Predicting Which Buffalo Sabres Will Play in the 2014 Winter Olympics
Ever since NHL players started playing in the Winter Olympic games in the 1998 Nagano games, a highlight for fans of each franchise has been seeing familiar faces playing on the international stage. What longtime Buffalo Sabres fan doesn't remember staying up late to watch Dominik Hasek lead the Czech Republic to the gold medal in those '98 games, or recall Ryan Miller's meteoric rise to the most beloved hockey player in America during the 2010 Olympics?
Needless to say, the talent level on the Sabres roster leaves a lot to be desired during this particular Olympic season. But that being said, there are a few players who will likely be a part of the tournament in February—and, of course, one head coach barking orders from behind a bench.
Also worth noting is that two of Germany's top defensemen, Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Sulzer, won't be making the trip to Sochi because the German National Team failed to qualify for the tournament. Both Ehrhoff and Sulzer were members of the German team in both 2006 (10th-place finish) and 2010 (11th-place finish), while Ehrhoff was also a member in 2002 (eighth-place finish).
So while Ehrhoff and Sulzer will definitely be staying home, there are a handful of other Sabres players who may be playing for medals come February.
Note: All stats are updated through Nov. 30, courtesy of NHL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Follow me on Twitter @DEmkeSabres for team news and commentary.
Team Finland: Ville Leino
Not the first name you were expecting to see here, but let's just get Leino's chances to be a part of the Finnish National Team out of the way now.
The chances are slim.
In 16 games he's played with the Sabres this season, Leino has recorded just five points—all assists. He's playing less than 17 minutes a game and is practically a nonfactor on the roster, which is exactly what Sabres fans have gotten used to since he was signed to his six-year, $27 million contract in 2011. In 95 total games with the team since signing the big deal, he's scored just 10 goals and added only 26 assists.
He's been injury-prone also, with a hip injury keeping him out of all but eight games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He's already missed several games this season because of a broken rib.
His disappointing play in Buffalo has allowed younger players in Finland to surpass him on the international level. Players such as Florida Panthers forwards Sean Bergenheim and rookie Aleksander Barkov, Phoenix Coyotes left wing Lauri Korpikoski, former Toronto Maple Leaf Leo Komarov, and Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Joensuu have all moved above Leino in the hierarchy of the Finnish players during his free fall in Buffalo.
Finland has medaled in four of the last five Olympics, including a silver in Turin in 2006 and a bronze in Vancouver in 2010. With stalwarts such as Teemu Selanne, Saku and Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, Olli Jokinen and Valtteri Filppula as locks to don the Finnish flag jerseys in Sochi, there just won't be room for a struggling player like Leino on the roster if the nation hopes to continue its success.
Team USA: Ryan Miller
Just as you shouldn't let his 5-15 record fool you, neither should the U.S. Olympic Team's selection committee.
As upset as you've been with the Sabres during the 2013-14 season—and you have every right to be—there's not much Ryan Miller could have done better.
In the 20 games he's played so far on the season, Miller has faced an average barrage of 36.6 shots per game. Despite the constant pummeling of pucks, he has compiled an admirable 3.05 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
No matter how many defensive breakdowns have happened in front of him or how many putrid offensive performances have resulted in undeserved losses, Miller has continued to stand on his head night after night.
Sabres fans aren't the only ones who've taken notice of Miller's performance despite the team's futility this year.
According to Jeff Z. Klein and Stu Hackel of The New York Times, the U.S. Olympic Team's selection committee—lead by general manager David Poile—has been impressed.
Miller, (Poile) said, has been “terrific this year despite playing for the 30th-place team in the N.H.L.”
The committee has determined six finalists for the three goaltender spots in Sochi, Klein and Hackel report: Miller, Detroit's Jimmy Howard, New Jersey's Cory Schneider, Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick and Florida's Tim Thomas.
The consensus among anyone looking ahead to Sochi is that in one way or another we'll be seeing Ryan Miller in a Team USA jersey once again.
Team Sweden: Jhonas Enroth
Ryan Miller won't be the only Sabres goaltender battling for the gold in Sochi.
Of course, that competition didn't feature a full slate of NHL players—it was held in May, in the midst of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Among other players, that kept New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden's clear top goaltender, from participating. In his absence, Enroth shined.
The Sabres backup has compiled a 2.63 GAA and a .911 save percentage in nine games this year.
Brian Crompton of NHL.com projects Enroth will indeed be a part of Sweden's team in February; however, he predicts Enroth will be the No. 3 goaltender behind both Lundqvist and Ottawa's 22-year-old Robin Lehner. It's hard to believe Team Sweden will let the man who helped bring home the gold from the Worlds languish on their bench as the No. 3 behind Lehner, a player who remains unproven on the international stage.
Whether he's Lundqvist's backup or relegated to third-man duty, Enroth will be making the trip to Russia. Neither Viktor Fasth of Anaheim nor Jonas Gustavsson of Detroit will be able to unseat him from the top three.
Team Latvia: Zemgus Girgensons
One of the Sabres' youngest players will be skating in Sochi for one of the tournament's biggest underdogs.
Zemgus Girgensons, with one goal and six assists in 27 games for Buffalo this year, will be the only current NHL player on the Latvian roster in the 2014 Olympics. At 19 years old, he will also be one of the team's youngest players.
Girgensons has experience on the world stage for his home country, participating in the World Juniors in 2011 and 2012 as well as in the World Championships in 2013.
Latvia won't go far in this tournament, and it may be hard to even find its group stage games against the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland on television. But even if they don't catch Girgensons, Sabres fans should rest assured the 2012 first-round draft pick will be on the Olympic ice.
Team Latvia: Ted Nolan
Oh, yeah: If you do happen to catch one of those Latvia games on TV, don't forget that there will be a very familiar face behind the bench as well.
Before he was brought back to Buffalo as interim head coach, Ted Nolan was hired as the head coach of the Latvian National Team. In May 2012, Nolan spoke with Chapin Landvogt of hockeysfuture.com about the role.
"It’s different in one facet, namely that there was of course a language barrier, but outside of that, hockey is a universal language. You’ve got a board where you draw pictures and diagrams. Outside of that, I am just loving the experience. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in hockey."
Latvia will be playing in a round-robin group with the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland. They will be heavily overmatched against those first two teams and may have a chance, if everything goes perfectly, to squeak out a win over Switzerland. No matter what happens, they'll likely be knocked out swiftly once the playoff round begins—headed toward a 10th-, 11th- or 12th-place finish.
The Olympics will feel eerily similar to Nolan's experience this year with the Sabres, the Latvia of the NHL.
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