When a player like Steven Stamkos goes down, the world notices.
After official word came out that Stamkos had broken his tibia and could be out for as long as nine months, the hockey world began to take stock. The Tampa Bay Lightning lose not just their leading scorer, but their best player who’s contributed on 41 percent of their points this season. Tampa’s position atop the Atlantic Division is now in serious doubt without Stamkos.
Stamkos was also a Sidney Crosby-type certainty to make his native Canada’s Olympic squad at center, and his injury caused Team Canada coaches to take stock.
Assistant coach Ken Hitchcock said he felt “physically sick” watching Stamkos be taken off the ice on a stretcher. “Not good,” head coach Mike Babcock lamented. “He was one of the guys we’re counting on,” commented assistant Lindy Ruff.
While Stamkos is one of the best pure scorers in the world today and his absence leaves Canada a lesser squad, all is not lost for Canada’s Olympic hopes. In fact, while the Tampa Bay Lightning may not recover from losing Stamkos, the Great White North is so lousy with top-flight, elite-level talent at center that the open roster spot might make some decisions a bit easier.
Several replacements for Stamkos that may have been bubble players on Canada’s national roster immediately stand out. The incredible, early success of the Colorado Avalanche has gone hand in hand with Matt Duchene‘s breakout season. The 22-year-old pivot has 11 goals and six points through 16 games played on the season, good for 11th in the league in scoring and 4th in goals. Combine his emergence as a silky-smooth goal-scorer with his unbelievable speed in open ice — remember, international hockey plays on a larger ice surface — and Duchene may be having too good a season for Canada to pass up.
While Stamkos’ injury might open up a roster spot for an up-and-coming player, Team Canada might use the extra slot on a slumping one instead. As good as the Colorado Avalanche have been to start the season, the Philadelphia Flyers have been just as bad, and Claude Giroux is going down with the ship. Giroux had 93 points in the 2011 season but scored just his first goal of the year on Nov. 9 against the porous Oilers. He has seven assists to go along with the lone tally and is consistently skating 20 or more minutes a night. Alex Ovechkin proved last year that a former superstar can break out at any time, so Canada may take a chance on the 25-year-old Giroux. Pairing him with wingers like John Tavares, Eric Staal or Jamie Benn may be just what he needs to break out of his slump. In fact, the Flyers may be lobbying for it — sorry, Scott Hartnell and Jake Voracek.
There are a dozen more options for Canada to choose from — Logan Couture, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf and Jordan Staal, just to name a few — so while they would have preferred Stamkos, the league’s scoring leader at the time of his injury, the rest of the top five are Canadian, as well.
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