Every four years, the NHL suspends play for a couple weeks in February to allow players to participate in the Winter Olympics. There has been much debate over whether to continue this practice or bar players from traveling to the Olympics, but 2014, at least, will continue to feature NHL talent.
In fact, all 12 participating countries – Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States – have at least one NHLer on their roster. Some, like the US and Canada, are entirely comprised of NHL players; Sweden’s roster has only one player that isn’t currently playing in the NHL, while teams like Russia, the Czech Republic, and Finland have a fairly even balance of NHL players and those from European leagues like the KHL, Liiga, Elitserien, and Extraliga. Some of the lesser-known squads like Austria, Latvia, and Slovenia simply don’t have enough NHL players to fill a roster and, by necessity, are filled with players from their own professional leagues.
The major contenders are essentially unchanged from the most recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver: Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Russia are, on paper, the strongest and most balanced teams. Russia has both the luxury and the curse of playing on home ice – while they will have the support of their country, they will also be expected to win gold. Even a silver medal will leave a dark mark on the entire Olympics.
TEAM RUSSIA: THE RED ARMY, TEAM FUCK YOUR YANKEE BLUE JEANS, TEAM THE YEAR 1980 WAS LOST TO AN ERROR IN THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM, THE RUSSIAN 25, PUTIN’S PREDATORS
Luckily, Russia’s roster is loaded with scorers, including leading NHL goal scorer Alexander Ovechkin, who, after a couple seasons of decreased production, is back to terrorizing opponents’ goaltenders on a nightly basis. Simply put, there are no goaltenders on the planet that can effectively shut down Ovie when he’s on his game, as he very much has been all season. He can score goals from any angle (though he’s most dangerous from the top of the circles), in any situation, and with great proclivity.
This was demonstrated in perfect clarity about ten minutes before I wrote this sentence, as Ovechkin blasted the game-winning overtime goal past Team USA goaltender Jimmy Howard in a Super Bowl Sunday matinee between the Capitals and Red Wings. Howard may be the United States’ third goaltender going into the tournament, but I’ll bet confidently that neither Jonathan Quick nor Ryan Miller would have saved Ovechkin’s one-timer from the top of the circles. If Team Russia can use Ovechkin effectively – and that’s kind of a big “if,” based on both Russia’s performance in the previous Olympics and Washington’s performance in pretty much every playoff series since Ovechkin joined the team – the host nation will have an excellent chance at a gold medal.
Russia’s group of forwards is filled with other stars, including captain Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Semin, and Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as impressive young talent like Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin. The Red Army also boasts the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky, who will compete with Semyon Varlamov for the right to defend Russia’s crease.
If Russia has a weak spot, it’s on defense, where NHL standouts Slava Voynov, Andrei Markov, and Nikita Nikitin will anchor the blue line. If you haven’t heard of any of those players, it’s because they aren’t really NHL standouts; Russia doesn’t boast the kind of big-name defenders the US (Ryan Suter), Canada (Duncan Keith), or Sweden (Niklas Kronwall) do. However, those guys, while lesser known, are solid positionally and know how to handle high-scoring offenses. With the benefit of Russia’s talented forwards and goaltenders, the defensemen shouldn’t worry.
TEAM CANADA: THE MOUNTIES, TEAM HOW’S ABOOT THAT, EH?, THE APOLOGISTS, SIDNEY CROSBY’S FLYING CIRCUS, TEAM HOCKEY
Though Canada is under heavy scrutiny as the defending gold medalists, they’ve already overcome the pressure of winning on home ice thanks to their gold medal in Vancouver in 2010. 11 players are returning from that team, but the Canadians have a roster loaded with players who have won championships at every level. I went through the entire Canadian roster; there are only three players (Matt Duchene, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Mike Smith) who haven’t won any sort of championship at high-level play. On the 25-man Canadian roster, there are a combined 16 IIHF World Junior Championship gold medals, 10 IIHF World Championship gold medals, 15 Stanley Cups, and 11 Olympic gold medals (all of which, of course, are from 2010). Canada has such a deep pool of talent in the NHL that a team could be made purely of players that did not make the official roster and those scrubs would probably medal.
Canada is the deepest team at every position save perhaps for goaltender (hah), but Roberto Luongo is the defending gold medalist and Carey Price and Mike Smith are established talent. Besides, with a defensive corps like Canada’s, goaltending shouldn’t be an issue. Including their two Norris Trophy winners, Duncan Keith and PK Subban (who won the award last year), Canada’s defensemen are elite skaters and puck movers who can calmly and confidently handle the puck; these d-men are used to taking on their opponents’ top players on a nightly basis and they are familiar with many of the top opposing Olympic forwards.
Joe Thornton is second in the NHL in assists. Kyle Okposo, Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux, and Thornton are 9th, 11th, 12th, and 13th in points, respectively. Dustin Byfuglien is third among defensemen in points. Marc-Andre Fleury leads all goaltenders in wins and Ben Scrivens leads all goaltenders in save percentage. None of those players are on this team. None of those forwards were chosen to replace Steven Stamkos, whose broken leg hasn’t quite healed enough to play. Instead, Martin St. Louis, 15th overall in scoring, was tapped by Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman (who also happens to manage St. Louis’ team, the Tampa Bay Lightning), to much controversy.
To quote the legendary Herb Brooks, “I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones.” Much may be made about the makeup of this Canadian team, but plenty was made about the 2010 team, too. Remember when it was announced Heath Ledger was playing the Joker and everyone freaked out and then he ended up being legendary and then more recently it was announced that Ben Affleck is playing Batman and everyone freaked out but some people drew that same corollary that I just drew? Pretty much the exact same thing here.
TEAM SWEDEN: TRE KRONOR, TEAM NICK LIDSTRÖM, THE LØS ÄNGELES KINGS, SVENSKARNA LAG, TEAM MJÖLNIR
It hasn’t been too long since Sweden’s last Olympic gold medal (they took the 2006 tournament in Turin, Italy), but the major players in Swedish hockey are very different. Gone are the days of Peter Forsberg, Mäts Sundin, and Nicklas Lidström. The young guns of the 2006 team – Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedin twins, Henrik Lundqvist, Niklas Kronwall – are now the elder statesmen, while new faces have emerged to carry Sweden’s hockey hopes.
Young defensemen like Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Niklas Hjalmarsson have emerged as reliable, positionally sound defenders who can contribute offensively. Electrifying forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Steen, and Gabriel Landeskog (the youngest captain in the NHL) have reinforced Sweden’s status as a producer of elite hockey talent. When veteran Johan Franzen was deemed unfit to play in Sochi due to a concussion, the Swedes replaced him with 24-year-old Gustav Nyquist. When veteran Henrik Sedin was deemed unfit to play in Sochi due to a rib injury, the Swedes replaced him with 23-year-old Marcus Johansson.
The Swedish team is strong at every position, including between the pipes, as returning gold medal winner Henrik Lundqvist has remained among the NHL’s best goaltenders. Despite a shaky start to the season, King Henrik has found his form and, with all eyes firmly on the Russians, should perform above expectations. Sweden is hoping so, because his backups, Jhonas Enroth and Jonas Gustavsson, aren’t exactly NHL All-Stars (you know, like Lundqvist).
Though much has changed over the years, at least one thing has stayed the same, as one of the elder statesmen from the 06 team is an even elderer statesman this year: Daniel Alfredsson. For the first time in his career, Alfredsson is playing with a team other than the Ottawa Senators; he signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent over the summer. In 45 games, Alfresson is third on the Wings with 34 points. He’s been a consistent performer throughout his long career, including in international competition, with 23 points in 20 Olympic games; he led the ’06 gold medal squad with 10 points.
Sweden’s roster is comprised almost entirely of NHLers; only forward Jimmie Ericsson, older brother of teammate Jonathan Ericsson, isn’t currently playing for an NHL club. Like Canada and the US, Sweden’s roster is littered with winners at every level.
TEAM USA: TEAM FREEDOM, AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!, THE NSA, TEAM SUCK IT WE WON THE COLD WAR, TEAM 1980 FIVEVER, PATRICK KANE AND THE E STREET BAND
Going into the 2010 Olympics, the Americans were a relative unknown. Filled mostly with young, unproven talent like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, and Bobby Ryan, the Americans shocked the hockey world by defeating heavy favorites Canada 5-3 to win their initial group. After breezing through the elimination matchups (including a 6-1 trouncing of Finland), the US lost the gold medal match to Canada in arguably the greatest game ever played (sorry, Jake).
This year, the United States aren’t underdogs – they’re contenders. Led by a talented group of forwards, a proven group of defensemen, and three of the NHL’s better goaltenders, Team USA’s chances of winning their first Olympic gold medal since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” are looking better than ever.
Up front, Team USA is full of guys who can skate, pass, and score. Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel are tied for fourth in NHL scoring with 63 points; Kessel is second overall in goals (30). Max Pacioretty had a hat trick against Vancouver the other night. Joe Pavelski is tied for 3rd in goals (29). Kane leads all Americans with 36 assists, good for 10th in the league. He’s also won two Stanley Cups since taking silver in Vancouver. First-time captain Zach Parise has dealt with injuries this season, but had 8 points in three games last week and is fully healthy in time for the Olympics. Notably, Bobby Ryan was left off the team in ignoble fashion.
The Americans are strong defensively, too. In addition to a stellar group of two-way forwards that includes Parise, Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Dustin Brown, and TJ Oshie, Team USA boasts big-name defensemen on par with any team in Sochi. Ryan Suter, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, and Brooks Orpik anchor a group that also includes young stand-outs Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler (sorry, I mean Cam America). Suter, the NHL’s ice-time leader (he averages just under half a game), will wear an A on his sweater and be expected to keep the US’s back end in line.
In goal, the US still faces some uncertainty, as no starting goaltender has yet been announced. Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick are both returning from the 2010 team. They are joined in Sochi by Jimmy Howard, but the debate over the starter primarily revolves around Quick and Miller. Miller has been the lone bright spot on a very bad Buffalo team, while Quick hasn’t quite been able to match the form he displayed when he backstopped the LA Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup. My money is on Miller; he has been too good this season to not play, especially given how little help he has gotten from his teammates on the Sabres.
Team Canada wins gold when Sidney Crosby scores the overtime game winner against Ryan Miller in a rematch of the 2010 gold medal match. Canada will destroy their preliminary group (Group B) by a wide margin and though they will face some adversity in the elimination round, they will advance to and win the final game. The Canadians are simply too good and too proven to back down even against the harsh competition they’ll undoubtedly face in Sochi.
The US won’t win Group A. Instead, the Russians will come out flying in the prelims and will overcome the Americans for a bye into the elimination round. However, Russia will fall in the semifinals to Canada and will have to settle for a bronze medal, which they won’t win, as Sweden will take bronze after winning Group C and narrowly overcoming Finland in the quarters, but losing to the US in the semis.
Russia will riot after failing to medal, resulting in the cancellation of the Closing Ceremony and Putin attempting to erase the Games from the history books.
Happy Olympics! (Seriously, Canada over the US for the gold, want to fight about it?)