Most Intriguing Position Battles for 2014 Winter Olympics Hockey Rosters
A lot of the pre-Olympic hoopla has been focused on Canada and who will be its starting netminder. The likes of Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Mike Smith are set to do battle to be the team's starter, and that barely scratches the surface of the contestants in the "who wants to help defend this gold medal in Russia?" sweepstakes.
Despite the press overload on that particular position battle, there are several other situations worth keeping an eye on as the season unfolds.
A hot streak or cold start from certain players could see them make or not make their respective teams. For instance, what would the United States do if Jonathan Quick fell off for six weeks while Ryan Miller became an unquestionable force again?
What about Russia and its lack of elite defenseman? How will it solve that issue? All of these questions will be dealt with in due time as the opening ceremony draws near.
There's a good reason everyone and their grandmother is chiming in with opinions and angles about Canada's battle in net: because it's really an interesting situation even when you strip away the overplay.
Among the candidates to be numero uno for Canada are Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Mike Smith, Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby.
That's a logjam if we've ever seen one.
According to Nicholas J. Cotsonika over at Yahoo! sports, Mike Babcock recently had this to say about the goaltending situation: “One of these goalies will be hot going in. Everyone will know who’s playing goal for Canada.”
You have a better chance of figuring out who is going to play defense for the Tampa Bay Lightning than trying to determine which one of these guys is going to "be hot" at the right time. This group of players will continue to be under the microscope until one of them goes on a three-game shutout streak two weeks before the Olympics or, inversely, five of their games go to Hell.
The thing that makes this decision such a tough one for Canada's brass is that several of the leading candidates also appear to be mentally unstable, at least from a goaltending point of view. Luongo, Price and even Crawford have gone ice cold at times and really allowed their poor mental outlook to drag down their play.
So place your bets, ladies and gents. You have a 10 percent chance of being able to say, "I told you so" once the Olympics finally roll around.
Who Will Be Slovakia's No. 1 Center?
This is Marko Dano. He's never played a game in the NHL, has 37 games of experience in the KHL and was selected 27th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the draft this year.
He's also in line to be the second- or third-line center for Slovakia at the Olympics. The kid is one year removed from competing in the World Junior Championship and suddenly he's expected to line up across from Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Sedin? In the Olympics?
That's a tough draw.
It might appear to be safe to assume that Tomas Kopecky will center the top unit, but there are a few other young kids breathing down his neck. While Kopecky is a respectable NHL talent, could a strong start from Tomas Tatar put him in the driver's seat to be Slovakia's top center in Sochi?
The answer to that question could ultimately determine Slovakia's chances of earning a medal.
While Canada's goalies battle it out to prove that they are mentally tough enough to head to Russia and defend a gold medal, Finland has the exact opposite problem: The Fins have a plethora of strong, proven goalies but not enough roster spots for them all.
The front-runner for the job at this point has to be Tuukka Rask, who was among the best goaltenders in the NHL in 2013. Nipping at his blades, though, are Antti Niemi, Pekka Rinne, Niklas Backstrom and Kari Lehtonen.
Backstrom and Lehtonen both have an injury history, but the Fins aren't looking to build a team for the long haul. They need a lights-out goalie for two weeks. Every one of these guys has shown the ability to go on that sort of hot streak.
So what happens if Rask comes out of the gate cold while trying to figure out how to deal with the pressure that comes with a massive contract? Or if Rinne struggles while the Nashville Predators figure out how to score goals?
If Backstrom or Lehtonen goes on a 10-game tear in December, it'll put the decision-makers for Finland in quite a tough spot.
Who Is Going to Play Defense for Russia?
A quick search of NHL.com's player database turns up some unpleasant news for Russia. While the squad is absolutely loaded at forward, the entire nation only had nine defensemen playing in the NHL last season.
While that would be alright if the names on the were legitimate All-World players, that just isn't the case. So can this team score enough goals while Evgeni Nabokov or Sergei Bobrovsky gets peppered with shots from all over the ice?
Of the nine players listed, only Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov have Olympic experience. Slava Voynov will likely get his first taste of the Winter Games this year, which leaves some very unattractive options for the rest of the group.
Imagine Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry bearing down on Fedor Tyutin and Dmitry Orlov on a three-on-two.
Good luck with all that, boys.
Who Will Anchor the Swiss in the Defensive Zone?
It's not going to be Mark Streit, that's for sure.
While he's very capable in the offensive zone, no one has ever confused the man for Chris Pronger. Instead, the defensive end of things will likely fall to one of the youngsters that will surely make the roster.
Roman Josi is our leading candidate, as he's poised to make quite the name for himself in Sochi, while Rafael Diaz and Luca Sbisa both bring a lot of positive qualities to the ice every night as well.
The Swiss play with a strong team concept, so it won't be up to these kids to do all the heavy lifting alone. A lot of pundits are picking this squad as the dark horse to watch during these games, and if Sbisa, Josi and the rest of the young blue line can elevate their games, the Swiss could do some real damage.
Is It Jonathan Quick or Bust for the United States?
A lot can change in four years. That's an eternity in hockey time, and this photo illustrates that.
If we proposed the goaltending tandem of Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas while Jonathan Quick sat in the stands in his sweats, we'd have readers recommending that we get CAT scans. While they might be recommending that anyway, it won't be because we're calling for the 2010 U.S. squad to be reunited.
Thomas is awaiting nuclear fallout in a shelter somewhere right now, and Miller has fallen off in a big way since becoming a household name during the 2010 Winter Games.
While anything can happen, America's net belongs to Quick. He's a proven big-time goalie and his numbers tend to pop when important games roll around. An interesting situation could develop, though, if Miller comes out hot and Quick loses his focus.
While we wouldn't bet on that—CAT scans are expensive—a lot can happen in six months.
Which Natural Centers Will Play Up the Middle for Canada?
Another cursory search of NHL.com's player database shows that Canada had 146 centers in the NHL last season. Seven of the NHL's top 20 scorers were Canadian centers, which means that the team could ice a B-team that could take out some of the lesser teams in the tourney.
What happens when Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf and so on all want to line up down the middle for Canada when it defends the gold?
It's inevitable that some of these pivots will be moved to the wing—it'll just be interesting to see who ends up where. Does Canada load up its top six, allowing the deadly combos to provide fireworks while the more two-way oriented players do the dirty work on the third and fourth lines?
Sportsnet.ca quoted Canada general manager Steve Yzerman in July, and he said that he wasn't trying to build an All-Star team for the Olympics. “We’re not putting together a team for a NHL all-star game. We’re putting together the best possible team we can to compete against the best players in the world and try and win a gold medal.”
There will be some broken-hearted centers left in North America when Team Canada heads to Sochi. There aren't many guarantees among these position battles, but that is one thing that is for certain.