In 2014, all eyes of the hockey world will be on Sochi, Russia as 12 nations battle it out for gold. A huge lingering question was answered during the summer, and NHL players WILL be allowed to participate, sending each nation into a speculative frenzy to pick the men who will represent their respective countries. The rosters have not been solidified yet, and many players in NHL-saturated nations (USA, Canada) are taking this NHL season as a chance to fight for a spot on the national team. Young guys like Seth Jones are playing their hearts out in hopes that they’ll get one of the coveted 25 spots on Team USA. So, let’s take a quick look at the three brackets and make some predictions, shall we?
“Do you believe in miracles?!” The greatest hockey rivalry in the last 40 years manifests itself again as the USA and Russia are paired off in Group A. Slovenia and Slovakia round out the other two, making Group A a pretty tough bracket. Let’s start with what we know: Team USA looks tough. USA Hockey has been growing by leaps and bounds every year, and their development program is paying off. The recent crop of prospects is rivaling even the great Canadian tradition of hockey development. Goalie John Gibson and Defenseman Seth Jones, both 18, could have a chance to make the club, and have been invited to tryouts. The US has skill and a lot of grit, with soft hands from guys like Patrick Kane, and grinders who can muck it in the corners like David Backes. Their main disadvantage will be the large Olympic ice, which will benefit fast teams like Sweden, but not physical teams like the US. Goaltending looks legit, with powerhouses Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick poised to be the starters. A solid set of D pairings filled with great puck-moving defensemen will not only prevent chances for opposing teams, but jumpstart the offense. USA has every reason to believe it can take this Group. Why?
Because Russia’s roster isn’t that scary. Obviously they have the superstars in Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuck, but this team doesn’t drive fear into your heart like many Russia teams of the late 90s. Specifically the goaltending, which leaves a lot to be desired. The glory days of Vladislav Tretiak are over, and there is not a “superstar” goaltender in the stable right now. The list only boasts three NHL netminders, one of them being the aging Evgeni Nabokov, and the others are the struggling Sergei Bobrovsky and surprisingly stellar Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov has recently run into some trouble off the ice, but his game remains strong. Will his legal troubles affect his Olympic hopes?
Helping keep the puck out of the net is Russia’s defensive core, made up largely of KHL players. Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov are the most notable NHL players on the list, and neither of them are at the top of their game. This could be Russia’s weakness during 2014, and it may cost them big, because they’re going to have to outscore every opponent big time with this liability on the back end.
To balance that deficit, Russia has an outstanding group of forwards. Besides the aforementioned players, Alex Semin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Artem Anisimov are some vicious snipers when you give them room to operate. Ovechkin and Semin have played together in Washington for years, and Malkin tends to step it up when national pride is on the line, but will this offense be enough to counter the aging defense and shaky goaltending? Russia may be very disappointed in front of their home crowd this year.
The Slovak team is finally eclipsing their former Czech Republic brethren who won gold in 1998, and have been mighty in international play. The Slovaks are yet to medal in Olympic play since their independence in 1993, but this potential squad shows some promise. St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak is the favorite to start, with Peter Budaj backing him up. Halak has been impressive in the NHL this year, and is always able to step it up in important games. Other notable NHL’ers are towering defenseman Zdeno Chara, who will be leaned on heavily to support the defense, forward Marion Gaborik, and two-time Stanley Cup winner Marion Hossa.
Other than Chara, there are few shining stars on defense. Lubomir Visnovsky and Andrej Meszaros show some promise, but the other defensemen would have a hard time taking a spot on teams like Canada or USA. Slovakia has relied in the past on how well they tend to play as a team, and they will need that again this time, as the individual talent isn’t up to the caliber of many others in their group. Teams like Slovakia can’t be counted out, and could provide some big upsets.
Slovenia is making its first Olympic appearance ever, after qualifying in Denmark this summer, surprising everyone by not only winning all three of their games, but dominating them. They did it all without the one Slovenian NHL player you’ve likely heard of; LA Kings forward Anze Kopitar. Kopitar is a national hero in his homeland after bringing the Cup home as part of the 2012 Kings team. He will rejoin his countrymen as they look to play spoiler to the big names in Group A. There isn’t much to say about this feisty team, other than the fact that no one should over-look them on the schedule. Slovenia is coming to play, and could make some Olympic waves.
Stay tuned as we make predictions for Group B and Group C!
Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. When he’s not watching hockey he’s doing research for Maxwell Systems or spending time outside with his family. He’s also co-creator and admin of the hockey group Soft Dump. Scott will posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington