Having now had two weeks to digest both the American and Canadian rosters for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, it’s now time to put some thoughts to paper on how the two teams that met in the Gold Medal game four years ago will fair this time around. Don’t fret – we’ll have a full preview of all 12 teams, including picks and predictions, before the games begin. But for now, let’s just focus on the two North American clubs and their chances for standing on a podium in just over a month from now.
Let’s start with the defending champions, who also happen to have the best player in the world – and national Olympic hero – on their roster. Sure, he’ll have a lot of help from the likes of Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Marleau, and a host of others, but make no mistake that Canada’s Olympic hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of Sidney Crosby – and whomever head coach Mike Babcock elects to play in net. We’ll get to point two in a bit, but on point one it’s obvious that Babcock and general manager Steve Yzerman believe that to be true, based upon the selection of Chris Kunitz to the 25-man roster. That should help alleviate the biggest issue facing ever Olympic team, which is chemistry between the three forwards placed together on a line. Canada actually has a trio of teammates on offense – Crosby and Kunitz from the Penguins, Toews and Patrick Sharp from the Blackhawks, and Getzlaf and Corey Perry from the Ducks – which should further enhance the transition from the NHL to the Olympic game. They’ll also get a huge boost if Steven Stamkos is able to return prior to the games and prove he’s capable of contributing in a meaningful way, an issue that won’t truly be resolved until early February. Still, it’s just one more potential bullet in a truly loaded gun for Canada’s offense.
This was the question mark heading into the Vancouver games, and instead served as Drew Doughty’s coming out party. The Kings standout will anchor this year’s group alongside Shea weber from the Predators and Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks. Expect those three to see a ton of ice time as tremendous two-way defensemen, likely joined by PK Subban and Blues teammates Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. No longer is this group a liability – they may not be the best defense corps in the tournament, but they bring a great collection of grit, skill, speed, and smarts to shut down just about any opposing offense.
That defensive emergence is crucial because Canada’s single biggest strength from 2010 is now their single biggest weakness. Roberto Luongo has undergone more ups and downs than Facebook stock since backstopping Canada to gold, and will be pushed this season by both Carey Price and Mike Smith. Babcock will almost assuredly have a quick hook, especially considering the short nature of the tournament. I’ve always wondered if Olympic coaches would allow each goalie to play one prelim game before selecting their starter for the playoff rounds, and if any team were a candidate for just such an experiment, it’s this one. All three goaltenders are obviously very good, but unless one of them gets into the same zone Luongo found, I’m hard pressed to see them winning another gold medal.
Since Canada now appears to have laid claim to a borderline monopoly on the “power forward” market, the U.S. has instead gone towards an offensive lineup that features a ton of fast, skilled forwards, most of whom excel in the two-way game. Led by presumptive captain Dustin Brown of the Kings, the American offensive unit is loaded with guys like Ryan Callahan, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny, David Backes, James van Riemsdyk, and Ryan Kesler, all of whom can score and clamp down in the defensive zone. They’ll serve as tremendous complements to the two guys expected to carry most of the offensive load – Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel. This is a talented group where most of the players are still 30 or younger, which should help as they play three games over a four day span on a bigger ice surface.
Get to know Ryan Suter. Well. He leads the entire NHL in average ice time per game for the Minnesota Wild, and he’ll likely shoulder the same level of burden with the U.S. defensive group in Sochi. Surprisingly, this group is also quite young outside of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik. In fact, five of the eight rostered players are born in 1989 or later. That’s a group that includes Ryan McDonaugh and John Carlson, who are seen in some circles as the duo that might be tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top line. Overall, this another group with a tremendous combination of speed, size, and a high “hockey-IQ,” but there are some doubts about just how much support this group will be able to provide offensively outside of Suter. Leaving Dustin Byfuglien off the roster created a void on a power play unit that will likely be filled by a forward. While that may boost the potential for goals with the man-advantage, it may also lead to more shorthanded chances, especially on a bigger rink, which could be deadly in a one-game scenario.
Let’s make one thing clear right from the start – Jimmy Howard, get nice and comfy next to the trainer, because you’ll be there a while. This decision will ultimately come down to the veteran experience of 2010 and current level of play from Ryan Miller compared to the younger, more athletic but still-recovering-from-injury Jonathan Quick. If Quick is healthy and back at 100%, he’s the better goalie, which hurts me just to type because I was captivated by Miller’s unbelievable performance in Vancouver. The bigger ice surface, though, also plays better into the style of Quick, who is better going post-to-post across the crease than any other goalie on the planet right now. The consensus, however, is that Miller will be the one getting the nod at the start of the tournament, since it’s unlikely Quick will be able to prove himself capable of playing beyond Miller’s current stellar level for Buffalo. If he can even come close to repeating his performance from four years ago, the Americans will once again be one of the favorites to wind up playing in the final game.