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Sam Donnellon: Several Flyers complicate Canada's Olympic decisions

THE OLYMPICS are almost a year away. And yet, they are already here, right now. Hockey Canada executive director Steve Yzerman made that perfectly clear in a conference call last week, when he told reporters, "I'm not going to judge players in August. The tryouts are happening now and through the playoffs and the World Championships."

THE OLYMPICS are almost a year away. And yet, they are already here, right now. Hockey Canada executive director Steve Yzerman made that perfectly clear in a conference call last week, when he told reporters, "I'm not going to judge players in August. The tryouts are happening now and through the playoffs and the World Championships."

"They're watching every game," Flyers center Jeff Carter said after practice in Voorhees, N.J., yesterday. "It's such a big tournament that it takes a lot of preparation, a lot of scouting . . . You never know when they're going to be watching. So you've got to be ready every night, I guess."

This adds a touch of spice to what has already been an interesting Flyers season. Some recent speculative lists out of Canada have contained the names of Mike Richards, Carter and Braydon Coburn, as well as veteran Flyers stars such as Simon Gagne and Danny Briere. The first name was assumed, the second has played himself into contention with his breakthrough season, and the third - well, even Coburn was happily surprised by it.

"Just because there are so many great players in this league," he said after practice yesterday. "The thing about Canada, there are so many great players, it really just depends on what they want their team to look like. You can make three or four Canadian teams and they all would be competitive, I think."

Coburn's reach, skating ability and passing accuracy make him arguably a better international player than NHL player. Yesterday, Flyers coach John Stevens lauded him as one of the most technically sound passers in the NHL. Richards came into this season on every Olympic short list for his two-way play, and don't think Sunday's third career 5-on-3 shorthanded goal was overlooked by Yzerman and his committee.

Carter is an interesting case. He's among the league leaders in goals scored, has one of the league's most lethal and quick shots and has won a silver and gold in the Junior World Championships. He wins faceoffs, plays shut-down defense. Around here, it seems a no-brainer that he would make the team, given his season, and the last half of last season - until you start compiling that list.

Only a year ago, people around here were talking about trading him, and let's not forget he was not even on the NHL All-Star ballot. Clearly, he will get an invitation to August's Olympic camp, but as Coburn suggested - and Carter, too - you could make second and third teams from players not selected and have more than a decent chance to medal with them.

"Players are popping onto the radar screen that are having better years, that in early November there's a handful of guys we hadn't really thought that much about or hadn't discussed a lot," said Yzerman, being careful not to name names.

One reporter on the call did name names, citing seven centers "off the top of my head," including both Carter and Richards. Would Yzerman take that many centers and convert a few to wing? It's been done before.

"Seven is a lot," Yzerman said, but quickly added, "I guess my feeling on it right now is good players, truly good players with good hockey sense, can play any of the forward positions."

Carter would seem to fit the bill there. Two seasons ago and briefly last season, he played the wing a little with Richards, and has done so in Junior World Championship tournaments.

"It's a lot easier to go from center to wing than it is from wing to center," Stevens said. "If they were thinking about taking wingers and converting them to centermen, I'd say absolutely not. But taking a centerman and moving him to wing? It's done all the time."

So, Stevens was asked: Would you be surprised if both Richards and Carter were not on that Olympic team?

"I'd be surprised if both weren't considered," the coach said. "Now looking at the list of players and talking about them - they've got some tough decisions to make."

Decisions that will undoubtedly be based on the final two dozen games of this season, and that chase for the Stanley Cup that follows. The auditions are now, tonight against Buffalo, Saturday here against Pittsburgh, next Tuesday at Washington. Cameras are rolling.

Will it aid their play? Detract from it? To a man, the Flyers' candidates insisted it must do neither.

"When you're out there, you can't really think about, 'Well if I have a good game this game,' " Coburn said. "It would drive a guy crazy, I think. Thinking about the consequences of what you did out there. It's tough enough as it is out there, without all those added little things." *

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

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