The Olympics are fast approaching, and with them, the prospect of some of the most elite hockey we’ve seen in some time. Hockey fans from around the globe anxiously await the first puck drop to cheer for veritable all-star teams of talent facing off against one another. We’ve asked six of our hockey writers for their analyses including who they feel is going to take home the title of World’s Best Hockey Nation.
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As much as my Canadian citizenship dictates my love for the True North Strong and Free, I just have a feeling the Russians will take the title. Not for any superior skill or home-ice advantage but for the fear if they don’t win, then there’s no way they’ll ever be allowed to return home. Or leave home, in this case.
Canada owns the top overall talent and the bragging rights from four years ago, although their goalie situation is a little bit shaky. Nothing against 2010 starter Roberto Luongo
or consistent top NHL performer Carey Price
but the tandem is missing an elite presence. But they’re not alone; you can look at any of the other participating countries and say the same thing.
If you are looking for the best group of netminders, look no further than Finland. It’s quite impressive to be able to turn to the talent of Tuukka Rask
, Antti Niemi
, or Kari Lehtonen
on any given night. The main drawback lies in the fact neither of the three have any Olympic experience.
In Group A, Russia will end up getting their revenge on the Americans for 1980, but not without a tough fight. Despite their surprise silver in Vancouver, the Americans will surely need a miracle to medal in Sochi. With all their pro credentials, Slovakia would be expected to challenge but cannot compete with the top two. And Slovenia, maybe you can clone Anze Kopitar
15 times before play begins in the next few weeks.
Group B will see Finland make a run against Canada, but their combined youth will end up hurting them in the end. At least everyone can agree Norway and Austria will battle it out for last place.
Group C is perhaps the most evenly matched of the three. You have the last two non-Canadian Olympic champions (Sweden in 2006 and the Czech Republic in 1998) and an international upstart (Switzerland climbing the ranks recently). Oh, yeah, and a former Soviet nation (Latvia) who haven’t finished higher than seventh at the senior level.
Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.
Can Canada make it two golds in a row? You betcha for sure it can – the boys with the maple leaf are locked and loaded for bear. In fact, the 2014 squad might just be the best roster the country has ever – yes, ever – assembled. Sure, the goaltending is the so-called weak link, but how different is excellent from extraordinary? They’ll be just fine.
Still, the competition will be intense and repeating is not going to be easy. I think there are as many as four teams that are genuine gold medal contenders. Canada will face stiff competition from Russia, Sweden and USA.
Russia will be a formidable foe. They’re playing on home ice and nothing but a gold medal will be good enough. Alexander Ovechkin
is ripping it up in the NHL and is stoked to be playing at home, and Pavel Datsyuk
, Ilya Kovalchuk
, and Evgeni Malkin
aren’t exactly chopped liver. Add in 11 guys from the KHL who are already playing on the big ice and they’ll be hard to beat, but the weight of Mother Russia will be heavy on these guys. I hope they have some excellent sports psychologists to help them keep their emotions in check.
Now to the U.S. squad. What’s that old saying? If ands and buts were candies and nuts, the U.S. would already have won gold? Old Glory came within a single shot (and a crossbar) of winning gold in 2010. They’re lightning-fast and cocky, and now they’ve added size and even stronger two-way play. That’s a pretty sweet combination. But if there’s a weak link, it’s on the blue line. The D barely shave – they’re all veritable babes – and I think they’re going to miss Keith Yandle
’s stabilizing leadership. Can they manage their emotions effectively? We’ll see.
The Tre Kronor are bringing back 12 guys from 2010 and those guys will be looking to atone for Sweden’s sad, fifth-place finish on a quarterfinal loss to Slovakia last time out. This year’s Swedish edition is extremely talented and its players play fantastic, two-way hockey. And let’s not forget their collective hockey IQ is off the Mensa chart. But the goaltending is the Achilles heel on this squad and the tendon is already partially cut. Can Henrik Lundqvist
regain his crown? The backups don’t exactly inspire confidence, so it’ll either be King Henrik or Tommy Salo all over again.
Jan Levine covers baseball, basketball and hockey for RotoWire. In addition to his column writing, he's the master of the MLB and NHL cheatsheets. In his spare time, he roots for the Mets.
In the Olympics, like any short - or once you hit the medal round - single-elimination tournament, a hot goaltender or fluke goal could turn the tide and make the difference. When looking at the teams, you can make a valid argument for any one of the six “favorites” to win gold. Determining the winner is a bit of a finger in the air exercise but here goes.
Russia, as the host country, will have lots of added pressure on them, but I believe they and the US will come out of Group A, despite the absence of Bobby Ryan
. In Group B, Canada by virtue of the breadth and depth of their talent, including who was left off the squad, has to enter the Olympics as the favorite. Plus, until the defending is knocked off, they have to at worse get the benefit of the doubt. They, and one of my pre-tournament sleepers, Finland, should advance out of Group B. Sweden, let by Henrik Lundqvist
, should win Group C with Switzerland, mainly because of Jonas Hiller
, will edge the Czech Republic for the other berth due to that country’s weaker netminders compared to the top six teams. It woudn’t surprise me to see them advance, though, if their offense rolls as we expect.
The three divisions’ winners and the US will get byes, out of qualifying, the Czech Republic and Finland will advance. The final four will be the top-four countries, with the US beating Finland in OT and Slovakia, backstopped by Jarolsav Halak, putting up a valiant effort against Canada.
In the semis, Sweden will defeat the US, while in a game that goes to a shootout, Canada will defeat Russia, ending the host country’s shot at gold. In the finals, Sweden defeats Canada, as Lundqvist completes a stellar tournament and Gabriel Landeskog
scores the game-winner.
Dan Pennucci has covered hockey for Rotowire since 2002 and is the author of Blue Line Buzz since 2011 as well as being the co-author of Morning Skate. He also is a contributor to Talking Red, a New Jersey Devils blog and podcast. He is an English teacher and formerly wrote for The Coast Star in Manasquan, New Jersey where he and his sports section won several New Jersey Press Association awards.
When determining this prediction, I factored in intangible national pride. It can’t be discounted in a tournament like this. Neither can goals. There won’t be a lot of high scoring affairs, putting even more of a premium on scoring.
Yes, I’m talking the bold position of Canada being kept out of the medals. Their squad looks like a fantasy team at first glance. Their goaltending is what could be their Achilles’ heel. Can it be consistent enough? On paper, they’re lions. My concerns with them are the utterly suffocating expectations on that squad. If they are so much as trailing in a game, how tightly will they start gripping the stick? Down the middle though, no one can touch Canada, save for Sweden, that’s without the Canadian centers who will be playing on the wing.
So many will be crowning Canada before the tournament starts, will they be able to deliver? They haven’t fared well in the three tournaments outside of North America. Sweden seems to have the best assembly of talent after the Canadians and I can see Henrik Lundqvist
delivering another mammoth performance as he did in Turin eight years ago. The Swedes have one of the most impressive top four on defense in the tournament and a group of Henrik Zetterberg
, Henrik Sedin
and Nicklas Backstrom
down the middle.
Russia will have the same crushing weight on their backs as the Canadians, only more of it. With the games in Russia, I can see the team playing inspired hockey. Their top tier offensive talent can rival that of Canada’s, only the Canadians have more of it. Defensively, Russia worries me a bit, as Andrei Markov
will probably never leave the ice. This tournament is about goals though; Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk (if entirely healthy) and the player who used to be Ilya Kovalchuk
are a formidable group.
As for the Americans, much has been made of who isn’t on the team, but this is a team with some quietly productive scoring wingers in Phil Kessel
, Max Pacioretty
, James van Riemsdyk
, not to mention the likes of Patrick Kane
and a recovering Zach Parise
. Jonathan Quick
and Ryan Miller
will give the Americans a tandem comparable to the Finns and Canadians. This team has some grit to it in David Backes
, Ryan Kesler
and Ryan Callahan
; enough grit to leave with a medal and enough goaltending and defense to keep games close. Not a ton, just enough.
Olympic fun fact: Sandis Ozolinsh
will be playing for Latvia.
A freelance writer of all things but mostly sports, music and politics, Brian Rutherford was raised on Long Island, NY and currently resides in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. His favorite teams are the New York Rangers, Texas Rangers, New York Giants and New York Knicks.
Bronze: United States
The chore of predicting hockey's medal class at the Sochi games is a daunting one to say the least. In the end, regardless of rink span, location and all other nuances, the same logic used to predict spring playoff success in the NHL will likely stand true. Whoever has the hottest goaltending will steal the show. While the Canadian team seems to always be favored to win a medal in the Winter Olympics, this year seems to shake out a bit differently.
None of Canada's three goalies (Roberto Luongo
, Carey Price
, and Mike Smith
) have been especially dependable or dominant this season. By that stretch of the imagination, we lean towards the Russian and American trio's who have had Sergei Bobrovsky
and Jonathan Quick
respectively stellar since returning from IR. However, The United States team has Ryan Miller
, who has been out of his mind, regardless of the mostly AHL club in front of him. Advantage: USA.
With Alexander Ovechkin
and Evgeni Malkin
busting through the seams of the NHL season, it's a fair assumption that any team with arguably two of the most prolific forwards in the world will help lead the tournament in goals, regardless of which backstop they're facing. Now, all reports suggest add Pavel Datsyuk
to that line and you have quite possibly the scariest three in the history of the game, but it can’t play all 60-minutes, so the Russians depth - Ilya Kovalchuck, Artem Anisimov
, Vlad Tarasenko - leaves something to be desired. Across all pool play, depth comes down to teams without players like Petr Nedved
(Czech Republic) holding onto their national destiny. Sweden, Canada and the U.S. all have the strongest forward depth from top to bottom. Although Sweden and Canada are literally dream teams, they have questions. Will Alexander Steen
(concussion) and Steven Stamkos
(leg) participate? Nonetheless these three will have the best forward depth - question is, can they outperform the MOD (Malkin, Ovechkin, Datsyuk) line? Advantage: Russia
The dark horse of Olympic play turns out to be Slovakia with veteran defensemen like Zdeno Chara
, Lubomir Visnovsky
, Andrej Meszaros
and goalie Jaroslav Halak
leading the charge. But obviously, their forwards lack a sparkle, leading us to check out the other core of blue liners. The US, Canada, and Swede defensemen depth charts stick out the most, underscoring a balance of puck-moving play-makers and stay-at-home shadowing defense types. Nonetheless, we went with the best puck movers on the more spacious international ice. Advantage: Sweden
In the end, with probably more international pressure than ever before and a laundry list of under-achieving forwards not named Sidney Crosby
or Patrick Sharp
, the biggest surprise should be that Canada leaves without a medal. The counted on Russian forwards are hitting their prime and will play in front of their native crowd. The United States has picked a balanced attack and the Swedes are showing entirely too much balance on all fronts while their goaltenders (Henrik Lundqvist
, Jhonas Enroth
and Jonas Gustavsson
) are warming up just in the nick of time.
Dan Waldner covers hockey for RotoWire, and has been involved in fantasy hockey pools for 15 years. He's a lifetime Toronto Maple Leafs fan, a passion his wife puts up with and his daughter is starting to emulate.
Gold Medal: Canada
Silver Medal: Sweden
Bronze Medal: Russia
It may seem like a safe choice, considering the depth of their roster in all positions, but the gold medal is Canada’s to lose in Sochi, and it’s not hard to see why. Of the top 30 scorers this year in the NHL, this team has eleven; in fact, they have more players from the top 30 they excluded (five) than almost any other nation has included. They also have 13 Stanley Cups and that’s not including the coaching staff. They also have eleven returning members from the 2010 gold medal contingent, so not only are they having great seasons individually, they also understand what is needed to win. If this team finds chemistry in this short window, they will be unbeatable.
Meeting Canada in the gold medal game will be the Sweden – who last won in 2006. In contrast to the Canadian team, Sweden is filled with forwards who pride themselves on solid two-way hockey and a highly mobile defensive corps. Their roster should prove effective against most other teams, but their weakness will be in their third- and fourth-line matchups, where a team like Canada can exploit the skill gap. With Lundqvist in net, however, this advantage may be moot, as he has the ability to win the tournament by himself, should he find his groove early.
Playing on home soil has a certain advantage to it that we have seen in the past with Canada in Vancouver, and the USA in both Squaw Valley and Lake Placid. The Russian team this year will experience a similar bump, but to lesser success. Their top line of Evgeni Malkin
, Alexander Ovechkin
, and Pavel Datsyuk
are three of the most dangerous players in the world, but past that, you have a number of relative unknown quantities. Add to that a goaltending tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky
, who has underwhelmed following his Vezina season, and Semyon Varlamov
, fresh off his off-ice issues, and you have an enigma of a team that should be beaten by either the solid Swedish team or the deep Canadian squad.
The biggest disappointment of the tournament will be the American contingent. On paper, they should be deadly, but I don’t think they’ll find the needed chemistry on the ice to be as successful as in 2010. Their defense is too young and inexperienced to be able to withstand the type of offense that these elite teams will be fielding, and Ryan Miller
will not perform at the level we have grown accustomed to seeing from him in previous international play. The Americans will fall to the Russians in the Bronze Medal game, to raucous applause from the hometown fans.