“I love my teammates!” Roberto Luongo tweeted, along with the above photo, shortly after earning his second consecutive gold medal with Team Canada. Of course he does: his teammates include Sidney Crosby, Sidney Crosby’s little brother (“If you’re going to Sochi, take your little brother with you”, Crosby’s mom had said), Dan Hamhuis, Mike Smith, and the adorably huggable Marty St. Louis. How can you not love that team?
Of course, shortly after this photo was taken, these guys, with the exception of Dan Hamhuis, were no longer Luongo’s teammates. And now Luongo returns home to a much more troubled bunch, facing a much more daunting task than winning a short tournament for which they’re heavily-favoured.
As it stands, the Canucks aren’t a playoff team. But they could still turn it around. If they do, the Sochi sojourn will turn out to be a good thing for the club.
Mind you, if they don’t, the Olympics could take some of the blame, especially after Ryan Kesler returned from Russia with a hand injury. Will Sochi turn out to be a blessing or a curse?
BLESSING. The Canucks still aren’t fully healthy, with Henrik Sedin, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrows and Chris Tanev — all pretty important pieces — nearing game readiness. That in mind, thank the good Lord they didn’t have any games for the last three weeks. Can you imagine this team playing, say, 9 of their remaining 22 games without these four guys? The playoffs are already in jeopardy. One imagines they’d be even moreso if the Canucks had to play out nearly half the remaining schedule without two-thirds of their top line and top-six.
CURSE. That said, it’s not as though Sochi only served to get the Canucks healthy. It also yielded yet another injury, as Ryan Kesler did some damage to his hand blocking a shot. Whether or not he has broken fingers remains to be seen, but if he doesn’t, he’s still probably going to be playing through soreness, and that doesn’t bode well for a player whose wrist shot is his greatest strength. Kesler is leading the team in goal-scoring, and if he comes back from Sochi less effective, that’s a serious problem.
BLESSING. Still, Kesler is just one guy, and while his potential injury could hurt the team, the mental reset that Sochi allowed might outweigh that negative. The Canucks were in a tailspin. They couldn’t generate anything. They didn’t have the confidence to hold leads. They looked offensively frightened. The opportunity to just take a step back for a second and regroup — and even for the Canucks’ coaching staff to look more closely at what the team was doing wrong — could do wonders for the team psyche.
CURSE. We know that the team was doing wrong: they weren’t scoring goals. And a 2012 study indicates that Sochi could have a negative impact on their goal-scoring. From the New York Times:
Opponents to the N.H.L.’s Olympic participation have long argued that clubs that send many players to the Winter Games tend to perform poorly after the break. The critics have had no real statistical evidence to back up the claim, though, and have largely based their opposition on individual teams that stumbled in the stretch run.
This is bad news for the Canucks, who were one of seven teams that sent seven or more players to Sochi, and the only one of those seven who isn’t currently sitting in a playoff spot. Getting into one is an uphill climb, but if this study is correct, it’s even uphiller.
BLESSING. As counterarguments go, however, the Canucks didn’t really seem to suffer any ill effects from their players playing in the Olympics in 2010. They had a decent playoff run that year. Plus you could argue that one player, at least, actually got a bit of a rest by going to Sochi: Roberto Luongo, who played in just one game, and really just seemed to have a good time over in Russia. He’s going to be the most important player for the Canucks down the stretch, and if he’s energized, both emotionally and physically, the team has a shot.