Sochi predictions for men’s ice hockey–less than a year to go
In case you’re not counting, we have under a year–319 days–until the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The city on the coast of the Black Sea will be the first Russian city in the post-Soviet era to host the Games, and the symbolism of the event is palpable. What Joseph Stalin turned into a fashionable resort town will become an international hotspot of sport and unity.
It isn’t yet determined whether NHL players will be able to participate, with concerns about travel being a sticking point, since the tightly adjusted NHL schedule will not have a lot of wiggle room for players to return from the southern Russian hinterland. Sochi has an international airport–but no flights leave there towards the United States and Canada.
Russia is seeing an embarrassment of riches in terms of international hockey. They are currently fresh from the World Juniors in Ufa, where the host country’s team managed to eke out a win in the bronze medal game against Canada in overtime. The IIHF World U20 Championship is a big deal. It’s where youngsters put themselves on the world’s stage, often for the first time, and add to their resumés in the eyes of NHL clubs that have drafted them or will draft them in the coming months. It’s a magical event. But it’s nothing like the Olympics. The buzz leading up to the Sochi games is already raising the blood pressure of international hockey enthusiasts. North American hockey fans will be watching out for incumbent gold medalists Team Canada (too good to be true–except they are), Team USA (the gritty underdogs who almost shattered Canadian dreams in Vancouver), and Team Russia (the host nation with a chip on its shoulder, who has no medal in men’s ice hockey since 2002 in Salt Lake City, and no gold since they played as the Unified Team in 1992).
Despite falling at the World Juniors as of late, Canadians probably aren’t worried about the Olympics. When it comes to veteran players, Team Canada is stacked at forward in a terrifying way. The only two words you need to say to send American hockey fans to cowering in a corner are Sidney Crosby. But you could also throw in Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos. Add in grittier guys like Patrice Bergeron and Jordan Staal and you’re already miles ahead of what most nations can offer in terms of all-around game. The Canadian forwards who factor to make the national team are strong at both ends of the ice and will be hard to stop–much harder than they were in 2010, where a lot of older players likely played their last years as Olympians. If Steve Yzerman, projected Canadian GM, is as smart as we know he is, he will opt for a younger squad. Guys like Brenden Morrow, Patrick Marleau, and Jarome Iginla will likely sit out.
Canada can also go in pretty much any direction with defense, but again, likely younger than 2010’s crew. They have a stable, proven selection of both puck-moving and “stay-at-home” defensemen. Boasting names like Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, and P. K. Subban, the Canadian blueline has the potential to be downright scary. But they’ll still need a guy between the pipes, and the members of Team Canada’s goaltender trio are still very much up in the air. Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur were the guys who saw action in 2010 (Marc-André Fleury was third-string). Whether Luongo will be trusted again, and whether Brodeur, at 40, will even be in the conversation, remains to be seen. Other names you might see include Corey Crawford, Cam Ward, and Mike Smith.
While Canada’s all-around strength at forward is unequivocally the best in the business, Team USA very literally gave them a run for their money in 2010 with a culture of smart, defensive hockey. Most of the forwards that figure into the Team USA conversation boast a good history of two-way play, and while no one would say that they can score more than the best Canadian forwards, they can certainly defend the hell out of them with the right mindset. Guys like Zach Parise, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Kesler, and Patrick Kane will be relied on for offense–meanwhile players like David Backes, Paul Stastny, and Ryan Callahan will also provide serious backchecking and some clutch scoring.
The Americans have lots of good defensemen to pick from. Brooks Orpik will likely be the stalwart veteran on the backend at the age of 33, and despite having a somewhat difficult season so far with penalties, he is still a +12. Ryan Suter and Keith Yandle seem like no-brainers as well. Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Paul Martin are scoring a lot so far this season in the NHL, take few penalties, and can be trusted to log at least as many minutes as their counterparts, and might be shoe-ins for the team. Possible surprise names to figure in include Dustin Byfuglien and Joe Corvo.
The USA also might have the hardest working goaltenders in the tournament. Ryan Miller looks to return, and Tim Thomas is probably gone for good. But Jonathan Quick will likely pace himself apart as the go-to starter for the Americans. The third choice option is anyone’s guess. Jimmy Howard? Craig Anderson? Cory Schneider? However, unlike Canada who probably has too many choices, Team USA has just enough to keep the position competitive.
As we all know, offense often comes from excellent defense, which is why the USA was such a serious contender in 2010. Russia’s struggles might come from too much offense. Their high-flying forwards will include names familiar to North American hockey fans: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin. Plenty of KHL stars figure into the conversation as well, maybe even 37-year-old Vancouver Games captain Aleksey Morozov.
But their options on defense are not as versatile as one might hope. Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov will run a power play to give you nightmares, but they’re also aging, and Markov in particular has had injury issues, so whether they ultimately remain on the roster is still an unknown. When it comes to a shutdown pairing, Russia doesn’t really seam to have one of the caliber that the United States and Canada can bring. Their best option will likely include Slava Voynov, a 23-year-old right hand shot who carries big minutes and is a +8 for the Kings this season. Paired with the right partner (Dmitry Kulikov? maybe even Anton Volchenkov?), Team Russia might have the puzzle pieces to have a force on the blueline that they sorely missed in 2010.
Goaltending has been Team Russia’s weakness, but the trend of young, athletic Russian goaltenders seems to be on the rise. Sergei Bobrovsky has played his way into the shortlist with his excellent performance in Columbus after being abandoned by the Philadelphia Flyers in favor of fellow Team Russia hopeful, Ilya Bryzgalov, whose play as of late has been mercurial at best. Evgeni Nabokov, Kazakhstan native who plays for Team Russia, will likely make his way to the top of the list as well. And Semyon Varlamov could compete for a spot, too. While their records might not be as good as other goaltenders in the competition overall, the competitive aspect of the position is similar to what Team USA has. If they all vie for the starting position, they’ll make each other better. With improved defense and goaltending, Russia could definitely figure in for a medal game next year. To not do so on home ice would be crushing.
And of course, we haven’t even touched on Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, or Slovakia. If NHL players get to go, it will be the fifth straight games that they have participated, all full of memories we wouldn’t trade for a less busy NHL schedule back across the Atlantic.
This report was written using statistics from NHL.com, en.KHL.ru, and the official rosters from the 2010 Vancouver Games.