Vancouver, BC – The IIHF World Hockey championship may be primarily a consolation tournament for the NHL players who are not fortunate enough to still be participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but there is still plenty on the line at this year's event beyond just a chance to capture a gold medal.
For a number of the players on Team Canada, it's an opportunity to put themselves on the radar of the national team brass before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, assuming, of course, the NHL and the Players' Association negotiate participation in the upcoming Games in their next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Here are three members of this year's Canadian national team roster who could be dark horse selections for the 2014 Olympic squad:
Cam Ward, Goalie, Carolina Hurricanes
Ward was considered for the 2010 squad and was one of the 46 players who were invited to the summer orientation camp that took place in the August leading up to the 2010 Games. He might have had a better chance at being named to the team had he not suffered a leg injury in the month leading up to the selections, but was still a long shot behind no-brainer selections Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur and even Marc-Andre Fleury, who was coming off a Stanley Cup championship the previous spring.
Ward has quietly been one of the league's most consistent netminders while tucked away in Carolina, racking up 30-or-more wins in all but one of his six seasons as the team's No. 1 goalie. But he hasn't managed to reach the same heights as he did back in 2006 when he captured the Stanley Cup as a rookie and will be going up against tough competition again in 2014 when he has to compete against not only returnees Luongo and Fleury but other emerging superstar netminders such as the Phoenix Coyotes' Mike Smith, Detroit Red Wings' Jimmy Howard and St. Louis Blues' Brian Elliott.
Ward has represented Canada twice at the international level, capturing a gold medal at the 2007 World Championship in Russia and winning silver the following year in Quebec City/Halifax.
Jordan Eberle, Forward, Edmonton Oilers
Eberle may still be two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday and just coming off his second season in the NHL, but he's shown he can more than keep up with the big boys.
While most of the buzz in Edmonton over the past two seasons has been for former first overall picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle has established himself to be in a class of his own. He nearly doubled both his goal total and his point total from his rookie season with 34 goals and 76 points in 2011-12, making him the fifth-leading point producer in the NHL's Western Conference behind only Henrik Sedin, Marian Hossa, Ray Whitney and Joe Thornton. That's also more goals and points than the likes of 2010 Olympians Eric Staal (24-46-70), Jarome Iginla (32-35-67) and Patrick Marleau (30-34-64), who are expected to be among the forwards who will merit consideration for selection to the 2014 squad.
Eberle's previous experience suiting up for Team Canada can't hurt, either. He's the all-time Canadian leader for career goals (14) at the World Junior Championship and has a pair of medals - a gold medal from 2009 and a silver medal from 2010 - to show for it. This also will be the third straight year that he suits up for Canada at the World Championship, making him one of just four members of this year's squad to be have appeared in three consecutive World Championships (the others are fellow Oiler Devan Dubnyk, the New York Islanders' John Tavares and the Winnipeg Jets' Evander Kane).
Patrick Sharp, Forward, Chicago Blackhawks
Over the past three seasons, Sharp has cemented his status as being one of the league's top offensive talents. His point production has not gone unnoticed despite playing behind elite players such as Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago.
If Sharp earns a spot on the 2014 roster, however, it won't likely be in a top-six forward role with all the offensive talent Canada has available to it. Instead, it is Sharp's ability to be effective at both ends of the ice that will make Canada take a long and hard look at him.
This season, Sharp finished with the best plus-minus rating among all Western Conference forwards at plus-28 while averaging just less than 20 minutes of ice time per game, which included time spent on both the power play and penalty kill.
Team Canada management also will be looking to see what type of leadership qualities Sharp brings to the table. Sharp is the second-oldest on this year's squad, behind only the Vancouver Canucks' Alexandre Burrows, and has the second-most NHL seasons under his belt compared to any other player on the roster behind only the Calgary Flames' Jay Bouwmeester. Sharp will be 32 years old by the time the 2014 Games are underway.
The IIHF World Hockey championship will be just the second time in his career that Sharp has represented Canada internationally. He won a silver medal at the 2008 World Championship in Quebec City/Halifax.
Canada will open the worlds against Slovakia on Friday. Canada has not won this tournament since 2007 and has not medaled since earning silver in 2009.