Ranking the best Olympic forward groups

Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock had an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images

At least Steve Yzerman made it interesting.

He could have put Claude Giroux and Martin St. Louis on Team Canada, and there really wouldn’t be anything to debate. Sure you could nitpick about the third goalie or perhaps the exclusion of James Neal or Brent Seabrook, but it would be splitting hairs.

Team Canada’s decision to go with Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Jeff Carter and even Chris Kunitz at least provided something to argue about. It also didn’t change the big picture: Canada has the best forward group in the men's tournament at the 2014 Sochi Games, by a long shot.

This week, with input from a few NHL coaches, execs and players, we’re ranking the position strengths by country, starting with a no-brainer. But after Canada, things get interesting:

1. Team Canada

One of the questions Yzerman often faced from reporters trying to squeeze any clue out of which direction he was headed up front was whether he preferred bringing natural wingers, or converting talented centers to the wing. He’d point out that many guys, like Patrick Sharp, had played center in the past, and that he was comfortable with both options, depending on the player. But looking at this roster, there appears to be more premium on players staying in their natural position.

Nobody is in a more natural position than Kunitz on Sidney Crosby's wing. If Kunitz and Crosby struggle at all, that will be a selection highlighted.

“We went back to last season when Sid was out of the lineup,” Yzerman said, explaining the Kunitz pick. “[Kunitz] played well. We like what he brings ... if he’s not on Crosby’s line, where is he playing? One, we know this guy has been on championship teams. He plays hard. He goes to the net, around the net he’s one of the top players. He’s very good in that area. He’s just gotten better and better each year.”

Even though he hasn’t played at the same level, we remember Nash’s performance for Team Canada in 2010, and have no issue with bringing him back. Considering Logan Couture and Joe Thornton are at home, it’s a bit surprising that Marleau is the Sharks forward who was picked. (It was announced later that Couture would have surgery for a hand injury on Wednesday.) But ultimately, this is a team with incredible forward depth and the best group of centers in the world, led by Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews. It was nearly unanimous among those polled as to which forward group was the best.

“Has to be Canada. Deepest pool of players from which to select,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “87 and 19 end the discussion. There are not two better leaders, competitors and workers in the game.”

Said one player: “A Canada "B" team might be the only forward group that might beat Team A.