February 12, 2014

2014 Men's Olympic Hockey Power Rankings

By - Brad Heerschop

With most of the other events well underway now, the moment we've all been waiting for is finally upon us.

What I'm referring to, of course, is Men's Olympic Hockey. Sure, the women's portion has been fun, but let's be honest, that was basically a two-horse race before it even started. With the United States and Canada capturing four golds, three silvers and one bronze medal over the last four Winter Games, it's pretty much a lock that the preliminary affairs will be nothing more than formalities.

The men are an entirely different story, though. There are seven teams fully capable of capturing gold in Sochi, and the other five clubs in the tournament are good enough to play spoiler at any point.

So let's get to it. Here are our 2014 Men's Olympic Hockey power rankings.

Photo by: Jayne Kamin
12. Slovenia - While I have them as a dark horse to make at least some noise in this tourney, with the exception of L.A. Kings center Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian team is primarily made up of nobodies. 26-year-old Kopitar is no slouch with 47 points in 59 regular season NHL games this year, but is he enough to take this club past the group stage? The only other vaguely familiar name on this squad is Jan Mursak, a former Detroit Red Wing, and only the second Slovenian-born player in NHL history. Mursak now plays in the KHL, and has performed more than modestly at that level, but with only two familiar faces, Slovenia is a wild card, at best. If you're one of those people looking for that "root for the little guy" moment, this is it. 2014 marks Slovenia's first time ever competing for Olympic glory, and they managed to qualify without Kopitar, who was playing in North America at the time.

11. Latvia - A case could be made for this bunch at No. 12, but it's hard to put them behind Slovenia, all things considered. Latvia managed to qualify for the Olympics last time around, in 2010, albeit an 0-3 performance in which they scored only 4 goals. Another club with many unknowns, the only big name to speak of is center Zemgus Girgensons. A former first-round pick for the Buffalo Sabres, Girgensons highlights a rather limited group of talent, at least as far as the NHL is concerned. Older hockey fans will remember Sandis Ozolinsh, who will be playing in his second Olympics, but at age 41, it remains to be seen what he has left in the tank. Other names of note are Oskars Bartulis, Arturs Kulda, Kaspars Daugavins and Martin Karsums, all of whom have played in the big leagues in some form or fashion. The real question is, how will 5'10 goalie Edgars Masalskis, a notoriously clutch goaltender in big moments, play for the Latvians? The person who could really help them is Sabres interim head coach Ted Nolan, who should make this Latvian team play to their highest potential. I just don't think that potential is medal-worthy.

10. Austria - This is the first year that Austria has qualified for Olympic play since '02, when they finished dead last. The last time they won any medal in men's hockey was in the 1947 World Ice Hockey Championship when they took home the bronze. Goalie Bernhard Starkbaum has been good in international play during his career, so at the highest level, it'll be fun to see how he performs. Austrian team captain Thomas Vanek and New York Islanders teammate Michael Grabner, along with Philadelphia Flyers first-liner Michael Raffl account for all of the NHL talent on this team. However, hockey is deeper than the NHL these days, and you can expect some of the spotlight to shine on Manuel Latusa and Daniel Oberkofler, both of whom play in Austria's hockey league. This team is far from loaded, but they have some talent. That said, paired with Finland, Canada and Norway, I wouldn't expect them to go far.

9. Norway - The Norwegians are another team limited in NHL talent, with only one guy hailing from hockey's biggest league. That player is Mats Zuccarello, who just so happens to be the New York Rangers leading scorer this season. Beyond Zuccarello, they also have former NHL player Patrick Thoresen, who boasts a very nice resume at the KHL level. In net, the Norwegians have a rather unproven, yet potentially secret weapon in Lars Haugen. Haugen finished the 2012-13 KHL season with an impressive 0.933 save percentage. A goaltender like that can keep Norway in games and has the ability to steal a win or two for them as well. However, much like Austria, and much to their chagrin, they're paired with Finland and Canada. This is the eleventh time Norway has qualifyed for the men's tournament, but they have had a troubled past, never finishing higher than eighth overall. Although the Winter Olympics has been dominated by Norway since its inception, ice hockey has been the exception to this rule. I don't expect that to change this year.

8. Switzerland - The Swiss have been moderately successful at the Olympic level, with this year marking their fifteenth attempt at Olympic gold. However, they have never won better than bronze (twice), and the last time they fared even that well was back in 1948. They did manage to win the silver at the '13 World Championships, trumping powerhouses like Sweden, Canada and the USA on their way to the podium. This year's squad has several familiar faces featuring eight NHL players, including Damien Brunner, Nino Niederreiter, Roman Josi, Raphael Diaz, Mark Streit and Yannick Weber. The other two NHL players can be found in between the pipes, with Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks leading the charge. Hiller has been exceptional in net this year for the NHL's top ranked team, boasting 25 wins, a 2.34 GAA, a 0.917 save percentage and 4 shutouts. But this team doesn't live and die with Hiller's play, as backup netminder Reto Berra has been decent for the Calgary Flames this season as well. While this club seems good on paper, I'm not sure they have what it takes to compete with the elite hockey powers of the world. A medal may be a far-fetched goal for Switzerland, but it's not completely inconceivable.

7. Czech Republic - This may seem like a fairly low ranking for a team with three medals in the last four World Championships and an Olympic gold medal as recently as '98, but there have been some curious roster moves in the Czech Republic of late, and I doubt they'll pay off. Their roster consists mostly of NHL talent (seventeen players) but their goaltenders make up the list of relatively unknown guys on the team. An area you don't want to have questions in, is goaltending. While Alexander Salak, Ondrej Pavelec and Jakub Kovar are proven on KHL ice, it remains a question how they will matchup with NHL talent. Time will tell. The Czechs took a huge hit when rookie sensation Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks was announced unavailable, due to an injury. Then came their roster moves. The Czech team was noted to have depth at forward, but their snubs of Tomas Fleischmann, Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata were eye-popping. To follow that up by signing a geriatric in 42-year-old Petr Nedved, a man who last competed in the Olympics with Team Canada 20 years ago, is just hard to believe. Luckily for the Czechs, they've still got their golden boy, Jaromir Jagr, but I don't think the magic he can bring will be enough to earn them a spot on the podium.

6. Slovakia - In all likelihood, this is the first (and probably the last) time you've seen Slovakia ranked higher than their former counterpart, the Czechs, in any ranking system, but I think the Slovak team has made strides towards becoming competitive on an international level. In the last 20 years, Slovakia has medalled four times at the World Championships, and has been in the top six of three Olympic tourneys during that span. Slovakia beat Russia in a preliminary round, Sweden in the medal round and came close to knocking off Canada in the semifinals back in 2010. The Slovakian team is a bit of an anomaly, talent-wise. On the top end of their roster, they've got some of the world's elite talent in players like Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, Lubomir Visnovsky and goaltender Jaroslav Halak. On the bottom end, they still have some good talent (such as Marcel Hossa), but it really drops off from their premier players. The loss of one of their few superstars, Marian Gaborik, because of a collarbone injury, could be the difference from Slovakia winning a medal in Sochi.

5. United States - Four years ago the U.S. was beaten in a gold medal game to remember, as the Canadians pulled out a miraculous victory in overtime. With twelve players returning from their silver medal team, the Americans have definitely not forgotten what happened in Vancouver. With Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard as their choices in net, they boast the best netminding options in the world. Led by captain Zach Parise, the U.S. is loaded with a blend of talent on every line. My issue is this; nothing jumps out to me about this team, outside of goaltending. They have the potential to win it all this year, but the "wow" factor just isn't there. The American forward lines are scatterings of elite talent, with what would be considered roster fodder to any fantasy hockey fan. Their defensive pairings are all decent, but that's it. In fact, defense might be exactly where this club struggles. With the transition to a larger ice surface, it will be interesting to see how they hold up. Another concern American fans likely have are the snubs of Dustin Byfuglien and Bobby Ryan. For the American team, it's largely a case of sink or swim. They finished with silver medals in 2002 and 2010, but have ended up sixth place or worse five times in eight Olympic tournaments since "The Miracle on Ice" in 1980.

4. Finland - Finland has medalled in four of the past five Olympic Games, taking home three bronze and one silver. The Fins want to get to that next level, and it has seemed for years that they're on the verge of becoming a hockey superpower. When they will make that leap is unknown, but it could be this year. After a bronze medal in 2010, Finland will be disappointed with anything short of a medal, but with the talent in this year's tournament, it's possible they'll do just that. Veteran Teemu Selanne will be playing in his sixth and final (presumably) Olympic Games, tying a record set by Raimo Helminen. With veterans like Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo on defense, and with youth like Olli Maatta, the defense is a bit of a concern for Team Finland. Luckily, the guy backing them up is Tuukka Rask, one of the best goaltenders on the planet. Like the United States, Finland is deep at the netminder position, with Sharks goalie Antti Niemi and Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen picking up the slack. With three of the NHL's top goalies on the roster, the Finnish team should be able to win games. What hurts their chances are injuries to star players Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula.

3. Sweden - Why Sweden didn't send an invite to Victor Hedman to front-line their back-end is anybody's guess. The 23-year-old defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning is arguably the biggest surprise of this year's list of players left off of Olympic rosters. Nonetheless, the Swedish Men's Hockey Team is absolutely stacked. With elite forwards like Daniel Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Zetterberg, along with defensive stars like Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Kronwall and Erik Karlsson, the Swedes have one of the best rosters in the world. They also have one of the premier goalkeepers on the planet with Henrik Lundqvist, but the elite talent between the pipes ends there. If Lundqvist struggles, Sweden is forced to rely on Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth, two relatively unproven goaltenders, especially on the world's biggest platform. Sweden is one of the gold medal favorites, considering the last time the Olympics were played on international ice they took home the gold, and also won the 2013 World Championships. Add to that the fact that they're grouped with the Czech Republic, Latvia and Switzerland, and you can pretty much book their trip to the elimination round.

2. Canada - I think most people would have Canada at No. 1, but if you read my column last Wednesday, you would know I'm not buying what they're selling. There is no doubt that the world's best hockey nation is loaded with talent, including the world's best player in Sidney Crosby, and ten other returning gold medalists. They have seven of the NHL's top ten scorers and elite defensemen like Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and P.K. Subban. Canada's issue, for me, is in net. Not that they had better options, but compared to the competition, they're certainly lacking in the goaltending department. While Roberto Luongo was brilliant in their gold medal run in 2010, he's been less than stellar in big-game situations his entire career. Canada has won Olympic gold in two of the last three Games, with their seventh-place finish in 2006 the only aberration. However, they've been less impressive in the World Championships, failing to earn a medal in the last four tourneys. In Canada, anything less than a gold medal in men's (or women's, for that matter) hockey is an abomination. Can their elite talent up front overcome their shortcomings in net?

1. Russia - The host nation of this year's Winter Olympics are my pick to win the gold medal. The Russian team left a lot of good NHL'ers off their roster in favor of KHL players, which should come as no surprise to anyone. While they may be relatively unknown in North America, their KHL talent should not be taken lightly. On top of that KHL talent, they boast a roster with sixteen NHL players. Leading the charge is the best goal scorer in the world, Alex Ovechkin, followed by perennial All-Stars Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin. There were some confusing choices made by the Russian brass, like leaving Alexander Semin and Nail Yakupov behind, while taking the struggling defenseman Alexei Emelin with them, but the Russians should never be doubted when it comes to their decision making and international prowess. The Big Red Machine has won three of the last five World Championships, but have struggled recently in Olympic competition. I think they end that struggle on their home soil.

That concludes our Men's Olympic Hockey power rankings. Whether or not these rankings hold true, one thing is certain; Olympic Hockey is the best hockey you can watch.

Sit back and enjoy.

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