In light of the recent NHL hiatus I, like many hockey fans, have turned my attention towards the Winter Olympic Games that are currently taking place in Sochi, Russia. Similar to the food for thought being offered by legions of armchair GM’s around the world of hockey, I thought I would weigh in with my predictions of how this prestigious tournament will play itself out.
As biased as it may be, Canada is the obvious pick for gold. Headlined by 2010 hero and NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby, the Canadian group of forwards is ridiculous, and has four lines that are all capable of putting the puck in the net. Canada also has a fantastic defensive group, and will likely be lead by perennial Norris candidates Duncan Keith and Shea Weber. I won’t blabber all day about the depth of this roster, so I’ll leave you with this image: Mike Babcock could blindly throw darts at a roster list to determine the power play group and they would have success. That’s how stacked we are.
I’d also like to say that Canada’s supposed Achilles heel, the goaltending situation, has been blown out of proportion. Carey Price, in my mind, is the starter. His numbers may appear modest due to a rough stretch in which Montreal’s defence was brutal, but he has been by far the Habs’ best player this year, and was recently recognized as the NHL’s player of the week. I have no concern as to how he’ll handle being ‘the guy’ in Sochi, as Montreal is the only NHL market that can provide a level of pressure comparable to what he’ll face as Canada’s starter.
There are a few reasons why I like Sweden to do well. Firstly, they have one of the most impressive defensive corps of the tournament, second only to Canada in my mind. Led by Erik Karlsson and Niklas Kronwall, the combination of offensive production and defensive prowess makes this group very capable of helping Sweden win.
The second reason why I like Sweden to make it to the gold-medal game is Henrik Lundqvist. In a 13 game stretch between January 6th and February 7th Lundqvist posted a 10-2-1 record, to match a sparkling 1.67 GAA and 0.930 save percentage. The importance of goaltending can’t be overstated, and numbers like that could make all the difference in a short tournament.
Bronze: United States
The American squad, comprised entirely of NHL players, possesses one of the deepest forward groups at this tournament, and will be lead offensively by Patrick Kane, Zack Parise and the red-hot Phil Kessel. This is another team that can effectively roll four lines that can contribute at both ends of the rink. Ryan Miller will likely be the starting goalie, and comes in playing very well behind an awful team. Miller has proven he’s capable of playing stretches of unreal hockey (see Vancouver), so he gives his team a chance to win any game.
The weakness of this team is the defensive depth. They boast one of the best all-around defenseman in the game in Ryan Suter, and both Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk are solid. However after that, there is a bit of a drop off, at least in my mind. Teams might be able to take advantage of this group, which could ultimately lead to the US settling for bronze.
I figured I would also briefly mention and rationalize the biggest snub of my podium. Russia, whom many pundits believe will claim gold, is not found on my podium because of their serious depth issues. The top-6 will have to be lights out, as both the bottom-6 and the defensive corps are pedestrian. I could easily see top teams taking advantage of a historically weak Russia defensive system. Because of this I don’t see them knocking off any of the teams mentioned here, which would leave them with nothing better than a 4th-place finish.
In closing, I believe it’s worth noting that this process is little more than a crapshoot. Such is the norm for tournaments with the one-loss-and-you’re-out format, where any number of factors can result in a crazy upset or a Cinderella run. Simply put, games are not played on paper. Anything can happen, which I believe is one of the most exciting and redeeming elements of the Olympic tournament.