Breaking Down Which Toronto Maple Leafs Could Compete in 2014 Sochi Olympics
The Toronto Maple Leafs were underrepresented at the 2010 Winter Olympics, as the team sent only three players to Vancouver to play for their respective countries. Representation may not be a whole lot better in 2014 in Sochi.
Only five Toronto Maple Leafs—Jake Gardiner, Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Dion Phaneuf and James van Riemsdyk—have been invited to their respective countries' Olympic orientation camps, and the team's lack of diversity could further hinder representation at the 2014 Games.
The Leafs currently employ an inordinate number of Canadians (16) to go along with five Americans, a Swede, a Russian and a German. With Germany not qualifying for the Olympics, and the strength of the other four nations, it's unlikely the Leafs will have more than a handful of players selected to play for their national squads.
With the men's ice hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi set to begin in just under six months, let's examine which Maple Leafs have a shot at representing their country at those Games.
The Long Shots
Carl Gunnarsson - Sweden
The Swedes possess a formidable blue line headlined by young stars Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and veterans Alex Edler and Niklas Kronwall. The top four—arguably the best in the world—are all but a lock. The remainder of the defense corps, however, is much less of a sure thing.
Make no mistake about it; Sweden has plenty of talent to draw from to round out their back end, but the lack of a consensus means roster spots are up for grabs.
Carl Gunnarsson wasn't among the 13 defensemen invited to Sweden's Olympic orientation camp, so his odds of making the team are slim, but if he continues to show signs of an improved offensive game in 2013-14, the 26-year-old could find himself in the mix for one of Sweden's final roster spots.
Joffrey Lupul - Canada
If Joffrey Lupul was born anywhere but Canada, he'd almost certainly be an Olympian in 2014, but alas, the Alberta native is a long shot to don the red maple leaf in Sochi.
One hypothesis for the omission is Lupul's inability to stay healthy, as the 29-year-old has yet to play 82 games in a season in his NHL career. Another factor that may be working against Lupul is his inexperience on the international stage. His only international appearance was during the 2003 World Junior Championships, which was played on North American ice.
If Lupul can stay healthy next season and continues to produce numbers among the best in the league, it may be tough for Hockey Canada's decision-makers to ignore him. If he can't make an impactful impression early in 2013-14, however, he'll be watching the games at home like the rest of us.
The Bubble Players
Jake Gardiner - United States of America
The Americans boast a young, fast team, and Jake Gardiner fits that mold to a tee.
The smooth-skating defenseman from Minneapolis was one of 18 blueliners invited to the U.S. men's national team. The likely reason for so many invites on the back end is due to a lack of high-end talent. Beyond Keith Yandle and Ryan Suter, a case can be made for each of the other 16 invitees as to why they should make the team.
Gardiner's case begins and ends with his legs as the 23-year-old is already known as one of the best skaters in the NHL. Team USA would be remiss if it ignored the value of Gardiner's skating ability and breathtaking creativity on European ice.
His lack of experience, both at the pro and international level, may eventually hold him back this time around, but a strong first half to the 2013-14 season will garner him strong consideration.
Dion Phaneuf - Canada
Like Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf would have little trouble making any other Olympic roster, but Canada's defense is stacked top to bottom. Eighteen defensemen were invited to camp, making competition even stiffer.
Unfortunately for Phaneuf, the unique abilities he brings to the table—namely his booming shot and his physicality—are diminished by the European game. His leadership qualities, while admirable, are a dime a dozen on a squad loaded with NHL captains and assistants.
Where Phaneuf may have an edge his is handedness. Team Canada is loaded with right-handed shooters on the back end; executive director Steve Yzerman, though iterating it's not the end all and be all, has gone on record as saying he prefers a balance of right-handed and left-handed shooters.
Dan Boyle, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo and Kris Letang are all right-handed, while the only left-handed defenseman with a secured roster spot is Duncan Keith.
If Phaneuf can put 2013 behind him and return to form next season, we may see that left-handed shot in Russia next winter.
James van Riemsdyk - United States of America
James van Riemsdyk profiles as the kind of player who should thrive on European ice. The extra space on the ice should heighten his above-average speed, fearless net drive and playmaking abilities, taking his game to a whole new level.
The main complaint about van Riemsdyk's NHL career to date, however, is his lack of consistency. If van Riemsdyk is slumping around Christmas time, his lackluster defensive game won't allow USA Hockey to take the chance he'll get out of it in time for the tournament.
The Sure-Fire Bets
Phil Kessel - United States of America
Phil Kessel's emergence over the past few years leaves little doubt he'll not only be playing for his country in Sochi, but will be playing on the top line. His world-class playmaking ability and lightning-quick speed will serve the Americans well on European ice.
Kessel has a wide range of international experience playing in the World U18 Championships, World Junior Championships, World Hockey Championships and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. That experience, coupled with his ability to perform in the clutch, as evidenced by his 21 points in 22 playoff games in the NHL, indicates Kessel will be a key cog for the Americans.
Nikolai Kulemin - Russia
The Russian forward group is loaded with offensive ability, which means Nikolai Kulemin will likely be playing a similar role in Sochi as he does for the Leafs as a third-line winger.
Kulemin, to his credit, reinvented himself last season as a defensive specialist, playing tough minutes five-on-five and on the penalty kill. With the question marks the Russians have between the pipes and on defense, the Russian Hockey Federation surely values that aspect of his game.
Like Kessel, Kulemin has represented his country in multiple tournaments, including the World U18 Championships, World Junior Championships and World Hockey Championships.
The Russian Hockey Federation is under immense pressure to succeed on home ice. Selecting a player who not only fills a need, but brings five international hockey medals to the table, is a no-brainer.