Russians favoured, but in absence of NHL players, men's hockey a toss-up
Addition of KHL players on roster gives ROC team the advantage
In an interview with USA Hockey, American forward Noah Cates offered up the best advice he has ever received in advance of the men's Olympic hockey tournament.
"Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard," said Cates, repeating what should be the mantra of every men's hockey team – besides the favoured Russians – at the Beijing Winter Games.
On paper, Russia has a stacked roster, even with the NHL and its players deciding not to participate because of game cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So Russia (officially known at these Games as the Russian Olympic Committee for failing to turn over accurate data from the Moscow drug-testing laboratory) is the team to beat.
But don't count out Finland, Sweden, Canada, Czechia, the United States or even Germany with COVID-19 threatening to sideline any number of players on any team.
WATCH | Canada blends youth and experience at the Games:
"It is a level playing field," says Valtteri Filppula, who carried the flag for Finland in the opening ceremony. "If a team gets hot, a goalie gets hot, any team has a chance."
Four years ago, Germany shocked the hockey world by winning Olympic silver. Defenceman Moritz Mueller also likes Germany's chances in Beijing — even though this tournament will be played on NHL-sized ice, which is advantageous to Canada and the USA.
"It is tough to predict anything," he said. "I see everybody as kind of in the pool together."
Here's a breakdown of the teams standing in Canada's way of the podium in men's hockey:
Russian Olympic Committee
The Russians have depth and star power that's the envy of the tournament. Barring any positive COVID-19 tests, the defending gold medallists can throw seven players with noteworthy NHL experience over the boards in Mikhail Grigorenko, Artem Anisimov, Slava Voynov, Nikita Gusev, Nikita Nesterov, Vadim Shipachyov, and Sergei Plotnikov.
NHL fans may remember Shipachyov for his 2017-18 dalliance with the Las Vegas Golden Knights that ended in a hasty return to Russia. Clearly more comfortable at home, Shipachyov leads the KHL in scoring with 20 goals and 66 points in 57 games for Moscow Dynamo.
KHL assists (43) and points (67) leader Vadim Shipachyov 🇷🇺 is going to Beijing. Should be fun! <a href="https://t.co/oC90rRdGME">pic.twitter.com/oC90rRdGME</a>—@khl_eng
Voynov, 32, is an all-around defenceman with offensive touch who is known for scoring big goals in big moments. A two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Los Angeles Kings, Voynov's NHL career ended after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charge of corporal injury to a spouse.
The only question mark for the Russians is in goal with Timur Bilyalov, Ivan Fedotov and Alexander Samonov vying for the starting role. But goaltending may be an afterthought if this team can score at will.
It's hard to believe that Finland, despite always being in the mix for medals, has never claimed Olympic hockey gold.
This time around, the Finns — led by Filppula and fellow former NHLers Sami Vatanen, Leo Komarov, Markus Granlund and Mikko Lehtonen — have team chemistry on their side. Many of the players share a history whether that be at world championships, the Olympics or on their club teams in Europe.
The Finns are known for their work ethic and commitment to playing a team game. Given their lack of offensive firepower, they'll need to lock things down in front of goalie Harri Sateri, who played seven NHL games in 2017-18 with the Florida Panthers.
Like Finland, Sweden has the benefit of chemistry and collective history in a short tournament with no time for growing pains. Boasting 13 players with NHL experience, the Swedes are a physical, speedy bunch who can score and check. Centre Marcus Krueger (38 goals and 123 points in 520 career NHL games) is a proven winner with two Stanley Cup rings. Forward Joakim Nordstorm, who played 444 career NHL games, is a defensive stalwart. And Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Pontus Holmberg is one to watch with a scoring touch on the wing.
🖋 We’ve signed forward Pontus Holmberg to a two-year entry level contract. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LeafsForever?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LeafsForever</a><br><br>Details » <a href="https://t.co/JqCZbePk3C">https://t.co/JqCZbePk3C</a> <a href="https://t.co/HeAjZhNB63">pic.twitter.com/HeAjZhNB63</a>—@MapleLeafs
General manager Petr Nedved has name recognition up front in former NHLers David Krejci, Michael Frolik and Vladimir Sobotka. Krejci is an elite playmaker, registering eight goals and 44 points in 51 games last season with the Boston Bruins. At 35, he chose to play this season with HC Olomouc of the Czech 'A' League, and the Bruins miss his smart, two-way play. Frolik won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2013 and logged 858 career NHL games before signing with HC Lausanne of the Swiss League. On defence, Czechia is thin after Jakub Jerabek, who won a Stanley Cup with Washington in 2018.
Did David Krejci just do that? <br><br>Yes. Yes he did. <a href="https://t.co/bk9ay8CKhg">pic.twitter.com/bk9ay8CKhg</a>—@NHL
The Americans faltered in Pyeongchang with 18 players 30 or older. As such, general manager John Vanbiesbrouck rejected that approach for Beijing in favour of a youth movement. Fifteen members of Team USA currently play in the NCAA.
Matty Beniers, a second overall pick of the Seattle Kraken, projects as first-line NHL centre with tremendous upside on both ends of the ice. Jake Sanderson, a fifth overall pick of the Ottawa Senators, was expected to log heavy minutes on the bluel ine, but he was stuck in Los Angeles over the weekend in COVID-19 protocol. (It will be a huge blow for the Americans should he not receive clearance to play.)
Given their collective inexperience, the kids aren't expected to pull off an upset. Should they succeed, these Olympics will rival the Miracle on Ice in 1980 in importance for American hockey fans.
The moment Matty Beniers was selected as the first-ever <a href="https://twitter.com/SeattleKraken?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SeattleKraken</a> draft pick! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NHLDraft?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NHLDraft</a> <a href="https://t.co/zEe9JgEPTv">pic.twitter.com/zEe9JgEPTv</a>—@NHL
Germany came within 56 seconds of winning gold in 2018, only to lose in overtime to Russia. On paper, a medal seems highly unlikely this time around for a German side featuring former Edmonton Oilers Tobias Rieder and Dominik Kahun — not that the players care about projections. "We have built something in our mind," Mueller said. "We started to believe in ourselves and that is something we have not done in a long time."