By Sam Page
Now that the Olympic rosters we care about have been announced (sorry, Latvia and you other seven), it’s time to decide who has the best chance to unseat the defending gold medal juggernaut that is Team Canada.
If there’s a single thread running through all of the roster selections, it’s the over-thinking of the change in ice size. The 2010 Olympics were, of course, played on Vancouver’s standard NHL-sized 85-foot wide by 200-foot long rink, but this year’s games will go down on the 100′ x 200′ surface of the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Teams from European countries where the big ice is standard seem to perceive this venue as a natural advantage and have forsaken some proven, and more rugged, NHL talent in favor of swifter players from their native leagues. Team USA also avoided some of the slower skaters in its talent pool. And while some of the speed picks made sense, some teams’ management occasionally cut better players (see: Bobby Ryan) in favor of those who will offer mostly small stylistic gains on the bigger surface.
Here are top four contenders’ rosters, graded for overall talent and efficacy of construction:
Talent pool: A+
Team grade: A
Goaltenders: Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks), Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes)
Defensemen: Jay Bouwmeester (St. Louis Blues), Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings), Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver Canucks), Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues), PK Subban (Montreal Canadiens), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators)
Forwards: Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars), Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins), Jeff Carter (Los Angeles Kings), Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Chris Kunitz (Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks), Rick Nash (New York Rangers), Corey Perry (Anaheim Ducks), Patrick Sharp (Chicago Blackhawks), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), John Tavares (New York Islanders), Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks)
Outlook: It’s hard to knock a country that is so replete with talent that its B-team would probably be a favorite to win a medal. Still, the bigger the hockey market, the bigger the scrutiny, and Canada’s fans have enough to grouse about. (On what planet is Rick Nash better than Claude Giroux?)
The selection of Sidney Crosby’s personal winger, Chris Kunitz, drew the loudest protests, especially when such players as Giroux, Martin St. Louis and Joe Thornton missed the cut. Thornton and teammate Logan Couture apparently lost the Sharks’ Olympic forward sweepstakes to Patrick Marleau in one example of speed and ice-size considerations leading to a defensible decision.
The Kunitz thing really sticks out, though, because his production is so obviously a product of playing with Crosby. The speedy Taylor Hall, who plays a terrific all-around game, would have been a better pick because of Hall’s potential to shine on the bigger rink. If the team doesn’t win gold, every Canadian will blame GM Steve Yzerman and his minions for choosing familiarity over talent. And hockey gods help them if — by some unfortunate accident — Team Canada has to use Mike Smith in net.
Underrated pick: Dan Hamhuis. It’s good for the perpetually underrated blueliner to finally earn a spot. He had attended many Olympic camps and IIHF World Championships with Canada before earning this honor.
Talent pool: B+
Team grade: B+
Goaltenders: Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings), Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres), Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings)
Defensemen: John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes), Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers), Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues), Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild)
Forwards: David Backes (St. Louis Blues), Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks), Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs), T.J. Oshie (St. Louis Blues), Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens), Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild), Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche), Derek Stepan (New York Rangers), James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets)
Outlook: Thanks to Scott Burnside’s and Kevin Allen’s exclusive access to the U.S. selection process, we know more about the thinking (and the dreaming) behind these choices than we ever imagined. Bobby Ryan was the worst snub, and it’s not really defensible. USA Hockey doesn’t have the Kunitz excuse of kowtowing to its best player (who is Patrick Kane, of course). Ryan, the Senators’ perennial 30-goal scorer, was simply left off the roster because the American brain trust thought they had better options. (They wish!) The international ice could be 500-feet wide, Ryan could skate in his sleep and fail to spell “intense” with a word bank and the Americans would still be stupid to leave him off their roster.
Regardless, this is still a solid forward corps full of tough two-way guys designed to neutralize more-skilled opponents. In fact, it may be on defense where GM David Poile and company really misstepped. Notable snubs Dustin Byfuglien and Keith Yandle may be two of the four best American blueliners in the world. And if you’re so concerned about mobility, why bring paperweight Brooks Orpik along for the ride?
Underrated pick: Blake Wheeler. Plenty of fans derided him for being chosen over Bobby Ryan. Why? Since the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg in 2011, Wheeler has been money, scoring .84 points per game. Compare his output to fellow right winger Ryan Callahan’s .68 PPG during the same span and ask which player should have been on the bubble.
Talent pool: A-
Team grade: B+
Goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets), Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), Alexander Eremenko ( Dynamo Moscow, KHL)
Defensemen: Anton Belov (Edmonton Oilers), Slava Voynov (Los Angeles Kings), Alexei Emelin (Montreal Canadiens), Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens), Evgeni Medvedev (AK Bars, KHL), Nikita Nikitin (Columbus Blue Jackets), Ilya Nikulin (AK Bars, KHL), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus BlueJackets)
Forwards: Artem Anisimov (Columbus Blue Jackets), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St. Petersburg, KHL), Denis Kokarev (Dynamo Moscow, KHL), Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Valery Nichushkin (Dallas Stars), Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), Alexander Popov (Avangard, KHL), Alex Radulov (CKA, KHL), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Alexei Tereschenko (SKA St. Petersburg, KHL), Viktor Tikhonov (SKA, KHL), Sergei Soin (Dynamo Moscow, KHL)
Outlook: The Russian roster is a good mix of NHL and KHL talent, and understandably so. Of all the European leagues from which to leverage international hockey experience, the Kontinental is head and shoulders above the rest. Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Radulov are still elite. And yet, the KHL favoritism may have gone too far. With a few exceptions, KHL players are not in the NHL for a reason. Bringing the best of them to Sochi is a fine strategy if you don’t first omit Alexander Semin and Nail Yakupov from your team. And of the KHL guys who have NHL-caliber talent, Alexander Burmistrov and Evegeny Kuznetsov are notably missing.
Russia’s Achilles heel will be its defensemen. The team’s forwards can run and gun with the best of them, but its back end doesn’t look primed to handle the depth of Canada, Sweden, and the United States. I don’t know if mobility concerns are what caused the Russians to tap the Oilers’ Anton Belov, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the host country’s team ends up longing for the likes of Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volechnkov after a few games.
Underrated pick: Valeri Nichushkin. Fans seem obsessed with this one because of Nichushkin’s lack of a professional track record. The Stars rookie has been an absolute force this season, though, with 22 points and — most impressively — comparable possession numbers to Canadian Olympian Jamie Benn. Someone deserved to get bumped from this squad in favor of Semin, but it definitely wasn’t Nichushkin.
Talent pool: A
Team grade: A-
Goaltenders: Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers), Jhonas Enroth (Buffalo Sabres), Jonas Gustavsson (Detroit Red Wings)
Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix Coyotes), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks), Henrik Tallinder (Buffalo Sabres), Alex Edler (Vancouver Canucks), Johnny Oduya (Chicago Blackhawks), Jonathan Ericsson (Detroit Red Wings), Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators)
Forwards: Daniel Alfredsson (Detroit Red Wings), Patrik Berglund (St. Louis Blues), Marcus Krüger (Chicago Blackhawks), Jakob Silfverberg (Anaheim Ducks), Nicklas Bäckström (Washington Capitals), Alex Steen (St. Louis Blues), Loui Eriksson (Boston Bruins), Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), Jimmie Ericsson (Skelleftea AIK, Swedish league) Carl Hagelin (New York Rangers), Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Johan Franzen (Detroit Red Wings)
Outlook: By any measure Victor Hedman should have made this team. Regular stats? He’s among the NHL’s top 20 defenders in scoring (23 points in 37 games). Fancy stats? They speak well of him, too. He’s young, he’s athletic, and his omission is odd.
In spite of making perhaps the worst snub, non-Czech division, Team Sweden may represent the biggest threat to coach Mike Babcock’s Canadians. The Swedes have the depth that is missing from Team Russia and the high-end skill that the U.S. lacks. Playing on the big ice may be all the edge the Swedes need, even if they sacrificed some defense by shunning a youth movement in the form of Hedman and the Wild’s Jonas Brodin.
Underrated pick: Marcus Krüger. He may not put up big numbers, buried as he is on the Blackhawks depth chart, but with the most defensive zone shifts of any center in the NHL and a top-10 face-off percentage, he’s an indispensable weapon for protecting late leads.