(All statistics through Saturday, February 8)
The much-anticipated Olympic Hockey tournament begins on Wednesday, here's a look at the blue lines of teams expected to contend for a medal.
Olympic Blue Lines
On paper, and the ice, the Canadians have the deepest blue line. Their right side alone would cost most poolies several top 10 draft picks to acquire in Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo. The player at the bottom of the right-sided depth chart? None other than current Norris Trophy holder P.K. Subban. How much P.K. plays in Sochi will be the subject of much discussion amongst the hockey cognoscenti, as every stride he takes will be analyzed closer than the Zapruder film. The left side of the Canadians' defense isn't bad either: Duncan Keith, Dan Hamhuis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jay Bouwmeester.
Last year, while he was buried on Calgary, it's unclear if Bouwmeester would have made the roster for Sochi. A deadline day trade to St. Louis has allowed him to have his best NHL season, at least statistically, since he was in Florida. Bouwmeester is expected to be paired with Pietrangelo, the player with whom he skates in St. Louis.
This squad can produce on the power play, move the puck out of its zone and skate well on the big ice. With an extra 7.5 feet of ice on either side of the international rink, this blue line corps will be counted upon to use their ability to push opponents to the outside. They are well-balanced in terms of left and right-handed players and have players that are excellent blend of skating and positioning with the skills to support their forwards offensively.
Despite the special skill set that Subban possesses, it's going to be difficult for him to get on the ice. While he is one of the league's leading scorers on the blue line, Pietrangelo isn't far behind and Weber is tied with Erik Karlsson for the defensemen in goals. The run up to Sochi could not have been worse, statistically, for Subban as he has a modest five points in 17 games after slamming home four on January 2.
Power play production will be at a premium in this tournament and the Canadians are well-equipped with players who can fire from the point, even without Subban.
Several weeks ago, I believed it was folly to exclude Subban from the team; however, he can take risks on the ice that leave the team vulnerable. He's still a world-class talent, but you get the idea that the team's coaching staff isn't ready to trust him entirely.
As for injuries befalling the team, Hamhuis had missed two games with an undisclosed injury before returning Saturday for Vancouver's loss to Toronto. There are few holes in this group, but the pressure on this group of 23 players to win gold is extraordinary.
Keith, Weber and Pietrangelo appear to the best bets in Olympic pools, as reports are emerging that the Canadians may use four forwards on the power play.
The Swedes won goal in 2006, the last time the Winter Olympics were held outside of North America and their blue line, while strong, isn't the thing that their opponents need to fear: goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been playing outstanding hockey the last month, keeping the Rangers ahead of several squads in a bid for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. A hot goalie can cover up a quite a bit, but the King will have plenty of support in front of him.
Despite leaving Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman off the roster, the Swedes boast a top four that is comparable to Canada's with Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Alexander Edler and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This group is more than capable of contributing at both ends of the ice. Karlsson continues to be an outlier among the league's elite scoring defensemen, holding a seven-point lead over Duncan Keith with 15 goals and 40 helpers, albeit a minus-14. Karlsson's ability to skate the puck out of his zone and join the rush will be a major factor for this Swedish team.
Edler and Ekman-Larsson are excellent support players on the power play and they should figure much into whatever power-play success the Swedes will have. After its top four, Sweden is not nearly as strong offensively, but sport several solid defensive minded players in Johnny Oduya (an excellent skater) and his Chicago teammate, Nicklas Hjalmarsson with Buffalo veteran Henrik Tallinder rounding out the group, for some reason.
Best bets for Olympic pools: Karlsson by far, Ekman-Larsson, Edler and Kronwall.
Much has been made of the fact that two of the NHL's highest scoring defensemen, Dustin Byfuglien (3rd) and Keith Yandle (7th) are not on the roster for the Red, White and Blue. Byfgulien has been used at forward since Paul Maurice's arrival in Winnipeg, but doesn't offer the all-around defensive game the team needs on the international ice. Yandle's exclusion was a bit more surprising simply because of his skating ability and playmaking skills, as noted in Scott Burnside's much-discussed piece on how the US squad was selected.
Minnesota's Ryan Suter is leading all NHL skaters in average time on ice at 29:49 per-game, more than two minutes ahead of Karlsson's 27:41. Suter will likely be relied upon to play an even larger role for the United States as he is one of the few players with Olympic experience on the roster. Defensive-minded Brooks Orpik is the only blue liner on the roster from the silver-medal squad in Vancouver and is expected to be paired with Pittsburgh teammate Paul Martin. Both of these players have dealt with injury in the months leading up to the tournament and are expected to see a good deal of ice time.
As for offensive production, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh will be relied upon to contribute much to the team's offense, especially on the power play. Washington's John Carlson has picked up his offensive production of late with a recent four-game points streak that saw him notch six points. Carlson will be expected to create some offense as well for a team with several talented scoring wingers in Zach Parise, Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane.
Rising stars Justin Faulk and Cam Fowler are enjoying the best seasons of their brief careers and bring a unique element of playmaking to the squad.
Overall, the United States is a bit short on experience save for a player like Suter, but the talent level is there with Shattenkirk and McDonagh, not to the level of Canada or Sweden's top four, but this group will be expected to limit shots and fire off accurate breakout passes.
Bets for offensive production: Suter (he'll be on the ice nearly the whole game), Shattenkirk, Carlson, McDonagh, Fowler.
The Finns might not need a defense with Antti Niemi, Tuukka Rask and Kari Lehtonen in goal, but there is a smattering of veterans and youth on the Finnish blue line. Pittsburgh's Olli Maatta has been a fixture on the team's blue line alongside Matt Niskanen this season and will be counted on to play heavy minutes with the likes of Philadelphia's ageless wonder, Kimmo Timonen. There are several players currently plying their craft in Europe such as former Phoenix Coyote Ossi Vaananen and the well-traveled Sami Lepisto.
Maatta and Timonen aren't the only pair at polar opposites of the age spectrum as Tampa Bay's Sami Salo and Sami Vatanen of Anaheim join the group. This group will need to be solid in front of the tournament's best goaltending trio, as even world beaters can't stop every shot they face.
Best bets for offensive production: Timonen, Maatta, Vatanen.
With the recent news that Islanders' veteran Lubomir Visnovsky will miss the tournament there aren't terribly many options for offensive production that will be known to North American fans. Slovakia's roster sports a handful of KHL players and former NHLers such as Marian Hossa's brother, Marcel.
On the blue line, Carolina's Andrej Sekera, one of this season's breakout performers, can be expected to dish the puck around to a talented, albeit top heavy group of forwards. Zdeno Chara, Slovakia's flagbearer for the opening ceremonies, should see more offensive chances than he has for Boston this season, as Chara's spot at the top of Boston's power play was passed on to goal-scoring rookie Torey Krug.
This defense will have a daunting task facing the United States and Russia in its preliminary group, but should have some of its holes covered by the Blues' Jaroslav Halak in net.
Best bets for offense: Sekera, Chara, Andrej Meszaros.
This is the first Russian squad since Nagano, when NHL players first competed, not to feature Sergei Gonchar. Admittedly Gonchar is a shell of the player he used to be, but his experience could have counted for something. The host nation's blue line features several second and third-pairing NHL players in Anton Belov, Alexei Emelin, Fedor Tyutin with Montreal's Andrei Markov and the Kings' Slava Voynov expected to carry the offensive load.
Markov will see many minutes, likely alongside teammate Alexei Emelin, one of the hardest hitters in the tournament. Voynov should see scoring chances along with the Columbus duo of Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, both of whom can be quietly productive offensive players.
While Canada has enormous expectations on them, the Russians carry an even greater weight into the tournament. The host nation is going to have to win gold or die trying. Behind this solid, not spectacular, blend, of NHL talent is a pair of goaltenders more than capable of stealing a few games. Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov have their NHL teams ticketed for the playoffs and can cement a reputation as national heroes if one of them is to deliver gold if their blue line can contain some rather solid teams.
Best bets: Markov, Voynov, Nikitin, Tyutin
Hockey fans will have a bit of nostalgia when the Czechs take the ice seeing former Maple Leaf, Bruin and Hurricane Tomas Kaberle. Once one of the safest players on draft boards for a 40-plus point season, Kaberle returns alongside another familiar name, Petr Nedved. The Czech roster features several former NHL players as well as some strong current ones. It's a blend of veteran experience and young talent.
On the blue line, New Jersey's enigmatic Marek Zidlicky is the team's top bet for points with Kaberle coming in after him. The Czechs do boast a steady group of defensive-minded players in Michal Rozsival, Radko Gudas and Zbynek Michalek.
While defensive corps like Finland, Slovakia and Russia have the good fortune of playing in front of elite goaltending, this Czech squad is relying on Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec, one of the league's more inconsistent netminders.
Best bets: Zidlicky, Kaberle
The best of the rest:
Switzerland: Mark Streit, Roman Josi and Raphael Diaz make up the more offensive-minded NHL blue liners for the Swiss team with Vancouver's Yannick Weber giving the team a serviceable top four. The Swiss have the good fortune of relying upon Anaheim's Jonas Hiller in goal.
Best bets: Streit, Diaz, Josi.
While Latvia is not expected to contend for a medal, fans will get a flood of 1990's memories seeing Sandis Ozolinsh on the ice. The former NHL player, with Chara, was the only other men's hockey player to carry his country's flag into the opening ceremonies. In a career spanning 15 seasons, Ozolinsh was an original member of the San Jose Sharks, won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996 and also played for the Rangers, Anaheim, Carolina and Florida before retiring in 2008, playing on the Ducks' 2003 squad, which lost in the Stanley Cup Final.
Question of the week: Who will be the breakout performer in Sochi on the blue line?
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