Latvia Olympic Hockey Team 2014: Projecting 25-Man Roster for Sochi Games

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IAugust 30, 2013

Latvia Olympic Hockey Team 2014: Projecting 25-Man Roster for Sochi Games

0 of 9

    Latvia will arrive to the 2014 Winter Olympics as a heavy underdog with a roster that will likely include just a couple of players who were drafted or have played for NHL teams.

    This European country's hockey program has improved over the last decade, as evidenced by its qualification in three consecutive Olympics. However, Lativa has never finished better than ninth at the Olympics, with its two most recent tournaments (Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010) ending with a last-place finish.

    Let's look at how Latvia should construct its roster for the Sochi Games.

Preliminary Roster

1 of 9

    Latvia has not yet announced a preliminary roster for the next Olympics.

    With a lot of young players—including several NHL prospects—expected to receive consideration for the final roster, the first few months of the 2013-14 season will likely determine a lot of the open spots on the 25-man roster.

Toughest Roster Decision

2 of 9

    Here is the player who barely missed my final roster for Latvia.

     

    Juris Stals, Right Wing

    At 31 years of age, Stals was one of the veterans on Latvia's 2013 World Championship team. Even though he would bring valuable international experience to Sochi, his recent performances for Latvia prove that he doesn't deserve a spot on the final roster.

    Stals has failed to tally a single point at each of the last three World Championships, while also posting a combined minus-eight rating between those tournaments. He doesn't have exceptional speed and won't offer much defensive skill to the roster, which makes it difficult to put Stals in the bottom-six forward group over younger players who need Olympic experience.

Projected 25-Man Roster

3 of 9

    Here's my projected 25-man roster for Latvia at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

    • Goalies: Edgars Masalskis, Kristers Gudlevskis, Maris Jucers
    • Defensemen: Arturs Kulda, Maris Jass, Agris Saviels, Janis Andersons, Rafis Freibergs, Krisjanis Redlihs, Kristaps Sotnieks, Georgijs Pujacs
    • Forwards: Janis Sprukts, Roberts Jekimovs, Andris Dzerins, Ronalds Kenins, Aleksejs Sirokovs, Vitalijs Pavlovs, Armands Berzins, Lauris Darzins, Martins Cipulis, Juris Stals, Miks Indrasis, Gints Meija, Zemgus Girgensons, Koba Jass

Goaltending Breakdown

4 of 9

    Projected Starter: Edgars Masalskis

    Masalskis is the obvious choice to start in net for Lativa at the Sochi Olympics. He enjoyed a successful season with Khanty-Mansiysk Yugra of the KHL in 2013, posting a 17-11-3 record and a .910 save percentage.

    The 33-year-old has lots of experience as the No. 1 goaltender for Latvia in international tournaments (including two Olympics) and won't be intimidated by the pressure that he will face in Sochi.

    As the only Latvian goaltender who's played against top competition on a regular basis over the last year, expect to see Masalskis between the pipes for Game 1 of the group stage.

     

    Projected Backups: Kristers Gudlevskis, Maris Jucers

    Gudlevskis is the likely backup based on his previous international experience and good performance for HK Riga of the MHL last season (27-18-11 and a .927 save percentage).

    He represented Latvia at the 2013 World Championships and went 2-2 with a 2.22 GAA. He didn't do enough at that '13 WC to earn the starting job over Masalskis, but he certainly deserves to be the backup in Sochi.

    Jucers is a talented netminder with impressive size, but he doesn't have enough international experience to be the starter or backup in Sochi. The 26-year-old struggled in the KHL last season with a 3.01 GAA and a .894 save percentage, proving that he isn't ready for the Olympic stage yet.

Projected Defensive Pairings

5 of 9

    Projected Defensive Pairings

    PairingPlayerPlayer
    1Arturs KuldaKrisjanis Redlihs
    2Kristaps SotnieksAgris Saviels
    3Janis AndersonsMaris Jass

    The Latvian defense will need a strong performance in the group stage against the talented forwards from Sweden, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

    What the Latvians lack in size on the blue line, they make up for it with exceptional speed and quickness. The most effective way for Latvia to win a few games in the group stage is to play an uptempo game and not take penalties. This game plan must start with the team's defensemen.

    Latvia allowed the second-most goals (25) at the 2013 World Championships and must give a better effort in its own end to have any chance of reaching the qualification round in Sochi.

Projected Forward Lines

6 of 9

    Projected Forward Lines

    Line LWCRW
    1Martins CipulisZemgus GirgensonsMiks Indrasis
    2Lauris DarzinsAndris DzerinsGints Meija
    3Ronalds KeninsArmands BerzinsVitalijs Pavlovs
    4Koba JassJanis SpruktsRoberts Jekimovs

    The Latvian offense lacks elite talent and depth. It will rely heavily on the top two lines in Sochi, with the two most important players being Girgensons and Darzins.

    Girgensons is the physical No. 1 center who will make an impact in all three zones. His playmaking skills will be on display whenever Latvia is on the power play, and it's difficult to imagine this offense being productive without a consistent performance from the former first-round pick.

    Darzins will be responsible for a lot of the goal-scoring burden. He led Latvia with five goals in six games during the 2013 World Championships and represents the only top-tier offensive threat in this forward group. Darzins has also played well against top competition in the past, most recently in a 5-3 upset win over Slovakia at the '13 WC when he scored two goals.

    Latvia scored the second-fewest goals among the field of 16 nations at the '13 WC. Another performance of that nature would make it extremely difficult for this team to win any games in Sochi.

    Janis Sprukts
    Roberts Jekimovs

Most Important Players

7 of 9

    Zemgus Girgensons, Center

    Girgensons is the most talented Latvian player in the world and was taken with the No. 14 pick in the 2012 NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres.

    The 19-year-old center is an excellent two-way player with a physical style of play and strong defensive skills. He's almost always well-positioned and makes the smart play instead of taking risks that lead to turnovers.

    Girgensons' offensive skills are slowly developing, but his soft hands and excellent vision make him an above-average playmaker. He's going to play an important role for Latvia in Sochi as the first-line center responsible for scoring goals and creating high-quality scoring chances for teammates.

     

    Edgars Masalskis, Goaltender

    Masalskis' previous Olympic experience will instill confidence in his teammates. He’s played in eight World Championships and two Olympic Games, so he’s well aware of the speed and quality competition that his team will face in Sochi.

    One aspect of Masajskis' game that will help Latvia’s offense is his puck-handling skills. He’s a strong skater who plays the puck quickly and accurately to evade the opposing team’s forecheck and start the rush up ice.

    For Latvia to have any chance of making the qualification round, the team needs a consistently strong performance from Masalskis.

     

    Arturs Kulda, Defenseman

    The only NHL player on the blue line will likely be Arturs Kulda, who's played in 15 career games for the Winnipeg Jets franchise.

    As a talented offensive defenseman with a powerful shot from the point, good puck-moving skills and impressive size (6'2" and 215 pounds), Kulda will play an important role on the Latvian blue line—one that didn't make much of an impact offensively during the 2013 World Championships.

Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses

8 of 9

    Strengths

    Team Speed: The ability to skate out of trouble and combat physically superior opponents with speed are two ways that Latvia will attempt to surprise the world and earn a few upset wins in the group stage.

    This team has impressive speed and quickness both at forward and on the blue line. It also helps that almost all of the guys expected to make the final 25-man roster for Sochi have lots of experience playing on larger ice surfaces, which will help the Latvians against teams with rosters primarily made up of North American players.

     

    Weaknesses

    Lack of Elite NHL Players: Not having a forward capable of taking over a game offensively or a defenseman with the ability to shut down opposing teams' elite scorers will be a problem for Latvia.

    The level of skill and depth that Latvia will face in Sochi from opponents such as Sweden and the Czech Republic will be unlike anything most of its players see in the KHL or other European leagues. This is why the best game plan for Latvia is to play a low-scoring, defensive battle where it can capitalize on the opponents' mistakes.

     

     

     

Olympic Prediction

9 of 9

    Latvia must earn a positive result in its first group-stage game against Switzerland because the nation's final two matchups are with gold-medal contenders Sweden and the Czech Republic. A loss to the Swiss would likely seal Latvia's fate.

    Bovada has given Latvia 400-1 odds to win the gold medal in Sochi, the third-worst of the 12 teams that qualified.

    There isn't a lot of confidence in Latvia's ability to reach the qualification stage, and with no elite players at any position, the most likely result for this European country is a 0-3 record and a quick exit from the competition.

    Olympic Prediction: 0-3, 12th place