Which 2014 Olympic Hockey Team Has the Best Projected Top Line?
It only took a year to iron out, but it's finally official: the NHL will be sending its players to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Games aren't until February, but it's never too early to kick start the "who's better? who's best?" debate—especially when it comes to international competitions like the Olympics.
While we don't know which players will be heading overseas, for the most part, it's easy to pick out the top players for each participating nation.
Twelve teams are set to square off for the gold medal in 2014. All of them feature at least a few NHL- (or ex-NHL) caliber players, but that doesn't mean these squads are created equal.
For countries such as Norway that don't feature many prominently known players, we conceived best guesses as to who would be on the first line. If you've got your own ideas for first line players on those teams, don't hesitate to let us know about it in the comments.
Projected Line: Martins Cipulis, Zemgus Girgensons, Lauris Darzins
Biggest Strength: There likely aren't a lot of scouting reports floating around on two-thirds of this line for the "superpowers" to devour, so that's a good thing.
Girgensons is a strong two-way pivot and is respected for his play in all three zones. Paired up with offensive-minded guys like Cipulis and Darzins, the line could surprise a bit, especially if the opposition gets away from matchups.
Why It's Here: Latvia is the only team without at least one proven NHL player—not star, just player—on its top line. While hot goaltenders and good coaching can lead to surprising results at the Olympics, on paper this is the weakest projected starting forward trio heading into the Winter Games.
Who doesn't like a good underdog story though?
Projected Line: Patrick Thoresen, Morten Ask, Mats Zuccarello
Biggest Strength: There's an interesting mix of players available for Norway.
Expect Thoresen to do the offensive heavy lifting here—something he's proven to be more than capable of during his time in the KHL. Ask has the sandpaper to grind the puck out to the wings, and Zuccarello is crafty when given a little bit of space—something there will be plenty of given the increased dimensions of the ice surface at the Winter Games.
Why It's Here: There's some potential for this to be one of the more surprising lines in play. Still, would you bet on it over the trios that are ranked higher on this list?
Projected Line: Reto Suri, Martin Pluss, Damien Brunner
Biggest Strength: All three of Switzerland's top forwards are quick and shifty. While Pluss and Suri may be steamrolled by the likes of Zdeno Chara on North American rinks, they'll have some space to play with during these Winter Games.
Suri and Pluss are both fleet-footed players that play a responsible two-way game, while Brunner adapted well to the NHL during his rookie season in 2013.
Why It's Here: There's speed to burn on this top line, but some of the better defenseman will be able to control the gaps well enough to limit the effectiveness.
Projected Line: Tomaz Razingar, Anze Kopitar, Ziga Jeglic
Biggest Strength: Kopitar is one of the top (and most underrated) centers in the NHL, and pushes this line all the way to No. 9 on his own. He's an outstanding player that makes the forwards around him better, and he has experience playing along side Razingar.
Jeglic brings decent size and creativity to the table, matching up well with the other two players on this line.
Why It's Here: Compared to the lines that the superpowers can piece together, this one isn't particularly outstanding. Still, there's enough talent here to put up some points and keep Slovenia competitive.
Projected Line: Thomas Vanek, Daniel Oberkofler, Michael Grabner
Biggest Strength: Vanek and Grabner are going to be flying all over the place with the extra space during the Winter Games. Oberkofler just needs to feed these guys the puck and let them utilize their incendiary speed.
There's plenty of finish on both wings as well, and Oberkofler is a solid enough center to feed these two the puck via tape-to-tape passes on the rush.
Why It's Here: The first line on this list with more than one established outstanding NHL player, the Austrians are going to rely on Vanek and Grabner heavily regardless of who ends up centering them.
The roster will be weak down the middle, so the dynamic duo will need to find a way to get it done for Austria to make any noise.
Projected Line: Valtteri Filppula, Mikko Koivu, Teemu Selanne
Biggest Strength: The talent and overall hockey sense on this line is overwhelming. All three of these guys are capable of making smart and tidy plays in the offensive zone while holding up their end of the bargain on defense.
Selanne will likely be the trigger man, but don't sleep on Filppula. He's an intelligent player and could thrive when given big minutes.
Why It's Here: While this line is speedy and smart, it could have an issue when matching up against some of the larger forwards that will be in play. All three of these guys are familiar with the physicality that can come with these games—Selanne played in the original Olympics, didn't he?
There's no real dump and chase capability here, which limits versatility, and their skill sets overlap a bit. Who among them is going to go out-muscle Ryan Getzlaf in the corner over and over again while trying to dig the puck back out into the slot?
6. Czech Republic
Projected Line: Tomas Fleischmann, David Krejci, Jaromir Jagr
Biggest Strength: There's some serious goal-scoring ability on this line. Krejci has proven time and time again that he can be an elite passer when given proper wingers, and they don't come much more proper than Fleischmann and Jagr.
Jags may be getting old, but he's an international legend. While he's lost a step in recent years, Krejci has a knack for slowing the game down. As long as "Flash" Fleischmann can reign it in and stay onsides, this line will be stellar and fun.
Why It's Here: The fact that this line ranks sixth serves as a reminder of how outstanding Olympic teams are and can be. There's nothing not to like about this trio—there's just more to like about the lines that follow.
Projected Line: Marian Hossa, Michal Handzus, Marian Gaborik
Biggest Strength: Punches in bunches. This line is capable of scoring goals by the truckload. Handzus is a sloth on skates, but that won't matter with Gaborik and Hossa flying up and down the wings.
Handzus and Hossa are strong two-way players and should be able to stymie and rushes against.
Why It's Here: If the Slovaks had a better center, they'd place higher. Miroslav Satan could slot in instead of Handzus, but it really won't matter. Gaborik and Hossa are both outstanding players and will receive plenty of ice time while trying to put this team over the top.
4. United States
Projected Line: Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Kane
Biggest Strength: There really isn't anything that this line can't do well. All three guys are capable of finishing chances. Parise and Kane are two of the slickest, most-skilled forwards in the NHL.
The hope is that Kesler can finally return to full health and be ready to go for this tourney. If he is, this could be one of the tougher groups to contain. There's so much creativity and scoring potential here that every time the puck enters the slot there's a chance for the red light to go on.
Why It's Here: The larger ice surface.
Traditionally the U.S. has played good puck in North America, but really struggled to do any damage in Europe. There's plenty of attitude on this line, and they'll be out to change that trend.
Projected Line: Gabriel Landeskog, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin
Biggest Strength: The creepy twin thing will be in full effect with the larger ice surface in Russia. Few players can get a cycle going like the Sedin Twins, and Landeskog is the perfect sandpaper element to add to this line.
While there are some more established international players, getting Landeskog to go into the corners to fish the puck out to the Sedins might be too good to pass up for Sweden. When your check down is Henrik Zetterberg, it's likely that things are going to be OK regardless.
Why It's Here: Canada and Russia are staked.
Projected Line: Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry
Biggest Strength: Two big, strong wings to streak to the net with the best passer in the world feeding them the puck? Good luck stopping that.
Perry and Nash are both former goal-scoring champions, and Crosby is arguably the best offensive talent in all of hockey. Put them together and you have a line that is damn near unstoppable.
Why It's Here: Not to harp on the bigger ice issue, but it is important. Perry and Nash aren't the kind of players that can use the extra space to really create more chances for themselves. It doesn't help their games, but it doesn't improve them either.
At least not like it does for the Russians.
Projected Line: Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin
Biggest Strength: Creativity. Precision. A whole lot of hustle and some extra space to work with will make this trio the top-scoring line in the Olympics. If you think it's too early to call, line these three up on NHL 13 and see what kind of damage you can do.
The firepower on this line is just lethal, and all three guys are smart players that can make even the best defender look silly.
Why It's Here: Would there be a more entertaining matchup than the listed Canadian line against this group? Could it get any more East vs. West? Dynamic skating and scoring ability against north-south bruisers with outstanding hockey IQ?
Is it February yet?