Today, From the Press Box:
We take a look at the rosters of the men's Olympic hockey teams and give our prediction for the medal winners.
Let's look at the groups and break down the squads.
Group A will immediately conjure up memories of 1980 when we note that the USA and Russia are paired up here, along with Slovakia and Slovenia. Of course, the incredible drama from the Lake Placid Games will not be repeated here, simply because the USA has been able to ice the top professional players, as do all other nations. Still that matchup will be much anticipated in the first round.
USA - This may be the most offensively skilled roster ever to represent the USA at the Olympics. They will be led by Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane, who have both been among the NHL's top ten scorers in each of the last two seasons. The difference with this team is that the offense won't rely on these two stars alone. Each forward on the roster has a strong scoring reputation. They have playmakers like Zach Parise and Joe Pavelski, to go along with more snipers like Max Pacioretty and James van Riemsdyk. If they want to play a little more physical brand of hockey David Backes and Dustin Brown will be in that mix.
Defensively, the talent is a little less formidable as, aside from Ryan Suter, they have only got second pairing defenders from NHL rosters to fill out this defense corps. That is not to say there isn't good quality there. Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, Cam Fowler and Paul Martin all have solid offensive skills. Brooks Orpik and Justin Faulk, who are more defensively responsible, will complement them.
In goal, they will be very well represented, as Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller will battle for playing time, ensuring quality goalkeeping here. Even though Miller is playing for the last place Buffalo Sabres, everyone remembers his stellar play in the last Olympics. I expect him to start this tournament.
Russia - Perhaps no Olympian will be under the spotlight more than Alex Ovechkin at these Games. I think he will respond to that pressure. He has been very vocal about these Games for a long time. Of course, the offensive load will be shared by a number of other NHLers including Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Semin. It is interesting to note that six other forwards, including Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov are playing in the KHL this season.
I am concerned about this defense, where Andrei Markov is the most well known player. He has slowed noticeably this season and may be exposed on the large ice surface. Still the Russians do have some quality back there as Slava Voynov and Fedor Tyutin can move the puck efficiently and are good defenders. Anton Belov and Alexei Emelin are both very defensive-minded and add little offensive prowess. They also sport minus rating in the NHL so far this season. KHLers Ilya Nikulin (24 points in 48 games) and Evgeny Medvedev (22 pts. in 46 games) are two big defensemen who will likely carry a big load for the Russians on defense.
Sergei Bobrovsky, the defending Vezina Trophy winner will be challenged by Semyon Varlamov for the goaltending responsibility here.
Slovakia - This roster includes 13 current NHL players. Offensively, they will be led by veteran Marian Hossa, who will be complemented by three young players - Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Richard Panik. Imposing Michal Handzus will likely draw the top checking line assignment as he does in the NHL. Tomas Kopecky is another big center, who may have a tough time navigating the larger ice surface. This group took a big hit when Marian Gaborik went down with an injury earlier this year.
On defense, everyone will be watching Zdeno Chara, but I think he may be challenged by the larger ice surface. Andrej Sekera and Andrej Meszaros are experienced and skilled on both sides of the puck, in anchoring this defense with their large captain. They would be even more imposing if veteran Lubomir Visnovsky was not also sidelined by injury.
Jaroslav Halak will need to be heroic to keep this team competitive in Group A. Peter Budaj, a backup in Montreal, will be the emergency replacement here, too.
Slovenia - The talent of Anze Kopitar is very well known to NHL fans, but the rest of this roster is a mystery. Jan Mursak, a right winger, is their only other roster player with any NHL experience (four points in 46 games).
The best bet for this unknown offensive group will be to play a defensive, close-checking game.
Three Slovenia defensemen are smallish in size (Podlipnik, Robar and Pretnar) and that should pose a matchup problem for these underdogs.
One of their goalies, Luca Gracnar, will get plenty of time in the middle of a lot of action - very likely, more action than he would like.
After not qualifying for this tournament in 2010, Slovenia has already overachieved in just getting back into the Olympic hockey tournament.
It will be a major shocker if the USA and Russia do not finish 1-2 in this group and I believe it will be in that order.
Canada enters these Games as the defending champs and the goal will be gold medal or bust, as always. Finland has improved steadily, in terms of depth and quality, particularly in goal. They cannot be overlooked. Norway is that pesky team that seems capable of the monumental upset and also cannot be taken lightly, while new qualifier Austria ("Happy to be here team #2") looks to be over their heads in this, or any other, group.
Canada - In recent Games, Canada's roster has been shaped by a concern for checking and defending, as well as offense. This particularly entry is blessed and focused on overwhelming team speed and offensive skill. Led by Sidney Crosby, the top offensive talents fill out four forward units like never before. Consider that front liners Jonathan Toews, John Tavares and Ryan Getzlaf will be the centers on the other lines. They have arranged the top three units in such a way that a couple of players are familiar with one another. It will be Crosby with Chris Kunitz, Toews and Patrick Sharp, Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Finishers like Jeff Carter, Rick Nash and Patrick Marleau will also be featured. No team can boast reserve options like Patrice Bergeron, Matt Duchene or Jamie Benn.
Canada's defense is similarly loaded. Duncan Keith will be paired with Shea Weber on the most talented pairing in these Games. The familiarity of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester makes great sense on a second unit. That leaves the diverse talents of Drew Doughty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Dan Hamhuis. Oh yeah, last year's NHL scoring leader (Marty St Louis) and the James Norris Trophy winner (P.K. Subban) both of whom are scheduled to be depth players here.
The goaltending question has been debated for weeks all over Canada. It will be defending goal medalist Roberto Luongo or Carey Price, with Mike Smith in reserve. Somehow this is considered the weak spot of this team. Trust me, these guys are all very capable and behind the rest of this roster, they won't have to be great.
Finland - With 14 players on NHL rosters there is a real familiarity in terms of this team's skill set. They should not surprise teams like they have in past Games.
Unfortunately, names like Olli and Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and a 43-year old Teemu Selanne should not strike fear into contending teams. Young Aleksander Barkov may soon become the most prolific Finn in the NHL but he's still a teenager. Leo Komarov may be fun to watch if he is still driving opponents nuts with the relentless play he displayed while with the Maple Leafs last year. This offense would be more imposing if injured players Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula were in the mix.
Similarly, a defense core built around 39-year old Sami Salo and 38-year old Kimmo Timmonen is not very intimidating. Olli Maatta, 19 years of age, figures to be a future star and he will gain valuable experience here.
The strength of this team is in goal. They will start with Tuukka Rask, with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi in reserve. It's too bad for Finland that they can only play one of them at a time.
Norway - If Olympic experience counts for something, 14 returning players should have this team prepared for this tournament.
Mats Zuccarello is the most well-known and gifted player and is the middle of a breakout season with the N Y Rangers (43 points in 58 games). Patrick Thoresen (24 points in 106 games) is the only other forward with NHL experience.
On the blue line, Ole Kristian Tollefsen is the only experienced NHL defender (12 points in 163 career games). The thin blueline corps, which had to call upon Henrik Odegaard from Missouri of the Central Hockey League, is the weakest aspect of this team.
In goal, Lars Haugen, who plays for Dynamo Minsk of the KHL, who will be the likely starter, has a 2.30 gaa in 46 professional games.
Austria - Tomas Vanek and Michael Grabner are offensive minded players who should be well known to NHL fans. Michael Raffl, with 18 points in 46 for the Philadelphia Flyers, in his rookie season. That's the extent of this roster's NHL experience.
This team, which did not qualify for the 2010 Games, has decided to pick the bulk of their roster from their own league, so the hope is their familiarity with one another will trump the quality of that relatively low level of competition.
Bernhard Starkbaum is the most talented of the trio of goalies on this roster, all of whom are property of NHL clubs.
Canada and Finland are clearly the cream of this crop and will advance from Group B.
The Czech Republic and Switzerland will provide a stiff challenge to the favored Swedish team in this Group and any of these three teams will be a handful for top qualifiers in the other Group, should they advance. Latvia, the fourth team in this Group looks to be in tough with this draw, but have a core of players who could offer difficult competition as well.
Czech Republic - Jaromir Jagr is likely making his final appearance in international play and is entering this event still playing at a very high level. He will be ably supported by talented centers David Krejci and Tomas Plekanec, who will anchor the top two lines. Martin Hanzal will join Plekanec as another center who is adept at the defensive side of the game and can play against the top offensive opponents.
On the wings, Patrik Elias and Jakub Voracek lead a group of experienced players, many of whom have excelled in the NHL. Petr Nedved, who has played in the Czech league for the last few years, is another name fans will recognize.
On defense, the hopes will rest on four NHL defenders including Zbynek Michalek and Michal Rozsival, who will get most of the power play time. Radko Gudas, a very physical player and Ladislav Smid will be the shutdown defenders.
In goal, the hopes will hang on the shoulders of Ondrej Pavelec, who heads into these games as one of the hottest goalies in the NHL.
Latvia - Their head coach, Ted Nolan, may give them a boost as one of the best motivational bench bosses in the business.
NHL rookie Zemgus Girgensons is one of Nolan's pet projects with Buffalo, so there is a comfort level between these two men. Aside from that Sandis Ozolinsh, who is a former NHL veteran, now playing for Dynamo Riga of the KHL, can still provide offense from his defensive position.
Kaspers Daugevins, Oscars Bartulis and Arturs Kulda have each had a taste of NHL hockey, but have most recently plied their trade in Europe.
The goaltending reins will rest with Kristers Gudleviskis, though he's only 21 years old. He has a 2.69 gaa with Syracuse of the AHL.
Sweden - This entire roster is made up of NHL players so there will be a high level of familiarity if they meet up with Canada or the USA in later rounds. Henrik Sedin is questionable due to injury. Johan Franzen is a big body who is good in close to opposing goalies. That's the bad news. Both players will be difficult to replace if they can't go. On the plus side, they have plenty of offensive punch from the likes of Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Steen and Henrik Zetterberg, to allow them to run and gun with any team that wants to play an up-tempo game. Gabriel Lamdeskog and Carl Hagelin are two of the fastest skaters on any roster here.
Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Edler and Niklas Kronwall are a quartet of offensive-minded defensemen who also match up well with any other defense corps. Jonathan Ericsson and Johnny Oduya are the top shutdown options here.
Henrik Lundqvist is probably the most highly regarded goalie at these Olympics and has seen his game round into top form in recent weeks, giving Sweden an edge against all comers in goal.
Switzerland - The Swiss team is historically most closely associated with the big upset ability. Their forward contingent will feature young NHLers Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter, while rest of their offense will come from players who all play in the league of their home country.
The strength of this team, in terms of known entities, lies below the blueline. Roman Josi and Mark Streit are excellent transition players who can easily switch from defense to offense at top speed and will man the power play here. Rafael Diaz is another underrated offensively skilled player whom they will deploy. Yannick Weber is a fourth (NHL) experienced defender.
Jonas Hiller, who is having an outstanding year (2.34 gaa in 39 games) with the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks will be pressed into duty and is very capable of providing an effort that could steal a game on this stage.
I think this will be an outstanding tournament and look for Canada and the USA to meet in the final, with Canada winning the Gold again, while I see the Swedes edging the host Russians for the Bronze medal.
What do you think (and why)?