How’s your summer going? Enjoying time with the family, at the cottage, soaking up the sun? No? Good. I’m not the only one, then.
The good news is another NHL season is right around the corner, with the first Leafs’ preseason game scheduled for September 15. The bad news is that’s still 19 days away and until then we’re left torturing ourselves with Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson contract updates.
So I decided to do something a little different to distract us from the usual offseason banality. The 2014 Sochi Olympics are coming up this February, and who doesn’t love Olympic hockey? To get us ready for what we might expect in Russia in about five-and-a-half months, I’ll be breaking down the orientation camp invitees for seven of the top contending countries at Sochi: Slovakia, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, USA and Canada. (Sorry about that Norway, Switzerland, Latvia, Slovenia and Austria. No hard feelings, right?)
I will whittle down each team’s potential pool of players to a final, 25-man roster (22 skaters and three goaltenders). It’s important to note that players who didn’t make the orientation camp still have an opportunity to be chosen for the final roster, so on rare occasions I might decide to pick a non-invitee (*cough* Carl Gunnarsson *cough*). So not only does this give me something to write about, each country’s respective management team gets their work done for them too! I believe the French would refer to that as a gagner-gagner.
As always, leave a comment if I forget a player or you think I’m underrating anybody. I want these lists to be just as much your lists as my lists. So first up: Team Slovakia.
At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Slovakia shocked the world by beating heavily-favoured Sweden in the quarter-finals 4-3. The Slovaks were outshot 29-14 in that game, but Jaroslav Halak turned away 26 of them. That set up another tough matchup against the home country in the semis. The Slovaks fell behind 3-0 heading into the third period but stormed back with goals by Lubomir Visnovsky and Michal Handzus to come within one with five minutes to go. That’s as close as they came to upsetting the eventual gold medal-winning Canadians, but there’s no doubt they punched way above their weight just to get to that position.
It will be difficult for Slovakia to repeat that kind of success in Sochi. Gone are longtime veterans Pavol Demitra, Jozef Stumpel, Zigmund Palffy and Richard Zednik. In there place will come a youth movement led by the likes of Tomas Tatar, Richard Panik, Tomas Jurco and Martin Marincin. Will the kids be ready for primetime international hockey in Sochi? There is still plenty of top-flight veteran talent on this squad to help them along. This is how I think the 25-man roster will shake down:
- The big question will be whether or not Tatar is ready for big minutes on the top line. The 22-year-old had a very nice year with the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL team, scoring 49 points in 61 games. He even saw 18 games with the big club, scoring seven in 18. There’s a big hole at centre on this team, and with the 36-year-old Handzus looking a little long in the tooth, Tatar will be counted on to be a big part of the team’s offense.
- Remember Miro Satan? The 38-year-old spent last year with the KHL’s Bratislava Slovan, scoring 12 points in only 21 games. But the year before, he totaled 52 in 49, albeit playing in the weaker Slovakian league. Assuming he isn’t dealing with any major injuries and hasn’t lost his desire to play, the team could use his scoring prowess in the top six. If he can’t cut it, the 22-year-old Panik should be able to fill that role to some degree.
- The fourth line and extras are kind of a crapshoot, because I don’t really know any of these guys. I know Radivojevic, Marcel Hossa and Surovy all played in the NHL back in the day, but they’re now all north of 30 years old and aren’t exactly lighting the KHL on fire. On a team that will be pretty winger-heavy, they should make the team, but I can’t see them playing significant roles.
- Chara is still one of the best defensemen in the world, and will be counted on to log big minutes along with the 37-year-old Visnovsky. The two Andrejs, both veteran NHLers, round out the top six. Meszaros only played 11 games last year due to a torn rotator cuff that required surgery. They’ll need him to stay healthy. The 21-year-old Marincin had 30 points in 69 games for the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL team last year. The second-round pick in 2010 should make the team. The former NHLer Jurcina will battle Baranka and Granak for the final spot, but the fact he’s the only right-handed shot in this group might give him the leg up.
- The goaltending will remain unchanged from Vancouver. Halak had a tough year as a backup with the St. Louis Blues, but has shown in the past he has the ability to get hot and carry his team deep in a short tournament. Budaj actually had a better save percentage in a similar number of games as Halak last season, but doesn’t have the same track record. I remember Stana from old NHL video games. I can still hear Jim Hughson saying his name. At 33 years old, he’s still going strong in the KHL, posting a .934 save percentage with CSKA Moscow last season.