Canada must solve chemistry puzzle

SOCHI, Russia -- The experiment won't last unless Jeff Carter does what he really does well: Shoot!

Team Canada coach Mike Babcock joked -- well, we think he was joking -- that if Carter keeps passing up shots to dish it back to Sidney Crosby, as occurred a few times Monday in practice, the coach might rethink that top line.

"If he's passing it back to Sid, he's not playing with him," Babcock deadpanned at his first news conference of the Olympics.

Team Canada's first on-ice practice of the 2014 Olympics -- and this time they weren't in running shoes playing ball hockey like last August in Calgary -- revealed some early thoughts from the coaching staff, including this: Carter could possibly play on the right side of Crosby on the top line with, of course, Chris Kunitz on the left.

The thought is that Carter possesses a lethal shot and could fit as a shot-maker with the Penguins' duo.

It's the spot one assumes Steven Stamkos would have occupied until he was forced to withdraw.

And like Stamkos, Carter is a right-handed scorer. Hence, he's the most natural option.

So for now, Carter gets the first crack at being the missing piece to the puzzle with Crosby and Kunitz.

"It's obviously exciting," Carter said after Monday night's practice. "They're two great players. We have a lot of chemistry together. We'll see what happens come the first game, but it'd be great to play with them."

What a four-year turnaround for Carter, who on the eve of the 2010 Games flew all the way to Vancouver in case Ryan Getzlaf was unable to play.

As it turned out, Getzlaf was OK and Carter collected air miles but not an Olympic experience.

Four years later, he wasn't the most popular or unanimous choice to make the team among fans and media, but now he has first-line duty and a very important assignment.

Finding linemates who jelled with Crosby proved to be a difficult, almost elusive, chore four years ago. The Penguins superstar played with a number of different wingers in Vancouver throughout the tournament before scoring the golden goal in the gold-medal game to win it all.

The chemistry experiment is an important one for Team Canada to get right early.

"I think whoever plays with him just has to keep it simple," Carter said of playing with No. 87. "Obviously, Sid kind of runs it; he gets the puck and he makes the plays. You get the puck on your stick, you've got to shoot it because he's going to put you in the right opportunities."

Team Canada's captain knows what he's been given with Carter on his right wing.

"I think the things that stick out are his speed and his shot," Crosby said. "I don't think you have to tell him anything other than just, 'Shoot it.' He's going to get open and he's going to be able to create things with his speed. We'll talk and communicate and figure things out as we go along, but I think anybody that you play with on this team, you're going to have some skill."

The rest of the forward lines Monday:

Patrick Sharp-Jonathan Toews-Rick Nash

Patrick Marleau-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry

Jamie Benn-John Tavares-Patrice Bergeron

That left Martin St. Louis and Matt Duchene as the extra forwards. At least on this day.

Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock was quick to stress that the coaches may experiment with a few lines over the next two days ahead of Canada's opener with Norway on Thursday.

So there's nothing written in stone. And if we learned anything from Babcock in Vancouver 2010, it's that his opening-line combinations didn't last long in any given game, and he was quick to put his line formations into the blender throughout the tournament until he found forward pairings that he felt worked well.

The top forward pairing from 2010 is back together, and that's no surprise. Toews and Nash were a dominant two-way force in Vancouver, and the addition of Sharp -- Toews' off-and-on linemate in Chicago -- is a no-brainer.

Marleau as an early look with his Ducks rivals Getzlaf and Perry is certainly interesting.

"Well, we certainly see enough of each other during the season," quipped the veteran Sharks winger.

Again, though, assume that Babcock and his staff will massage these lines as the tournament progresses, along with the overall lineup.

The player who doesn't dress in the opening game may end up having a bigger role later on.

Babcock is fond of telling the story from 2010, when he told Mike Richards before the tournament that he'd be the 13th forward. Richards reacted by laughing, as if to say to the coach: Yeah, right, we'll see about that.

And that's exactly what may happen again in this tournament. Roles will evolve in both directions.

This message was relayed to all the players, especially to Martin St. Louis last week after he was added to the team to replace Stamkos.

"When I talked to St. Louis in Tampa, I indicated to him he's one of 14 forwards, that he has to grab his piece," Babcock said. "That's the same for everybody. We're going to watch what happens; we're going to evaluate each and every game.

"Some people start in better situations than others. I brought my book with me from last Olympics. Actually, I was showing Claude [Julien] today, some guy started on the first line on right wing and ended up not being in the mix; another guy started not in the mix and ended up being very important. It's a big tournament, it's a competitive environment; we expect our guys to compete for their ice time."

As always, Canada's luxurious depth of talent acts as a difficult puzzle to decipher: so many different options and yet a limited amount of time to find the right matches and create chemistry among high-end players, some of whom don't know each other that well.

If Team Canada is to become the first repeat champion in the history of the NHL-fuelled Olympics (since 1998), figuring out that jigsaw as early as possible will be paramount.

Add to that Canada's unnatural existence on the larger international ice surface, and what it cannot afford is to wait too long to find the right pieces that fit together up front.