By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
Whenever that point comes, we’ll be able to watch the best hockey players in the world competing for gold medals on an unusually large (by North American standards) sheet of ice. Team-by-team, here’s how the entrants stack up:
The Possible Gold Medalists
2010 finish: Gold
2014 prediction: Bronze medal
Pool grouping: B (Canada, Finland, Norway, Austria)
Other than in goal, Canada enters the 2014 Olympics as the strongest team in the world. Up front the defending Gold Medalists feature a dynamic blend of skill and toughness, highlighted by the best player in the world, captain Sidney Crosby. Sid the Kid will be joined by his regular wingman Chris Kunitz, Anaheim’s duel threat of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Chicago sparkplugs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, and two-way demons Patrice Bergeron and Rick Nash.
On defense, Canada lacks the leadership it featured in prior years, but it’s hard to deny the abilities of Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo and PK Subban, all capable of taking over games. The only issue here is the sheer depth of available talent for coach Mike Babcock, who will have some tough lineup choices.
The obvious question mark for Canada and Babcock is deciding which goalie gets top billing. Gone are the likes of legends Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, while 2010’s hero Roberto Luongo is now 34 and moving past his prime. The Red and White hopes for repeat might rely on whether newcomer Carey Price can live up to his lofty potential in Sochi.
2010 finish: Fifth
2014 prediction: Gold medal
Pool grouping: C (Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia)
Thanks to Canada’s poor track record in Olympics not played in North America, the 2006 gold medalist Sweden heads to Russia as the favorite to win the gold again. Russia, Canada and the United States will get the most publicity as the likely medalists, but it’s easy to argue that Sweden is the most balanced team in the world.
Offensively the blue and gold pack all sorts of punch in forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Steen, and down a long list combining skill, speed and toughness. Even without longtime stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, the Swedes’ blueline will be stacked with shutdown defenders in Nicklas Kronwall and Niklas Hjalmarsson, plus two-way threats like Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Like most of the contenders, Sweden will only go as far as its goaltending will allow. King Henrik Lundqvist has yet to be his normal dominant self this season, but he is the best goalie in the world when on his game — and he probably will be in Sochi.
3. United States
2010 finish: Silver
2014 prediction: Silver medal
Pool grouping: A (United States, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia)
Though the United States will arrive in Russia with slightly less firepower than their counterparts up north, the U.S. (along with Finland) should feature the best goaltending at the Winter Olympics. Determined Jonathan Quick is as good a big-game goalie as there is in the world, while Ryan Miller was clear-cut the tournament MVP in 2010. In case something happens to either of them, Jimmy Howard isn’t a bad third option.
Offensively, the Americans are surprisingly dangerous, considering its scoring threats like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise and Joe Pavelski. Perhaps more importantly, Team USA can drive puck-handlers crazy with shutdown two-way stars like Ryan Kesler, David Backes and Dustin Brown — all tenacious checkers.
On the blueline, the red, white and blue features one of the NHL’s best in Ryan Suter, plus some young explosive transition defenders like Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk. On paper this is the United States’ best team ever and certainly its biggest threat since Lake Placid to win a gold medal.
2010 finish: Sixth
2014 prediction: Fourth
Pool grouping: A (Russia, Slovakia, United States, Slovenia)
It’s been a long time since Russia has mattered in the final outcome of the Olympic hockey tournament — far too long for the natives, including president Vladimir Putin — and the Russians are still reeling over the 7-3 throttling they received at the hands of Canada in 2010.
Offensively, no team features more firepower of the Russians. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk are arguably the four most talented players in the world not named Crosby. Behind them, the Russians have a pair of emerging elite goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov that have been coming into their own in the NHL the past few years.
But Russia proves weak in defense and team chemistry. The hosts will not feature a single bona fide, number-one defender, and only one solid number two in the aging Andrei Markov. Fedor Tyutin and Slava Voynov are both quality players. After those three, the talent level drops off fast. Meanwhile the Russian roster is a half-and-half blend of KHL and NHL talent that might not jell in time for the medal round. Despite featuring the tournament’s best offense, I expect the “other” Red, White and Blue to disappoint again.
2010 finish: Bronze
2014 prediction: Fifth
Pool grouping: B (Finland, Canada, Norway, Austria)
Never considered flashy in previous years, Team Finland’s 2014 edition has the potential to beat any team in the tournament defensively and offensively. In goal, only the Americans can rival Finland’s depth or skill, with three great options in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. The nation’s best goalie, Pekka Rinne, didn’t even make the roster due to injury troubles.
Up front, ageless wonder Teemu Selanne provides impeccable leadership, while the team’s scoring threats include Mikko Koivu, Jussi and Olli Jokinen, and the underrated Valtteri Filppula.
Finland’s one vulnerable spot is its defense. Talented veterans Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen are past their primes, while promising youngsters Sami Vatanen and Olli Maatta are a bit raw. Because of its superb goaltending, Finland will be in every game and big threat to medal again in Sochi.
2010 finish: Fourth
2014 prediction: Seventh
Pool grouping: A (Slovakia, Russia, United States, Slovenia)
Slovakia just out missed on having a huge Olympics in 2010, when it knocked out defending champion Sweden during the medal round and pushed Canada to the brink before falling in the semifinals. The Slovaks will again be anchored by stalwart defenseman Zdeno Chara and superstar forward Marian Hossa, and the two veterans will play alongside a solid core of talent.
Up front, lesser-known names like Tomas Tatar, Marcel Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and often-injured Marian Gaborik represent underrated offensive talent. On defense, Andrej Meszaros, Andrej Sekera, and Lubomir Visnovsky are all capable of big efforts in a short tournament.
Slovakia’s most underrated asset is goaltending. In Jaroslav Halak, Slovakia has a netminder it can ride into a medal position for the first time.
7. Czech Republic
2010 finish: Seventh
2014 medal prediction: Eighth
Pool grouping: C (Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Latvia)
Despite its impressive talent pool, something seems off among the aging Czechs going to the Olympics. Three of the top forwards are Petr Nedved (42), Jaromir Jagr (turning 42 during the Games) and Patrik Elias (37). Three of the nation’s best talents — Jiri Hudler, Tomas Fleischmann and Radim Vrbata — were all left off the squad. It’s still a strong group, featuring skilled players in their prime like David Krejci, Tomas Plekanec, Milan Michalek and Martin Hanzal.
Roman Polak, Jan Hejda and Jakub Kindl — three quality NHL blueliners — were also left off the roster. In their place are some good options like Marek Zidlicky, Michal Rozsival and Zbynek Michalek, but this will not be the Czech’s strength.
Neither will goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec and KHL goalie Alexander Salak will be vying for the starts. Both fail to inspire the confidence the Czech Republic has enjoyed in previous Olympic tournaments.
2010 finish: Eighth
2014 prediction: Sixth
Pool grouping: C (Switzerland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Latvia)
Switzerland has been emerging on the world stage the past few years, but failed to take its rightful place among the elite following a silver-medal finish at the 2013 World Championships. Though Switzerland will hardly scare anyone offensively beyond maybe Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter, the Alpine nation has an ultimate trump card: Jonas Hiller, who ranks among the NHL’s best goaltenders this season. He’s having a career year in Anaheim.
Hiller will get plenty of help from a blueline that’s considered a notch below the world’s elite. Captain Mark Streit leads the way, along with skilled youngsters Roman Josi, Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz.
I fully expect this to be the year that Switzerland asserts itself at the Winter Olympics and takes its place among the world’s best. That might require a big performance from Hiller and a lot of low-scoring, tight wins.
The rest of the world
2010 finish: 12th
2014 prediction: Ninth
Pool grouping: C (Latvia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland)
The Latvians are always an underrated hockey nation who could prosper this year behind Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan. Much of the roster competes in the KHL and can skate well, meaning they will give any opponent a good test. A couple of names to keep an eye on for Latvia, whose best Olympic finish was ninth in 2002: 41-year-old defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who played 16 years and 875 games in the NHL, and forward Kaspars Daugavins. Daugavins recently played for the Boston Bruins dressed for five Stanley Cup finals contests during the 2013 playoffs. Meanwhile, the young Zemgus Girgensons is a player to watch in the future with the Buffalo Sabres. All Latvia has to do now is get a big win over the world’s elite. With a strong contingent of fans in Sochi, this might be the year they do it.
2010 finish: N/A
2014 prediction: 11th
Pool grouping: B (Austria, Finland, Canada, Norway)
Like its Alpine neighbor Switzerland, Austria represents an improving country on the world hockey stage. One of the NHL’s most dangerous players, Thomas Vanek, will lead this club offensively, joined by perhaps the league’s fastest player in Michael Grabner. Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl is lesser known but should be effective in Sochi. Austria could surprise with a decent showing in Sochi.
2010 finish: 10th
2014 prediction: 10th
Pool grouping: B (Norway, Finland, Canada, Austria)
Not much was expected of Norway in the 2010 Olympics, considering it failed to qualify for the games between 1998 and 2006. Then the Norwegians lost in overtime to heavily favored Switzerland before nearly upsetting Slovakia — the game was tied 3-3 heading into the third period. The big names to watch are the pint-sized New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, the talented Patrick Thoresen and defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.
2010 finish: N/A
2014 prediction: 12th
Pool grouping: A (Slovenia, Russia, Slovakia, United States)
The least known squad going to Russia, Slovenia is rarely thought of as a hockey playing nation. Yet this first-time Olympic participant features one of the NHL’s top talents in forward Anze Kopitar, whose father Matjaz will be coaching the squad. Former Detroit Red Wings forward Jan Mursak is another strong player. Considering the diverse backgrounds of the Slovenian players, just competing in Sochi will be a huge accomplishment.