After profiling my thoughts for Team Canada in 2010 a short while ago, I decided that we need to take a look at our opponents at Vancouver. Between now and the actual Olympics, I will periodically take a look at our biggest challenges to winning the Gold Medal. In the first edition, I will look at Canada's two most historical hockey rivals, the United States and Russia.
The United States
Looking up and down their 2006 Olympic Roster, I can't help but wonder just what on earth they were thinking. They kept essentially the same team that won Silver in 2002, which was essentially the same team that won the World Cup in 1996. The core of the team stayed the same as Amonte, Guerin, Weight, Roenick, et al still played a prominent role on the team. While this was an exciting group of forwards to build around a decade ago, they really overperformed in Salt Lake City, and should not have been counted on quite so heavily.
The United States won the World Junior Championships in 2004, and some of that incredible wealth of talent should have been counted on in Torino. Now they find themselves years later with a huge amount of young talent, especially up front, but few of them have the big game experience needed to win large tournaments like this.
That being said, they still have a very good team, and should be considered a dark horse with potential to pull off an upset or two of one of the favourites.
This area should be a strength for the squad, as they boast a good amount of depth at this position. At the last Olympics, they were in a bit of an odd state as netminding stallwart Mike Richter was clearly on his way down, with no immediate apparent in sight. This time, things are different as they have a very good top two netminders in Rick DiPietro and Ryan Miller. These two should compete for the starting spot, with no obvious favourite. I personally would chose Miller since he has more experience in high pressure situations, having made it to the Conference Finals twice in recent years, but neither is a bad decision. As for the third goaltender, it is a toss-up between Florida backup Craig Anderson, who has shown flashes of excellence as a starter, or the always reliable veteran Tim Thomas. I'd give the nod to Thomas, but again, Anderson would not be a bad choice either.
Glen's 2010 Picks:
Reserve: Tim Thomas
The US is going to be going though a changing of the guard at it's rear, as Darien Hatcher, Matthieu Schneider and Chris Chelios have to see their best days behind them. Instead they will be replaced with the new generation of American d-men, includings the likes of both Jack and Eric Johnson (no relation), Mark Stuart, and Keith Ballard. The team should have some continuity as 2006 alumni John-Micheal Liles, Paul Martin, and Brian Rafalski take part of the team, only in a more prominent role. Also, I added Dustin Byfuglien as a reserve, since he can easily fill in a position as either a defensemen or a checking forward should anyone get injured. While their defense group is certainly nothing to be embarassed by, it has to be considered on the weaker side of things when compared to the Canadians or Swedes.
Glen's 2010 Picks:
Ballard - Martin
Liles - J. Johnson
E. Johnson - Rafalski
Now here is where things get really interesting for the Americans. They have an absolute embarassment of riches in young forwards. They also still have some aging veterans who are performing well passed their expiration date including Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Modano, and Doug Weight, to say nothing of current stars such as Zach Parise, Eric Cole, Scott Gomez, Jason Pomminville and Chris Drury.
All that being said, there is simply not enough room for all of the players listed above, since this team needs to be built around one man, Patrick Kane. This kid is good, really, really good. He is such a smooth skater and a crisp passer, he needs to be the centre piece for this squad. Similar things can also be said for Peter Mueller, Phil Kessel, Dustin Brown, and David Booth, who are all young with teremendous upsides. The forward squad I chose is an attempt to patch together experience, ability, and potential, with more of an eye towards the future than the past.
E. Cole - Mueller - Kane
Drury - Gomez - Kessel
Parise - O'Sullivan - Pomminville
Tkachuk - Modano - Gionta
Reserves: Booth, Dubinsky
All in all, the US Team should generate a great deal of optimism. While they should be considered a tier below powerhouses like Russia, Finland, Canada, and Sweden, they have a great deal of potential, and this should be a very important step towards future growth. If the NHL does participate in the 2014 games, the Americans have to be considered one of the favourites for that year.
Unlike the Americans, the Russians have all of the talent to be considered a heavy medal favourite for this year. They have earned medals in the last several World Junior Championships, and won Gold in last year's World Championship. They also have one of the best top six forward contingents, a very underrated defense corps, and one of the best starting goalies in the world.
Three words, Nabokov, Nabokov, Nabokov. He is one of the true elite goaltenders in the league, and has to be one the clear favourite to be the starter for his country. However, one can not underestimate Coyotes starter Ilya Bryzgalov, who could easily step in to face any opponent and steal a win. Round the trio out with veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, and the Russians have a goaltending trio that competes with Canada or Finland for the best in the world.
Glen's 2010 Picks:
The Russians have a stero-type for being all offense, but with solid rearguards like Anton Volchenkov, Dimitri Kalinin, Sergei Gonchar, and Sergei Zubov, the Russians should be more that capable of taking care of their own end. Add in Andrei Markov, former NHL Dany Markov (no relation), Oilers d-man Denis Gregeshkov, and Jackets stud Fedor Tyutin, and the Russians are all of a sudden pretty deep in the back. Also, my apologies, but my knowledge of any KHL stalwards is escaping me right now, so there may even be some other surprises in store.
Glen's 2010 Picks:
Volchenkov - Zubov
Kalinin - Gonchar
A. Markov - D. Markov
This is where things get downright scary. At the top of the pile they have Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin, Semin, Datsyuk, and Frolov, who probably have more firepower than even Canada's top six. This group is complemented by the likes of Kovalev, Federov, Afiniganov, Zherdev, and prodigal-son Radulov. Also of note are KHL standouts Sergei Mozaykin and Alexei Morozov, who finished 1-2 in KHL scoring last year. Morozov was also the Captain of the last two World Championship teams, and the Russians have a starling 16-0 record with him wearing the C (they lost in 2007 when he was injured), so expect him to be given the honours again.
The Russians due have as light weakness though, and that is a lack of star-power at centre. After Malkin and Datsyuk, they only have Federov listed as a natural centre, meaning at least one of their wingers (probably Kovalev, but potentially Frolov) will have to move to the middle. Switching from winger to centre is a bigger challenge than the other way around, and that could be a weakness for another team to exploit. Other than that, their forward core has little to no weaknesses, as they do have some very good two-way players like Datsyuk and Federov. Their offensive arsenal really has to make them one of the favourites going into Vancouver.
Glen's 2010 Picks:
Ovechkin - Malkin - Semin
Kovalchuk - Datsyuk - Radulov
Frolov - Kovalev - Morozov
Mozyakin - Federov - Afinoganov
So there we have two of our biggest threats to our dream story of Gold at home. Both teams have tremendous offensive firepower which should give the Canadian Defense a huge challenge. Next time I revist this feature I will look at the two teams that earned the top honours in 2006, Sweden and Finland.
Until next time,