

Luongo also addressed the adjustment of playing on international ice: "It is an adjustment. I felt it today right away with the angles and all that kind of stuff so it’s good that we have three or four days of practice before we have to play any games.”

I still tend to think the starters job is Luongo’s lose. As for the unfavourable comparison Luongo made between his NHL teammates’ ability in the shootout and his Olympic teammates’ abilities in that area, it’s both funny and, considering that Canucks shooters have converted on fewer than 30% of their shootout attempts over the past three seasons, totally fair. 

Depth Defensemen 

I like to imagine that Alex Edler was born in chucks…

Vancouver Canucks defensemen Alex Edler (Sweden) and Dan Hamhuis (Canada) both took line-rushes for their respective national teams on the ostensible fourth-pair. In Vancouver, Edler is a former 50 point guy and an all-star while Hamhuis is a genuine first pairing defender and among the most under-rated defensive blue-liners in the NHL. In Sochi, however, they’re both going to be in the Aaron Rome-role as the tournament kicks off this week.

Hamhuis skated with P.K. Subban on Monday for Team Canada, and barring one of his teammates struggling, is probably unlikely to play all that much in the tournament. Hamhuis is an impressive hybrid shutdown defender, however, and his cagey decision making has allowed him to be very successful on international ice in the past. He could have an opportunity to pull a Mike Richards at the 2014 men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament, but the odds are against him. My sense of it is that Hamhuis’ best bet to play a key role for the Canadian team is: if the Canadian penalty-kill gets lit up in the prelminary rounds, Hamhuis would be a natural way for the coaching staff to give their 4-on-5 unit a shot in the arm.

Edler, meanwhile, skated alongside Henrik Tallinder at Sweden’s practice on Monday and will not play in the first two games at the tournament (he’s still serving a suspension for a knee-on-knee hit on Canada’s Eric Staal at the Wolrd Championships this past June).

Though Canada’s blue-line is deeper, I’d suggest that Edler has a tougher path to move up the Tre Kronor’s lineup than Hamhuis has with Team Canada.

Consider that Sweden is employing its two best defenders on a top-pairing (Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson), while their latter two pairings are constituted entirely from teammates (Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Niklas Kronwall-Jonathan Ericsson). We know that Canada will dress a 7th defenseman and a 13th forward at the tournament, but Sweden may do the European thing and roll with four pairings. Looking at the quality of Swedens’ top-pair and the familiarity that the Oduya, Hjalmarsson and Kronwall, Ericsson pairings have with one another, Edler seems very likely to remain in a depth role when he’s finally eligible to play in the tournament.

Top-Four Defensemen

The opposite of what is true for Hamhuis and Edler (that they’re top-four defenders in Vancouver, and depth guys in Sochi), is true for Canucks blue-liners and Swiss international skaters Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz.

Switzerland’s men’s national ice hockey team held their first practice on Monday as well, and Weber was paired with Roman Josi on what we might assume is Switzerland’s top-pairing. Diaz meanwhile skated alongside Mark Streit.

Obviously Josi and Streit are better NHlers than Diaz and Weber, but like Team Canada, the Swiss seem to care a good deal about handedness on the blue-line. Also presumably Swiss head coach Shawn Simpson wanted to pair Josi with Weber just so that Switzerland’s most important skater at this tournament would be comfortable!

The Swiss kick off their tournament against Latvia on Wednesday (9 a.m PST) and are expected to build upon a strong Silver medal performance at the World Championships this past June. 

Latvian top-line winger Ronaldu Ķēniņu 

You and I know him as Ronalds Kenins, but in the Latvian media he’s referred to as Ronaldu Ķēniņu and frankly I much prefer that. 

Kenins, who signed with the Canucks this past summer, will start the tournament on an all mercenary line alongside Buffalo Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons and KHL winger (and fellow Canucks development camp invitee) Miks Indrassis on what is likely Latvia’s top forward line. Indrassis and Girgensons are high-end players, while Kenins will try and do the Justin Abdelkader thing on that top Latvian forward group.

Latvia has some good young players and might actually surprise some people at the tournament if their goaltending holds(*). Regardless, a Canucks prospect is going to be tasked with holding down a major role at the outset of the Olympic tournament, and this is one hell of an opportunity for the young forward to impress the hockey world.

(*) Note: this is true for all teams in any single game elimination tournament.

Replacing Sedin

Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin sustained an untimely rib injury that has prevented him from joining the Tre Kronor’s men’s ice hockey team at the 2014 Winter Games. There’s no way around the fact that a lack of Henrik makes the overall quality of this tournament poorer, which you’d already know if you watched him, Daniel and Loui Eriksson just flay opposing defenses and penalty-killing units on international ice at the 2013 World Championships. 

But for Sweden: life continues without Henrik, and hopefully they’ll do better in his absence than the Canucks have of late.

At the Tre Kronor men’s ice hockey team’s practice on Monday, it was announced that Henrik’s alternate captaincy would be filled by young Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. Landeskog is an interesting choice, and will be playing on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Alex Steen at the tournament. That’s a killer two-way group that could do some serious damage matched up against top-lines.

Meanwhiile it appears that the Swedes have decided to simply slot Nicklas Backstrom into Henrik’s top-line spot rather than more dramatically re-imagine their forward lines. Backstrom centered Eriksson and Daniel on a more offensively calibrated forward line at Monday’s practice. but I’d be modestly surprised if that group remained together throughout the tournament. After all Daniel has struggled enormously in Henrik’s absence in Vancouver this season and is rumoured to be battling an injury of his own. If those struggles continue in Sochi, presumably Daniel could find himself replaced by Jakob Silfverberg or Backstrom’s occassional running mate Marcus Johansen on Sweden’s top forward line…