Canada's Shea Weber entering Sochi Olympics at top of game
There are those professional athletes who seek to turn the spotlight on themselves and there are those who find the spotlight painful and seek to deflect attention to their teammates.
Put Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber firmly in the second category.
With the 2014 Sochi Olympics looming, Weber leads NHL defensemen in goals with 15, and as a right-handed shot could find a natural spot on Canada's first defense pair with left-handed shooting Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.
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Owner of as powerful a slap shot as exists in the world today -- his goal against Germany in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that went through the twine no doubt will receive its share of replays once the Sochi tournament commences -- Weber might have as good a chance as any player to score the kind of memorable goal that would earn a measure of international fame.
If that happened, would Weber, an avid follower of the NFL, indulge in a Richard Sherman moment on camera?
The notion makes Weber chuckle.
"No," he said. "It's definitely about the team, especially, hockey’s a team game. It's not one guy. It's everybody."
For Weber, the Predators captain, it is all about the team. And lately he has been carrying his team. In the past 26 games he has 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) to help Nashville get back in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs even as they enter their fourth month without No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne, who is recovering from a hip infection. Nashville, 9-5-5 in its past 19 games, entered Tuesday four points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
If a player could be peaking at the right time for the Olympics, then Weber might be it. His nine power-play goals tie him for fifth in the NHL; je and the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara are the only defensemen in the top 30 in that category. He is tied for fourth in the NHL in points by a defenseman with 38, a total that places him second on the Predators, one point behind center David Legwand.
Weber averages 26:42 of ice time per game, ranking him fourth in the League. Since Dec. 10 he has logged at least 29:40 seven times, and five times he's played at least 30 minutes.
"It's been good," said Weber, a big man at 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, of his workload. "We've got a lot of guys who are capable of playing big roles and big minutes back here. It definitely keeps you in the game and it's easy to stay into it and ready when you're playing that many minutes."
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The only statistical blemish on Weber's record this season is his minus-8 rating. He plays for one of the lower-scoring teams in the NHL -- the Predators enter Tuesday 22nd in scoring at 2.47 goals per game -- and since Nashville gets many of its goals from its seventh-ranked power play (which largely is fueled by Weber), his plus/minus suffers.
After a 3-2 overtime win Saturday against the New Jersey Devils in which Weber scored twice, including the game-winner, Predators coach Barry Trotz called his two-time Norris Trophy finalist "our building block" and a "difference maker."
"I keep saying: People better pay attention to Shea Weber," Trotz said. "In terms of the plus/minus, don't look at that stat. I think he's having maybe his best year as a pro and no one's even taken notice."
Hockey Canada certainly has taken notice. That is why it named Weber an alternate captain for the Olympics, which Weber called "definitely a huge honor."
"You look at that dressing room and you see how many captains there are from their respective clubs and you know any one of those guys could have done the job," he said.
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One curious aspect to Weber's game this season is he's shooting less than he has in the past, something he pointed to when asked if that's why he has been producing so many points recently. He is on a pace for 200 shots this season; between 2008-09 and 2011-12 he averaged 239 per season, and his 124 last season projects to 211 over an 82-game season.
Perhaps it's a refinement in his game as he plays with younger defensemen. Since the Predators traded Kevin Klein, 29, to the New York Rangers on Jan. 22, none of their other regular defensemen are older than 23.
"When the opportunity does come I'm getting [the shot] there and guys are doing a great job and things are going in," Weber said.
With scorers abundant up and down Canada's roster, Weber will not need to shoot much at the Olympics, meaning that change in his game should fit nicely. Despite what is no doubt intense pressure from home Weber was not ready to put Canada into favorite status.
"It's hard to say," he said. "In a short tournament like that I think there's five or six teams that legitimately have a shot of winning and it's just going to come down to who plays the best in those games."
When it comes to who his defense partner will be at the Olympics, Weber said he does not care since he called it a "privilege" simply to be on the team. His partner could be former Predators defenseman Dan Hamhuis, now a member of the Vancouver Canucks; the San Jose Sharks’ Marc-Edouard Vlasic; Keith; another lefty shot; or a number of other players (although the St. Louis Blues' tandem of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo seems a good bet to stick together).
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The previous time Weber went to the Olympics his partner with the Predators was American-born Ryan Suter, who now is with the Minnesota Wild. Upon returning after the tournament the Predators took a photo of their Olympians, with Weber wearing his gold medal and Suter his silver.
North American teams have not fared as well in Olympics outside out of the continent since NHL players began participating in 1998. Weber said he doesn't think the European teams will have a leg up with the tournament in Russia.
"Obviously a lot of the players play in the NHL which play over here in North America so I don't think there's any advantage," he said. "Everyone's going to be going over at the same time. They may be used to the bigger ice from when they're younger but there's still guys that have played in the NHL for seven or eight years and they're playing on the North American-sized ice."
If Canada does bring home the gold and if Weber happens to play a major role in the victory, it's obvious to whom he will give the credit: The team.