Monday, February 15, 2010

Some Pre-Olympic Thoughts

The NHL is officially on break, and the Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament is set to start. There's several excellent contenders for the gold, and plenty of teams with a realistic shot at a medal. NHL superstars, KHL vets and potential upstarts litter the rosters of hockey's elite.

With all that in mind, I'll offer some thoughts on each of the contenders heading into the tournament, as well as some predictions.

Files these guys under "dark horse." It's a pretty top-heavy unit for the Slovaks this time around, with Marians Hossa and Gaborik providing the scoring touch up front and Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line. Ziggy Palffy, 37, returns to the North American subconscious for the first time since leaving the NHL four years ago. In goal will be Jaroslav Halak, the Montreal netminder whose play this season has made many a Canadiens fan forget about Carey Price.

The Slovaks sport some other notables (Miro Satan, Pavol Demitra, Richard Zednik and Lubomir Visnovsky among them), they're mostly over-the-hill and the overall roster doesn't match up well against the more elite teams in the tournament. But, if they can catch lightning in a bottle (especially with Halak), the Slovaks will surprise some people.

Another solid group with plenty of NHL names to pore over. Led by the Koivus, Teemu Selanne and Kimo Timonen, the Fins have the Ruutus, Olli Jokinen, Sami Salo, Niklas Hagman and Valtteri Filppula among others. But the biggest strength for Finland is between the pipes. Miikka Kiprusoff should get the lion's share of time in goal, but if he falters, Nicklas Backstrom and Antero Niittymaki will be right there to pick up the slack.

The Fins earned Silver in Torino, but to get back they're going to need their offense to step up in a big way. Their goaltending will be great, but against opposing goaltenders they don't present too many big threats outside of Selanne. I don't think they'll medal this time around, but a hot performance in net could prove me wrong.

No question Jaromir Jagr's been waiting for this one. No former NHL player in this tournament wants to prove his worth more than Jagr, who wore his abundant confidence on his face while carrying in the Czech flag during last Friday's opening ceremonies. But he's 38, and the fate of the Czechs more likely rests with scorers Martin Havlat and Patrik Elias, playmakers Tomas Plekanec and David Krejci, blueliners Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, and goalie Thomas Vokoun.

It was Vokoun who dazzled in Torino, driving the Czechs to a 3-0 victory in the bronze medal game over Russia. They're going to need that kind of consistency out of Vokoun again if they want any kind of chance at a medal again, and playing in the same group with Russia and Slovakia won't be easy. I say no medal this time for the Czechs, but they'll be fun to watch.

It's possible 2010 will be a transition Olympics for the Swedes, or they could be the first country in over two decades to win back-to-back gold medals. It's hard to tell right now. No question the Swedes are stacked: the Sedins have been on fire all season, Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Zetterberg are likely to be teamed up with Johan Franzen, the venerable Peter Forsberg is back for one last hurrah, and Nicklas Lidstrom and Mattias Ohlund head up the defensive core in front of Henrik Lundqvist, the breakout star of the Torino games.

But there's lots of questions, too. The defenders beyond Lidstrom and Ohlund are largely untested internationally, while health or age concern surround many other players on the roster (Forsberg, Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson among them). The firepower is undoubtedly there for the Swedes. But I have them coming up just short for a medal this time, mostly because I'm a homer for...

...these guys. I love 'em. The transition from the '02 silver medal team to now is complete, and youth reigns supreme for the U.S. team. I've already gushed about Zach Parise at length, but there's so much more to this team. Parise's going to appear with playmaker Paul Stastny and scoring machine Patrick Kane, forming one of the most potent lines in the tournament. Phil Kessel will play with captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Kesler, while Dustin Brown and Chris Drury help fill out an excellent forward group for coach Ron Wilson.

The biggest problem America faces is on the blue line. Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin are both out, leaving Brian Rafalski the hugely important job of anchoring a defensive group that is fairly green on the international stage. Brooks Orpik, Jack Johnson, Ryan Suter and Ryan Whitney will hopefully be up to the job.

Ryan Miller is expected to play every game for the Americans, with Tim Thomas and Jon Quick backing up in case of injury. Miller's cooled off recently after a wildly successful start this season, while Thomas has disappointed at times and hasn't played much at all this month. They'll need Miller to carry them and play up to his highest possible level to medal.

It's my optimism talking, but I think everything's going to break right for the Americans, and they're going to beat the Swedes for the bronze. Brian Burke has put together this group in this fashion for no other reason. It's going to be an exceedingly fun team to watch, and maybe this won't be the last time they medal in the near future.

As Puck Daddy implored in a recent post, "look at this roster. No, seriously: look at it." Fully recovered from the embarrassing seventh-place finish during their transitional appearance in Torino, calling the 2010 Canadian team stacked doesn't really paint the full picture. Not when Jeff Carter, Mike Green, Jay Bouwmeester, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, Shane Doan, Cam Ward and Marc Savard were all told "better luck next time" by Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock.

I mean, this team's fourth line is probably going to be centered by Mike Richards. Mike Richards is only good enough to center Canada's FOURTH LINE. Not to mention that Stanley Cup Champion goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and all-world netminder Roberto Luongo will both be spectators for much of the tournament because Canada has this guy Brodeur who's only the best goalie of all time. Or that Shea Weber is likely to be in the press box the entire time as well.

So the biggest question about Canada is this: can they handle the pressure? It's no secret the nation of Canada's been going a bit berserk about this team and this tournament for a while now. With the games in Vancouver, all the attention's been placed squarely on the men's hockey team to bring home the bacon (or the ham, I suppose) in their national sport.

In the end, I don't think they'll do it. They'll get behind in the gold medal game and not be able to find the confidence to come back against...

...the most potent offensive team ever assembled for the Olympics. While watching the Russians practice on Monday, Puck Daddy reported on what's likely to be their top line (make sure you're sitting down): Alexander Ovechkin (the best player in the world), Pavel Datsyuk (the most complete center in the world) and Alexander Semin (Ovie's partner in crime). Of course, that likely means the second line's going to drop off precipitously: just Evgeni Malkin centering Ilya Kovalchuk and either Max Afinogenov or Viktor Kozlov. No big deal.

It's beyond those top two lines we find the heart and soul of the Russian team, with Sergei Fedorov and captain Aleksey Morozov providing the leadership. Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov lead a somewhat young defensive group, but there's plenty of NHL and/or KHL seasoning among them, with bruiser Anton Volchenkov ready to light up the opposition when needed.

Goaltending could be an issue for this team. This was an actual exchange I had with Cam around New Year's:

Me: Yeah, I like the Russians, but all they have for goalies is Bryzgalov.

Cam: No, they've got Nabokov, too.

Me: OK, then let me rephrase that. I like the Russians, but all they have for goalies is Nabokov.

I've been known to disparage Evgeni Nabokov at just about every opportunity, even giving him the nickname "The Lawn Chair" because he tends to fold like one in any big game. Having said that, Nabokov's been playing at an extremely high level in recent weeks and appears poised to go on a run through the Olympics. Maybe Nabokov will play well simply because it isn't spring yet.

Much has been made about the renewal of the relationship between Ovechkin and Malkin, as brokered by Kovalchuk, happening solely because these Russians are determined like crazy win gold. The love and admiration the Russians feel for each other is palpable every time they discuss each other. While the Canada crew reads like a glorified All-Star team, the Russians are an actual team, the way the '80 U.S. group was a team.

That's a really important factor for the Olympics. The Russians will defeat the Canadians, providing the clearest possible argument for continuing NHL participation in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. And we'll have to check the next morning to see if Canada is still actually there.

Enjoy the tournament.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work sir. I can't personally decide who's going to win. I have faith that Babcock and Yzerman could definitely lead Canada to the gold because they DID decide to leave all those all stars off the roster to try and create more chemistry, but then again the biggest favorites always seem to choke. I don't know. I love the idea of Hank winning another gold with Sweden or Dats and Fedorov winning with Russia, but I question injuries with Sweden and goaltending with Russia.

    I will say though that this could be one of the best Olympic tournaments in many years. So many teams are so good and there will be some truly memorable games even prior to the medal rounds I think.