TORONTO - The road to Sochi doesn't necessarily start in Raleigh, N.C., but the competition for spots is hot with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina doesn't have half a dozen no-brainer Olympic selections like the Boston Bruins or Detroit Red Wings, but Hurricanes games should become must-see events for management teams over the next couple of months. They feature a roster that includes potential Canadian Olympians Cam Ward and Jordan Staal, potential U.S. defenceman Justin Faulk and a handful of others.
"There's a lot of guys on our team that are potentially candidates for their countries," coach Kirk Muller said. "It's a double added pressure, I think, on a personal note for those guys that they're thinking about it because of when the team's going to get selected."
Alexander Semin is a good bet to make Russia's team. Former Maple Leafs winger Nik Borschevsky, a scout for Russia, was set to be in attendance for Carolina's game in Toronto on Thursday night.
Jiri Tlusty could represent the Czech Republic, Tuomo Ruutu might suit up again for Finland and defenceman Andrej Sekera could be there for Slovakia.
And that's not even counting captain Eric Staal, who's a lock for Team Canada as long as he's healthy.
"I think your focus has to be on Carolina first, and then you kind of let those things happen," Staal said before the season. "Obviously it's a goal of mine to defend that gold medal and be in Russia for Team Canada, but first and foremost I've got to take care of the way I play, and that's with the Hurricanes."
Almost five months before the tournament begins, that's a common refrain for Olympic hopefuls.
"That's always in the back of your mind, but I wouldn't say the guys in this room think about that a whole lot," centre Jordan Staal said.
Faulk, who attended U.S. Olympic orientation camp outside Washington in August, said he and his teammates don't talk much about Sochi. That was more popular a topic during the pre-season and will be in January once the rosters have been announced.
But until then, the Hurricanes will be watched. They face Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning twice before rosters must be finalized, including two days before the deadline.
Ward, who went into Thursday night's game 0-2-3 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .913 save percentage, probably has the most to gain from strong play early in the season, considering Canada's question mark in goal.
"He's a guy that he always seems to make big saves at key times and he's a big-game player," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who played in front of Ward with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. "He's won a Stanley Cup and he's right in that mix of those top goalies in the league."
Canada's depth at forward could make it difficult for Jordan Staal to crack the roster. But the idea of playing on an Olympic team with brothers Eric and Marc, a defenceman with the New York Rangers, certainly is an attractive idea.
"It would be really cool," he said. "Obviously I've got to keep getting better and keep working harder and try to get that opportunity to play on that team. But obviously watching Eric winning the gold, you want to do it yourself. Hopefully I can keep improving my game and try to find a spot on that roster."
Time to do that is limited.
"If you're off to a slow start, you're thinking, 'This team doesn't get picked at the end of the year,'" Muller said. "So they know there's a countdown clock going on."
It's also counting down for management staffs, which are constantly evaluating talent. For Canada it's coaches Mike Babcock of the Red Wings, Claude Julien of the Bruins, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues and Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars, general managers Yzerman, Ken Holland of the Red Wings, Peter Chiarelli of the Bruins and Doug Armstrong of the Blues and Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe.
The United States has coaches Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Todd Richards of the Columbus Blue Jackets and general managers David Poile of the Nashville Predators and Ray Shero of the Penguins watching, along with an extensive advisory board of GMs.
"There's a big group of people that are doing the role of picking the team," Faulk said. "I think they're all kind of scouting on a daily basis, whether it's Poile from the stands or whoever it is."
It gives Muller some natural curiosity about players' psyches.
"It'd be interesting to talk to other coaches as the season goes along and see early on guys are off to a really good start, some guys on teams are not and how that definitely is in their minds like, 'Geez, I thought this was the year I'd be able to make the Olympic team,'" he said. "Anyone who's off to a slow start, he's going, 'Geez I've got to (improve).'"
Either way, being in the middle of so much Olympic conversation tells Eric Staal that the Hurricanes have "elite" players. Carolina came away with four medals from the 2010 Games in Vancouver: Staal's goal, U.S. defenceman Tim Gleason's silver and bronzes for Finland's Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen.
"I think our focus is going out there and playing a team game right now, and I think if we do that then it helps our chances to make that team," Faulk said. "I think when you have that, guys having the opportunity to make Olympic teams, I think obviously it's fun to be around because they're good players, which just helps your team."
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