With the opening ceremony finishing up, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games have officially started. What does that mean for me and those of similar persuasions? International hockey!
Since the IOC and NHL got into a tiff, NHL players will not be featured at these games as they have in the past. Instead, each country has to send the best they have not already under NHL contract. How is that going to affect the balance of power?
Right away, the NHL not being present weakens the US and Canadian squads significantly. These two countries account for over 70% of the players in the league, so not being able to pull from that pool hurts. That doesn’t mean, however, the countries will be without players with league experience.
The joke in Olympics past was that the players left off the official Canadian team could probably medal. Without such a deep talent pool available, Canada still put together a roster of vets that know how to play on the international stage. Team Canada will be led by Chris Kelly, who won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011. Other former NHL players include goalie Ben Scrivens and forwards Rene Bourque, Maxim Lapierre, and Mason Raymond. Combined, Team Canada has 5,444 games of NHL experience, the most in the tournament. Canada chose to build a team with experience, be it NHL or the upper echelons of international play. This will bode well for them. While the group stage may not be the cake walk it was in the past, expect them to come into the elimination round as a top seed.
The exclusion of NHL players may have actually helped the US. For both the last Olympics as well as the World Cup, many roster decisions led to raised eyebrows and second guessing after the team failed to medal in both. Not being able to pull from the NHL, the US went with a good mixture of experienced players who have been there and done that, and youth with high end talent. Captain Brian Gionta won a Cup with New Jersey in 2003. The majority of their NHL vets can be found on the blue line, in players like Matt Gilroy, Noah Welch and James Wisiewski. In total, the US comes in second with 3,083 NHL games played. The team boasts skilled forwards that led the Swedish National League (Marc Arcobello, Broc Little and Garrett Roe) as well as the AHL (Chris Bourque is tied for first), as well as NCAA standouts (Jordan Greenway and Troy Terry). The hope is that this mixture of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance will make for a better result than the 2014 team could muster.
The other country most affected by the lack of NHL talent, not to mention its own state-sponsored doping scandal, was Russia. While they are technically known as the Olympic Athletes from Russia due to said scandal, they are fielding a team mostly derived from their own professional league, the KHL. NHL fans should recognize names like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vyacheslav Voynov. Having 2,565 games of NHL experience under their belt, as well as the US and Canada being significantly hamstrung, expectations are high for the team formerly known as Russia. While the talent up front is undeniable, the question will be, if they weren’t able to medal with NHL defensemen and goaltenders, why would anyone expect them to contend with players would couldn’t make it to the best league in the world?
Sweden has the most depth in net, with two goalies (Jhonas Enroth and Viktor Fasth) who spent plenty of time in North America. In a short tournament like this, a hot goalie can cover up glaring holes elsewhere (just ask the New York Rangers). Add to that a team that won gold at the 2017 IIHF Championship, and you have the team most likely to challenge Canada. On top of that, the consensus #1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft (defenseman Rasmum Dahlin) will be roaming the blue line. This team could surprise everyone and take home gold.
Those are the resounding favorites. The Czech Republic, Finland and Slovakia could jump up and surprise anyone looking past them, given their pedigree. Practically every team in the tournament has at least one player that got a taste of the NHL, even Korea if you count their coach. So how do I see this tournament turning out?
I see Canada, the US and Sweden winning their groups, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia gaining the other first round bye.
In the first round matchups, I have Finland handling Korea, Czech Republic beating Slovenia, Slovakia moving past Germany, and Switzerland outlasting Norway.
In the quarterfinals, I have Canada dispatching Switzerland, Sweden moving past Slovakia, the US edging the Czech Republic, and Finland upsetting the team formerly known as Russia.
The Semifinal matchups have Canada taking care of Finland and Sweden out-fundamentaling the US.
That sets up a rematch of both medal games from 2014, with Canada vs Sweden in the gold medal game, and the US taking on Finland for bronze.
There you have it. My official Olympic predictions. Pick them apart at your leisure and let’s discuss in the Facebook group. And, starting on Valentine’s Day, let’s DO THAT OLYMPIC HOCKEY!