The 2014 Sochi Olympic men’s hockey teams took to the ice for the first time today (or yesterday by Russian time), giving hockey fans the first opportunity to see where players might fit onto their respective country’s teams.
Toronto Maple Leafs wingers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, as expected, were practicing together on a line with San Jose Sharks centre Joe Pavelski for Team USA. The Kessel-Pavelski-JvR unit is expected to provide a lot of offense for the Americans as the second scoring line.
The role for Nikolai Kulemin, the third Leaf participating in the Games, for Team Russia is a little murkier. Kulemin has had considerable success playing alongside Pittsburgh Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin in the KHL for Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, and at various international competitions.
But it looks like head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov is going to break up that longstanding duo, if line rushes at practice today are any indication.
Kulemin has struggled offensively the last two seasons with only 41 points in 96 games. It’s not a surprise that Bilyaletdinov has opted to go with Alexander Semin to play alongside Russia’s two most talented players, as Semin has 73 points in his last 89 NHL games.
So what about the second line? Could Kulemin find himself a part of that unit?
No real surprises there, either. That leaves Artem Anisimov of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues, Valeri Nichushkin of the Dallas Stars and Kulemin to battle it out for third-line duties.
Kulemin is the only one of those forwards listed as a left-winger. Kulemin is also more experienced than the others, and can provide a defensive-minded, stabilizing force on that third line.
UPDATE: @13_Leafs pointed me in the direction of this tweet by Dan Rosen of NHL.com.
So there you have it. It looks like Nichushkin will be the odd-man out. Kulemin should benefit from playing with two young and talented forwards in Tarasenko and Anisimov. Of course, these lines could all change by tomorrow, but it’s interesting to watch nonetheless.