Predicting Which Pittsburgh Penguins Will Play in 2014 Winter Olympics
The Pittsburgh Penguins are a loaded and deep team that could send as many as nine players to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. That's a bit on the bullish side though, and it seems more likely that they'll have four or five representatives at the Olympics.
Final rosters aren't due in until January 7 according to ESPN.com, and there's a lot of hockey to be played between now and then. Any number of things could happen over the next few months, ranging from hot and cold streaks to major injuries.
We've already seen several rosters thrown into states of limbo due to long-term ailments to players like Steven Stamkos, Sergei Bobrovsky and even Pittsburgh's own Paul Martin. Keeping all of these variables in mind, Penguins fans can still look forward to see several of their players overseas while competing for a gold medal.
Sidney Crosby: Canada
Team Canada is absolutely loaded down the middle. So much so that Joe Thornton (25 points in 27 games this season), Jason Spezza (23 points in 27 contests) and Claude Giroux (18 points in 27 games despite a freezing cold start) are all likely to be left at home.
And that's after shoo-ins like Matt Duchene are converted from center to wing. One guy that doesn't have to worry about any of the competition is Sidney Crosby.
Not only has he been outstanding this season, "The Kid" also sports a remarkable international resume packed to the brim with clutch goals and monster performances. Barring a tragic injury, Crosby will be in Sochi and he'll be on the top line for Canada.
Evgeni Malkin: Russia
The only player that's been playing better than Crosby for the Penguins recently is Evgeni Malkin. After a pedestrian (for "Geno") October, he set the NHL on fire in November to the tune of 25 points in 15 games. He's among the hottest players in the league at the moment and is carrying a nine-game point streak.
More so than any previous season, Malkin has taken to becoming a setup artist. His career high in helpers was 59 back in 2011-12 (he also had that total in 2007-08)—this season he's on pace for 85.
While he's taking Penguins fans for a ride with his creativity right now, no one seems to be wondering aloud just how much damage Malkin will be able to do once placed on a line with Alexander Ovechkin in Sochi. We'll give you a few minutes to roll that tidal wave of red goal sirens around in your head for a moment.
A lot of folks think that Canada is going to walk away with the gold without too much resistance. Malkin and this loaded contingent of forwards will have something to say about that.
Chris Kunitz: Canada
If Canada decided to bring Chris Kunitz to Sochi, it'd mean leaving another bubble guy like Patrice Bergeron or Jamie Benn at home (we told you Canada was loaded). Kunitz isn't a name that pops off of the page as much as the guys that he'd be replacing, but what he does out on the ice is invaluable.
He's known primarily as Crosby's wingman, but his work ethic and leadership are noteworthy as well. Kunitz isn't quite a shoo-in, but it would be surprising to see Canada leave him at home when it's known what he brings to the ice when paired with No. 87.
Last week Pierre LeBrun wrote that "Team Canada's management members, all of whom are advisers under GM Steve Yzerman, have personally scouted Kunitz, perhaps more than any other player." If that's the case then they've been impressed by what they've seen and there's little reason that the 34-year-old won't be heading to Russia.
Jussi Jokinen: Finland
Like Kunitz, Jussi Jokinen has a particular calling card. The 30-year-old happens to be a monster when it comes to shootouts. He's one of the most creative players in the league when it comes to baffling netminders, and he's good for a few highlight reel moves a season.
Those silky-smooth mitts have been good for much more than the occasional shootout goal in Pittsburgh. Where Jokinen's play was trailing off with the Carolina Hurricanes, he's rediscovered his scoring touch in a secondary role with the Penguins.
He's quietly on pace for a 25 goal, 25 assist season. If Jokinen continues to play at his current level, he'll not only challenge his career high in goals (30), but he'll also make Finland's final roster for the Winter Games.
Olli Maatta: Finland
Finland is renowned for cranking out prototypical high-end, two-way hockey players with high hockey IQs. A quick glance at their likely forward group highlights this fact. Saku and Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Teemu Selanne all fit that mold.
While the Fins posses numerous solid forwards, they don't crank out defensemen at quite the same level. Only five Finnish defenders are in the NHL this season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see four of them make the Olympic squad.
That includes Olli Maatta, who the Penguins nearly didn't keep in the NHL this season. The 19-year-old is poised beyond his years, and while he probably wouldn't be a top-pairing guy in Sochi, he'd be a rock solid No. 5 or No. 6 option for Finland.
The Bubble Guys
James Neal (Canada)
The Oshawa, Ontario native is on pace to break the 40-goal barrier despite missing 15 games with an injury. Half of the games he's played have resulted in multi-point efforts, and he's only been held off the score sheet five times this year.
Yet James Neal is a bubble guy for Canada. He wouldn't be for any other country headed to Sochi, but at this juncture he's not a shoo-in. If he continues to produce at such a torrid pace then it's tough to imagine him not wearing the Maple Leaf, but he still have a bit of work to do to push a guy like Martin St. Louis off the roster.
Marc-Andre Fleury (Canada)
Marc-Andre Fleury's play during the regular season isn't the problem for Steve Yzerman and the rest of the minds that are picking Canada's final roster. It's how he plays when the pressure is on and a win is a must that is concerning.
While Fleury has been strong so far in 2013-14, there's just not enough distance between him and the playoff meltdown against the New York Islanders for him to be truly considered. Fair or not, "MAF" has the reputation of being a bit of a choker, and there's too much on the line for Canada to risk seeing that side of him flare up against a team like Russia or Sweden.
Paul Martin (USA)
Before fracturing his tibia, Paul Martin was a 50/50 guy for the United States. His four-to-six week recovery time just works against him now. Each and every Olympic hopeful knew that they had three months to impress their respective nation.
Now Martin is going to miss at least half that amount of time while recovering. Then there are the eventual questions about how strong and ready he'll be once the Games roll around.
With players like Seth Jones breathing down his neck for a spot as it is, this injury probably cost Martin a spot with the Americans in Sochi.
Kris Letang (Canada)
There's no denying that Kris Letang is one of the NHL's elite puck-moving defensemen. The thing is, Canada has several players with the same "smooth-skating, slick-passing" skill set that are performing over Letang's head this season.
He hasn't found his groove since returning at the end of October, and it'd take a monster push from him to garner consideration over P.K. Subban or Drew Doughty at this point. That's a tough draw for Letang, but that's the price of hailing from the most hockey-centric nation on the planet.