Why Chris Kunitz and James Neal fit on Team Canada

Ken Campbell
crosby-181822267

We’re going to go out on a limb here and predict that Sidney Crosby will be on Steve Yzerman’s final list when he submits Canada’s Olympic team roster in early January. But the more he watches the Pittsburgh Penguins play, the more he has to be at least entertaining the possibility of naming James Neal and Chris Kunitz along with Sid the Kid.

Actually, Crosby played his 500th game Thursday night and scored points No. 704, 705 and 706, so perhaps it’s time to start calling him Sid the Adolescent or something like that. In any event, Crosby and accomplishments are doing a good job of making a lot of us feel old.

Getting back to Kunitz and Neal, perhaps it’s not so preposterous to suggest that they should both be considered for Canada’s team in Sochi. And here’s why. Because they have an uncanny chemistry with the best player in the world at the moment. And because they wouldn’t be riding Crosby’s coattails. It’s not always easy to play with someone as sublimely talented as Crosby. You have to be ready to get the puck any time under circumstances where other players might not be able to deliver. And that takes a unique chemistry.

Crosby, Kunitz and Neal were at it again Thursday night when the Penguins dismantled the league’s best team with a 5-1 win over the San Jose Sharks. Crosby struck for three assists, two of them coming on goals by Kunitz. Neal was in on both those goals as well. And anyone who doesn’t think Kunitz is an elite goalscorer at the NHL level wasn’t watching when he put the Penguins up 3-0 after kicking the puck up to his stick before going high backhand.

The reason why full lines from NHL teams generally aren’t considered for Olympic teams is it’s almost impossible to find three elite linemates from the same country these days. But with all three of the Penguins stars carrying Canadian birth certificates, this would be a chance for Canada to take advantage of a rare opportunity. There are other lines with three Canadians on them – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in Edmonton, Joe Thornton between Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns in San Jose and Ryan Getzlaf between Dustin Penner and Corey Perry in Anaheim to name three – but none is as productive and dangerous.

The positives to having all three playing together in Sochi is it would give Mike Babcock and instant go-to unit where all three players would be playing their natural positions and wouldn’t need any adjustment time. That would be hugely important in a short tournament where you don’t have the luxury of forming any kind of lasting bond with your linemates. None of these players had an opportunity to skate together over the summer and there will be precious little practice time once the Olympics begin.

And there is a precedent. On his own, it’s doubtful a guy such as Brent Seabrook would have made the Canadian Olympic team in 2010. But paired with Duncan Keith in Chicago, Seabrook is a much more effective player. And it’s not because he’s tagging along with Keith. It has more to do with the fact that the two play so well together and complement each other on the ice so well.

On the minus side, if that line gets shut down by the competition, there’s not much else a player such as Kunitz will be able to contribute. By picking all three, you’ve almost certainly boxed yourself in and haven’t given yourself too much flexibility.

But given how productive all three have been, it’s something that at least has to be considered. Crosby is the premier talent on the planet. Kunitz has seriously dangerous mitts around the net. And Neal is a classic power forward who appears to have taken the fact that he was left off Canada’s summer orientation camp roster personally.

There have been worse ideas to be sure. It would be a gutsy call by Yzerman, but it would have the potential to make him look like a genius.