With only a few months to go before the 2014 Winter Olympics, I'd like to share some of my thoughts about everyone's favourite event...hockey!
(Note, Olympic rosters consist of 25 men, however I only included this number for Canada, as the rest are pretty obsolete).
THE ELITE: These teams have the best chance at medaling, any one of them could win gold.
TEAM CANADA SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
(M. Richards, Benn)
To start off with, let's take a look at Canada's potential roster. There are a few notable additions to this team compared to 2010 (Stamkos being the big one), as well as a few big name players that I felt will not be there this time around (Thornton, etc.)
The biggest additions to this new Canadian squad will be adding top sniper Stamkos and the crafty St. Louis to the team. Stamkos, who has developed into one of the deadliest pure scorers in the NHL, is a lock to make this team. So why not play him with the best player in the world? Through in Marty St. Louis, who has continued to prove doubters wrong throughout his career, even at his age, and you have a speedy first line with a lot of fire power.
Rick Nash, if healthy, will also be a lock to make the team. I have him flanking Tavares and Duchene on the 2nd line. Tavares has more than earned his spot, and while his skating isn't the greatest, he is simply too good to leave off this team. Duchene has also earned himself a spot on this team with his great play so far this season, taking what I had early pegged as Claude Giroux's spot.
The 3rd line should look pretty familiar, with a good mix of big, two-way players that should add some bite. These 3 are all returnees.
The 4th line should be the shutdown line for the Canadians. Toews may very well move up the center depth chart, but right now I have him centring Bergeron and Couture. Couture could switch with Mike Richards, as both are very defensively sound, but I started Couture due to him being slightly more mobile.
On defence, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, and Duncan Keith are your 4 locks. I believe the remaining spots are still very much up for grabs. It would not surprise me at all if players were picked based on chemistry from the NHL, such as Bouwmeester(Pietrangelo), Hamhuis(Weber), and Seabrook(Keith). I also believe that only one of Subban and Letang will start in the top-6, however we may both.
In net, reigning gold medal winner Roberto Luongo will start. Carey Price will back him up after starting the season well, and cup winner Corey Crawford narrowly edges out Mike Smith to grab the 3rd and final spot.
Players to watch: Jamie Benn could very well play himself onto the team with a good start this season with Dallas. He's as motivated as anyone after getting the snub for the summer camp. Taylor Hall is another player who could crack the team if he plays at a high level after returning from injury. His speed is a huge asset. You can also never rule out Giroux, although he has started extremely poorly this season. Vlasic has also had a very good start on defence, but I see him as a long shot still. Hamhuis, after starting poorly, is back to his usual self, and depending on how they see him fitting with Weber, still has a decent shot of cracking the top-8. Mike Smith and Jonathan Bernier could also play themselves into contention.
TEAM USA SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
The strong first line from 2010 returns in 2014, hungrier than ever to win gold. With Kesler back to playing at a high level, this line looks as solid as ever.
The second line for the States features two goal scoring wingers in Kessel and Ryan, who should be complimented nicely by the playmaking/two-way abilities of Pavelski.
JVR starts on this line, however you may see him with Kessel at times. This line features an underrated playmaker in Stepan playing between two hulking beasts. This line should be money near the net.
The final line for the USA is a killer for any team they have to play. Featuring 3 captains, and 3 of the grittiest players in the NHL, this line will wear teams down and will be down right hard to play against. Their effectiveness may be slightly less on Olympic sized ice than it would be at home, but they still will provide to be a pain in the butt for other teams.
On d, we have McDonough and Suter forming the top pairing. These two are by far their two most complete d men, and should be one of the top shutdown pairs in the tourney.
The second pairing features two more offensive minded players, however they both are pretty decent in their own end, and their mobility should help them on the big ice.
The final pairing is a classic pairing of an offensive d man with a defensive d man. Mobility seems to be a trend on the US blue line, and again, both guys are talented skaters.
In net, the big story is that Ryan Miller will not return after an MVP performance in 2010. Jonathan Quick is the obvious choice for #1, while Howard has played well the last few years and has earned the job as back up. Schneider will start as 3rd string in order to build his experience for 2018, when he should have a bigger role at the age of 31.
Players to watch: Paul Statsny could play himself onto the team. He was good in 2010, and has started this season very well. On defence, a player like Byfuglien could have a shot, despite his mobility issues on big ice. Seth Jones might also get a look as a depth guy for experience. In net, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson could easily battle their way into the top-3.
TEAM SWEDEN SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
The Swedes boast an elite top line with some of the best puck possession players on the planet.
Their second line is a good mix of scoring, playmaking, and two-way play.
The third line is a very good two-way line, a mix of under the radar players. This line could be deadly , and it wouldn't surprise me if it became one of the top lines in the tourney.
With is play early this season, I can't see the Swedes leaving Alfie off of their roster. (Although since they left him off the summer roster, they may want to pass the torch), he's just been too good to leave off. Throw in a good young center and the Mule, and you got a pretty good line.
The Swedish defence is an incredibly skilled, young, and mobile group. Karlsson and Kronwall should form a great top pairing, as their styles seem to be perfect complements.
OEL and Hedman are very similar to the top pairing, however slightly less skilled in their respective attributes.
The third pairing, like all of Sweden's pairings, also features one mainly offensive guy paired with a shutdown d man.
In net, they don't have much depth behind Lunqvist, but when you're as good as the King, they shouldn't need it. Although Lunqvist started the year slow, he has been improving with every game and is still very much an elite goaltender.
Players to watch: Up front, look for Hagelin to make a push. On D, they Swedes have a multitude of options, including players such an Enstrom and Brodin. In net, Enroth may push for the press box job.
TEAM RUSSIA SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
What can you say about the Russians? On paper, their elite level skill is rivalled only by the Canadians. Their top line is absolutely dynamite, and should get them a lot of goals, assuming Kovalchuk has stayed in shape!
Their second line is nothing to scoff at either. Semin has improved his defensive game, and he is no longer completely useless in that regard. He is also still amazing offensively. Malkin is a world class player, and add Radulov in the mix, and this line has a lot of firepower as well.
Their third line is a trio of young players. These guys could be the future of Russian hockey, and all have great speed and strength.
The fourth line is an interesting mix of guys, but there is no doubt that, like all of the Russian lines, their is goal scoring potential here as well.
On defence, while there are no elite names, there are some solid options. Markov we be the leader back there, and Emelin should provide some much needed defensive stability.
Voynov has really taken some big strides the past few years as well, and playing him with a solid guy in Tyutin should help him.
The final pairing may be old, but their is still some gas left in the tank for these veterans. They seem to have complementary playing styles.
In net, they've got two young guys and a vet in Nabakov. Although Bobrovsky played very well last year, there goaltending is still a question mark.
Players to watch: Up front, we could see a few players from the KHL fill some spots. Same goes for the defence. In net, it would not surprise me to see Bryzgalov suit up, depending on how soon he gets into competitive play and what goes on with Varlamov.
THE REST OF THE BEST: I won't say too much on these next few teams, I believe that they do have a chance at medaling, however I would say they are more unlikely than the elite teams.
TEAM FINLAND SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
Selanne-M. Koivu-O. Jokinen
Finland has a good group of forwards, with no real elite players but tons of depth. You could see some younger players fill some of the veterans shoes. They are a bit shaky on defence, but appear to have a decent (if not ancient) top-4. In net, they are probably the best team in the world.
TEAM SLOVAKIA SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
The Slovaks are an interesting team. They have some very high end forwards, but virtually no skilled depth that they can rely on. On defence, they actually have a solid top-4 although the skill level really drops off on the bottom pairing. Any d with Chara will be pretty decent. In net, Halak can be inconsistent at times, but overall he is a good goaltender.
TEAM CZECH REPUBLIC SOCHI 2014 (Projected)
The Czechs are another very good team that could fly under the radar in these Olympics. Although I put them in the 2nd tier, I would say that they could find themselves into the Elite group before long. They have a very deep group of skilled forwards, a good mix of younger players and vets. On defence, all of their guys are NHL caliber d men, which is more than can be said for a number of teams. In net, they have three guys who all can be very good, but all suffer from inconstant play.
NOTE: SWITZERLAND should be included in the 2nd tier teams, although I omitted them as a feel I don't have enough knowledge on their players to write a proper article judging them.
Final thoughts: Their are a lot of skilled teams competing in these Olympics, and no doubt the style of play will be different due to the larger ice surface. While Canada has the best overall team, I feel that the Russians have the best pure skill, while the United States will have the hardest working team/grittiest team. Sweden should also boast the most mobile, and most offensive blue line in the tournament.
My picks for the medals are: Gold-Canada, Silver-Sweden Bronze-Russia
I feel that although Canada has not had much success on large ice in the past, they have a good mix of players who can out skill you, out score you, and shut you down. They're just too good overall. Sweden also has a good "overall" team. While they might not be the "best" at any one thing, they are elite in all aspects. Their skating, particularly at the backend, as well as their goaltending, should help them make the finals this time around. Finally, I have the Russians beating out the United States for the Bronze. At home, the Russians should be motivated, and although I feel that their backend and goaltending are not strong enough to make the finals, their offensive fire power will carry them to a medal.
Teams such as Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Switzerland are also very strong teams, and could end up challenging for medals as well.
I hope you guys enjoyed the read, even though it was pretty lengthy. This is my first blog entry, so any feedback would be greatly appreciated! I hope to add some more entries closer to the Olympics, when the final rosters are released, so stay tuned for those. Thanks, -H2