Sochi 2014 Olympic Hockey Preview

Canada defended their home ice in 2010 with a thrilling gold medal performance.

As the eyes of the world shift to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, many viewers will undoubtedly be flipping their channels to find one of the Winter Olympics’ marquee events. The winter version of the Olympic Games bring back memories of speed skating, the luge, curling and that one event where people ski, stop and shoot at targets and ski again. One of the fastest, most beautiful and more importantly, understandable events of the winter games is hockey. For many North American viewers in particular, hockey brings a high level of star power, familiarity and most importantly, an understanding of what’s happening on TV. The beauty of the NHL compared to say, the NBA, is that many of the world’s biggest stars are not American. There’s a little equity in distributing the game’s best players. Of course, Canada is the home of hockey and brings to Sochi a formidable team that is gunning for nothing short of a gold medal. The Russians will defend their home ice with one of the most explosive front lines in the history of Olympic hockey and Team USA returns many of its heroes from the valiant 2010 roster, including the team’s heroic keeper, Ryan Miller. Who is packing their skates for Sochi and how will the countries fare? It’s time to take a look at the tournament’s rosters and take a guess at who will be standing on the podium this winter:

Sidney Crosby can likely lead Canada to a repeat gold medal performance.

Gold Medal Winner: Canada

It’s a toss up between Canada and Russia in determining who boasts more superstars per line. Canada may get the edge on the ice due to their experience and the fact that they are the defending gold medalists. In dissecting Canada’s roster, there’s no shortage of all-world talent, starting with the poster boy of Canadian hockey and perhaps the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. Crosby is talented enough on his own to boost a mediocre team into medal contention, but it’s downright scary to think he’s joined by Jonathan ToewsRyan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron. Canada has more talent at center than many of the world’s teams have on their entire roster. On defense, gone are hall of famers Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, back from 2010 are NHL all-stars Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty. Where is Canada vulnerable? International hockey’s rules take out much of the physical presence needed to win in the NHL, making speed at the wings much more important than size or strength. It’s hard to say players like Rick Nash or Patrick Sharp are any sort of “weakness”, but other squads may have wingers more suited for the faster, more wide open play of the Olympic games. Perhaps the most pressing issue for the Canadians is in goal. Roberto Luongo is Canada’s biggest question mark, he’s backed up by Mike Smith and Carey Price, an adequate, but not stellar netminding crew. Canada is weakest between the pipes and goaltending is a significant strength for other teams in the field, such as the United States, which rode a hot goalie to a near upset of the Canadians in 2010. There’s enough firepower and a stout enough defense to make up for it, but an outstanding performance by a goalie or a virtually open net can be the difference between a gold and silver medal. All in all, Canada can still win a gold medal thanks to a strong middle, very good wingers and one of the most experienced defensive lines in Sochi with serviceable goaltending. Anything less than a gold medal should be a mild disappointment for Canada, with missing out on a medal being unacceptable. In group play, the biggest threat to Canada will be a rather solid Finland team, but avoiding Sweden, Russia or the United States in the first round all but ensures a stroll to the medal round.

Ice Hockey - Sweden v Czech Republic
Henrik Sedin is one of Sweden’s many weapons.

Silver Medal: Sweden

IIHF World Ice Hockey champions in 2013, Sweden is the team best built to dethrone the Canadians and win the gold medal. Sweden boasts not only the elite talent of Canada, but the depth, particularly on defense, that Russia and the United States lack. In fact, Sweden may be the best defensive team in the entire tournament. Led by Erik Karlsson, the Swedish defense is filled with NHL talent and has virtually no holes. Other players on defense for the Swedes include Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya and Jonathan Ericsson. Behind the stellar defensmen is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. This combination of strong defense and goaltending could be enough to win a gold medal by itself, but the team isn’t any weaker on offense. Leading the Swedish attack are names like  Henrik Sedin (Editor’s note: Sedin was scratched from the team after publication), Niklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson. The roster is as talented and deep as Canada at every position, and likely stronger in the net. Also in Sweden’s favor? The Swedes have a relatively easy group stage, with an under-powered Switzerland posing the greatest threat for an upset. Sweden plays a style conducive to international hockey’s bigger rink, with a fair amount of high level players playing on ice outside of the NHL. In the end, the Canadians will get the nod for being the returning gold medal winners, but Sweden’s roster is incredibly strong. The team might not have a singular player as good as Sidney Crosby, but their forwards are not much worse, if at all, than Canada and likely have a better defensive unit as a whole, including in goal.

The eyes of an entire nation will undoubtedly be on Ovechkin in hopes of bringing home a gold medal.

Bronze Medal (toss up): Russia

The difference in determining medal positions outside of Canada and Sweden is incredibly difficult. Russia, the United States and Slovakia all have a realistic shot at finishing in the third position, Russia with an outside shot at the gold medal if things fall their way. As was the case for Canada in 2010, being the host nation is undoubtedly a source for much inspiration, but it will also bring considerable pressure. Russia is built ideally for the international game, with plenty of speed and firepower, but serious questions on defense. Russia’s offensive lineup is outstanding, all discussions beginning with Alex Ovechkin, one of the best scorers in the world and the face of Russian hockey. It’s perhaps what’s around Ovechkin that makes the Russian offense so potent, with names like Ilya KovalchukEvgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk all capable of taking over a game at any given time and among the world’s elite at their position. Each line of Russia’s forwards could likely make the roster of every other country playing in Sochi, it’s that impressive. As strong as the Russian forwards are, the team’s defensemen could prove themselves unable to handle the depth of the Canadians, Swedes and Americans. It could be this lack of depth that keeps Russia out of the podium in lieu of a team like the United States, Finland or Slovakia. NHL stars Andrei Markov, Fedor Tyutin and Alexei Emelin are formidable players to assist the team’s goaltenders such as Sergei Bobrovsky, but Russia’s dependence on KHL talent may have put them a step or two behind the Swedes and Canucks in favor of nationalism. Russia has enough talent to win a gold medal, but the glaring holes on defense and a less than thrilling group of goaltenders may leave them with a silver, or, more likely, playing for a bronze. Keep in mind, for as many NHL stars that Russia regularly produces, the nation hasn’t medaled since 2002 (bronze). Russia also shares a group with USA and Slovakia, a far more difficult first stage than Canada or Sweden.

Patrick Kane could take the next step into superstardom in the 2014 Sochi games.

Bronze Medal (toss up): United States

There is a strong chance the United States medals in 2014, but if the Americans miss the podium, it’s not necessarily an indictment on the excellent team they are bringing to Sochi. Most of the players who helped Team USA win a silver medal in epic fashion in 2010 return for this year’s Olympics, including the best American hockey player in the world, Patrick Kane. The Americans boast strong wingers such as Zach Parise and  criminally underrated goal scorer Blake Wheeler, both of which embody the “two-way” mentality American forwards must embrace if they want to neutralize more talented offenses this February.  Vancouver hero Ryan Miller returns in goal with Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick rounding out the impressive unit of American goaltenders which is among the best in the tourney. The Americans also have one of the world’s most durable defensemen in Ryan Suter (and Ryan McDonagh), but there was some head scratching at the choice of Brooks Orpik to round out the defense, in lieu of giving a roster spot to formidable scorer Bobby Ryan or perhaps a more durable defender in Dustin Byfuglien. If Canada and Sweden grade out at an “A”, the United States would be a very good “B+” team, with the potential for breakout stars like Patrick Kane or goaltenders like Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick to lead the Americans to the podium, over more talented teams ahead of them. Still, while the American squad is filled with great players, they lack a true, dominating superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, or a single unit as strong as Sweden’s defense. The good news is the mixture of high level NHL talent, great goaltending and experience may make the whole of this team greater than the sum of its parts. Team USA played inspired hockey in 2010 and many of those players return, most having grown and matured into much better players than four years ago. Perhaps the Americans are at the biggest disadvantage when adapting to international play, which may cause them to stumble against lesser competition, something that cannot happen if the United States has their eye on a medal. It doesn’t help the Americans that they are grouped with host nation Russia, who will have a likely incredible home-ice-advantage against the USA. Slovakia also poses a serious threat as a stumbling block to both teams, but Russia will be more at home, literally and figuratively on the international rink. It will take Team USA’s best effort to advance, much less win, their group. How Team USA handles the group stage will say a lot about this year’s squad and the core of Team USA hockey moving forward.

Teemu Selanne is among the stars rounding out the rest of this year’s field.

The rest of the field:

Czech Republic – The Czechs are synonymous with hall of famer Jaromir Jagr, who has found a way to still play professionally at a high level at age 41. While there’s not a strong chance the country medals this year, the Czechs rarely fall out of relevancy. In the net is NHL goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. The rest of the roster is a mixture of NHL and international league talent, including former Maple Leaf Tomas Kaberle. The Czech Republic is a respectable team, but like much of the field, may have had to dip into foreign leagues too much to contend with the arsenal of NHL heavy squads. Czech also shares its group with Sweden, a gold medal hopeful and a tricky Swiss team. Czech kicks off Sochi’s hockey tournament against Sweden in a match-up that will likely say a lot about both squads.

Switzerland – The Swiss are not a favorite to medal in 2014, but like Czech, have enough talent to give one of the field’s better teams a run for their money and play the role of spoiler. Switzerland has a very good defensive lineup, with NHL talent such as Raphael Diaz, Roman Josi and goaltender Jonas Hiller. Their defensive prowess could be enough to overcome their lack of scoring ability up front. In the faster, less physical international game, the lack of offense on Switzerland may be what keeps them a step or two back from the top tier of teams this year, particularly Sweden, who Switzerland will see in group play. Being the runner-up for their group would be an outstanding finish for the Swiss.

Finland – Finland brings a rather impressive group of professional talent to this year’s tournament, of course led by Finnish icon Teemu Selanne. Other big names on the Finland team include Kimmo Timmonen anchoring the defense along with Olli Jokinen. One of the team’s most important players, Mikko Koivu, is still up in the air as he is returning from an ankle surgery and if active, will have to go into the games without much practice or preparation. Players such as Selanne are likely nearing the end of their Olympic careers. There’s a decent mixture of youth and veteran leadership on the Finnish team, so if there is a small chance to medal, 2014 might be their best chance before starting over. Finland should have no excuse for finishing any lower than runner-up to Canada in the group stage and could score a monumental upset over the Canadians early in the tournament, especially since it is scheduled to be the last game of the first round.

Slovakia – Slovakia finished fourth in Vancouver and along with Finland, poses the biggest threat to odds-on favorites this year. Slovakia is led by a true superstar in Marian Hossa, a player crafty enough to push the Slovaks over the edge against a more formidable opponent on paper. On defense, Slovakia has NHL star Jaroslav Halak in goal and all-star defenseman Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line. The biggest detriment to this team is a pair of key injuries to Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky who will have to be replaced before February 12th. With their addition, Slovakia would be a potential darkhorse for a medal, but they could come up just short with another fourth place finish in 2014. There will likely be a lot of emotions on the Slovakian team, who is without former NHL star Pavol Demitra, the star of the nation’s 2010 team, who tragically died in a plane crash in 2011. Unfortunately, Slovakia will be grouped with both the United States and Russia, making advancing to the next round very difficult, but not impossible.