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Jon Dolezar Inside the NHL

Good as gold

Team Canada will be favored in 2004 World Cup of Hockey

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  Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux will probably return as Canada's captain if he's healthy enough to play.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The defending Olympic champions will enter the 2004 World Cup of Hockey as heavy favorites, even though their roster will have many changes from the one that was golden in Salt Lake just 24 months ago.

The 26-man rosters -- which as of now are supposed to include three under-23 players, though some teams are protesting that and trying to get it eliminated -- don't need to be submitted until May 15, so much will still change, of course. Players have seven weeks of regular-season action and nearly three rounds of the postseason to prove their mettle.

And for players whose teams miss the playoff party, they would be wise to pack their bags and head to the 2004 IIHF World Championships in the Czech Republic from April 24 through May 9, because players who have been loyal to Canada in international competitions in the past will get big-time brownie points once the final decisions are made.

Through a league source, SI.com has learned the identity of the 54 players still under consideration to play for Canada in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Wayne Gretzky and the Team Canada brass are still considering 22 of the 23 players who won gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, with only suspended forward Theo Fleury not making the list.

MAILBAG

In addition to those 22 players, the remaining 32 are:

Adrian Aucoin, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Boyle, Nick Boynton, Patrice Brisebois, Sean Burke, Anson Carter, Eric Desjardins, Shane Doan, Dany Heatley, Roberto Luongo, Bryan McCabe, Derek Morris, Brendan Morrison, Glen Murray, Rick Nash, Mark Recchi, Wade Redden, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, Marc Savard, Jason Smith, Brent Sopel, Sheldon Souray, Martin St. Louis, Scott Stevens, Cory Stillman, Alex Tanguay, Jose Theodore, Joe Thornton, Marty Turco and Jason Woolley.

Back in early November we offered a look at the potential Canadian roster, but of course, some things have changed since then. Of the possible Team Canada players we listed then, only Jay Bouwmeester, Mike Comrie, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Scott Hartnell, John Madden and Justin Williams didn't make the list of 54.

Canada believes that the three U-23 players mandate will be eliminated before May, but if it is kept in, Canada could select Nash, Bouwmeester and Fleury as its three kids on the bench, with Nathan Horton, Eric Staal and Jason Spezza among others who would get strong consideration. Nash will probably make the 23-man roster anyway, especially if he plays in the World Championships to boost his international profile and experience level.

So without further ado, we present our latest look at a possible World Cup lineup for Team Canada, basing the structure on a 23-man roster of 12 forwards, seven defensemen and three goaltenders, the same lineup distribution used for the 2002 Olympic team.

TEAM CANADA
Forwards
Line Left Wing Center Right Wing
First Rick Nash Joe Sakic Jarome Iginla
Second Todd Bertuzzi Joe Thornton Glen Murray
Third Paul Kariya Steve Yzerman Mario Lemieux
Fourth Alex Tanguay Marc Savard Shane Doan

Defensemen
First Pair Chris Pronger Rob Blake
Second Pair Scott Niedermayer Adam Foote
Third Pair Wade Redden Adrian Aucoin
Seventh defenseman Sheldon Souray  

Goaltenders
Starter Martin Brodeur
Backup Jose Theodore
Third stringer Roberto Luongo

And just for fun, here's a look at what could be a second Team Canada if two entries from one nation were allowed.

Maybe Gretzky and Co. could convince Bob Hartley, Andy Murray and Joel Quenneville to jump behind the bench and lead this second unit. With an aging American team and lack of depth for the Finns, Swedes and Russians, a second Team Canada might also be able to contend for a medal.

TEAM CANADA II
Forwards
Line Left Wing Center Right Wing
First Mark Recchi Brad Richards Dany Heatley
Second Simon Gagne Eric Lindros Owen Nolan
Third Cory Stillman Brendan Morrison Martin St. Louis
Fourth Brendan Shanahan Michael Peca Anson Carter

Defensemen
First Pair Ed Jovanovski Bryan McCabe
Second Pair Eric Brewer Derek Morris
Third Pair Dan Boyle Nick Boynton
Seventh defenseman Eric Desjardins  

Goaltenders
Starter Marty Turco
Backup Ed Belfour
Third stringer Curtis Joseph

Now let's break down the selections position by position.

Forwards

  Joe Sakic
Joe Sakic scored twice in the gold medal game against the USA and lead Canada in scoring with seven points.
Elsa/Getty Images

Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla paired together brilliantly in Salt Lake, with Sakic winning tournament MVP honors and leading Canada in scoring with seven points and a plus-6 rating. Their Olympics linemate, Simon Gagne, has been struggling and is a question mark to return. Assuming that Gagne doesn't make the final squad, bringing in a top young sniper like Nash to pair with Sakic and Iginla would give Pat Quinn a feared first line with a dangerous combination of speed and strength.

Thornton's exclusion from the Olympic team was the most controversial personnel move, but obviously Canada didn't miss him. Expect Jumbo Joe to play a very prominent role this time around. Bertuzzi also didn't make the team for Salt Lake City, so the second line could end up being a trio of snubbed players who have something to prove. Keeping Murray and Thornton together would seem to be a natural move, and Bertuzzi could switch to the left side because he's a left-handed shot.

The third line will be a bit of a wild card, because Quinn isn't likely to go with any true checking players. Instead, using a speedster like Paul Kariya and perhaps a savvy veteran centerman like Steve Yzerman would give Canada the defensive zone presence it would need late in games. For lack of a better spot, Mario Lemieux could play on the right wing of this "checking" line, though he would clearly still be a key cog on the top power-play unit.

The fourth unit would all be newcomers, but the emergence of these three would be tough to ignore. It's likely that St. Louis will also get a long look based on his impressive play, but the skating ability of Tanguay, the passing of Savard and the toughness of Doan would give Quinn a balanced fourth line that could contribute a bit offensively while not embarrassing itself in its own zone.

Among the forwards, a lot will depend on the health of Heatley, Lemieux, Eric Lindros and Yzerman. All four would seem to be strong candidates if they are healthy, but Canada has so much depth up front that it probably wouldn't risk naming one of them unless they are 100 percent healthy. Heatley has a long way to go to get back to the player he was last season when he impressed in the 2003 IIHF World Championships. Since the Thrashers look to be headed home early again this season, Heatley's best bet to make the team might be to play in the Worlds again this year and hope that the extra ice time and high level of competition rounds his game into shape and impresses the selection committee before the May 15 deadline.

Joe Nieuwendyk could be a valuable player for faceoffs, but the rest of his game isn't up to the level of some of the other centers being considered. Carter has been struggling terribly this season, and his inclusion may be largely a thank-you gift for scoring the game-winning goal in the 2003 World Championships. Michael Peca, Brendan Shanahan and Ryan Smyth have all suffered noticeable slips in their games and probably aren't worthy of consideration for the first team, but they would form a good core of veterans for Team Canada II.

Defensemen

  Rob Blake
Rob Blake had one goal and two assists in Salt Lake City, tying Ed Jovanovski for the scoring lead among Canada's blueliners.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On defense, only Eric Brewer and Al MacInnis are unlikely to return from the 2002 Olympic team, though Ed Jovanovski's spot may be in jeopardy because of the strong play by Aucoin and Souray. Brewer's disappointing season has dropped him down Team Canada's depth chart considerably, while MacInnis' eye injury has probably ended his career. Jovanovski could solidify a spot if he plays well once he returns from his sprained right shoulder. But Aucoin's all-around game and minute-munching ability, Souray's prowess on the power play and Redden's steady all-around would adequately replace Brewer, Jovanovski and MacInnis if Gretzky chooses to go in that direction.

The loyalty that Gretzky showed in wanting to keep Quinn, Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming together as the coaching staff could benefit a player like Jovanovski, who even though he has struggled this season compared to his past high level of play, could get the benefit of the doubt based on his three assists and plus-1 rating in the 2002 Olympics.

It's tough to leave players as good as McCabe and Morris off the team, but the depth on the blueline may push them out. McCabe would offer more of a physical presence than either Aucoin or Souray, so if Quinn wants a banger who could excel on the small North American rinks, he could jump into the top seven. Stevens also would've been a candidate if he was healthy, but his battle with post-concussion syndrome makes him too much of a risk to take at his advanced age.

Players like Boyle and Boynton could see time with Team Canada in the future, but the inclusion of guys like Brisebois, Desjardins, Smith, Sopel and Wooley is puzzling, because realistically they have no chance of making the team.

Goaltending

  Martin Brodeur
Martin Brodeur is the unquestioned starter after leading Canada to gold in the 2002 Olympics.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Martin Brodeur is a lock to be the starting goaltender, but getting Theodore and Luongo international experience (even if it is on the bench) will help Canada for the future. Then again, Brodeur could play another 10 years, so Theodore and Luongo could be past their primes by the time Brodeur relinquishes the Canadian crease.

Turco's impressive recovery from a slow start this season has him playing close to his record-setting level from a year ago. Turco was sensational with a 1.86 goals-against average at the 2002 Worlds, so he has played well while wearing the red and white maple leaf sweater for the national team before.

Ed Belfour sat the bench in Salt Lake City, but he has to be ahead of 2002 Olympic bust Curtis Joseph. Burke's best chance is if he gets hot and leads the Flyers to the Stanley Cup, in which case Hitchcock would probably push for his inclusion.

Due to the amount of interest people have shown in the World Cup -- can you believe it's still 6 1/2 months away? -- we'll continue to revisit this on a regular basis.

Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.

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