Three quarters of the San Jose contingent headed to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
After months of speculation, the San Jose Sharks learned that Antti Niemi (Finland), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Canada), Patrick Marleau (Canada) and Joe Pavelski (USA) will represent their respective countries in what many athletes consider the highest honor.
Realistically, the San Jose contingent could have been much larger, potentially doubling in size—or more—if not for injuries. Instead, San Jose’s four Olympians put the Sharks among the bottom half of the league’s teams in terms of number of representatives.
Injuries to Tomas Hertl, Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle all but eliminated their selection, and Logan Couture, at one time considered a virtual lock, made headlines as one of the biggest snubs. While not considered a favorite, Sharks captain Joe Thornton’s strong play led many to believe he'd find his way onto Canada’s roster as well.
But as many have noted, Olympic selections can be considered a blessing or a curse, and you won’t find many in the Sharks’ contingent complaining about those left off rosters. While the Olympics are undoubtedly a special opportunity, San Jose’s goal remains the same, as the team has its eyes squarely focused on something silver rather than gold.
Let’s take a look at the roles and concerns for each of San Jose’s representatives.
Arguably the best goaltending trio in the tournament, Antti Niemi currently projects to back up Boston's Tuukka Rask.
Role: Barring injury or unexpected poor play, Antti Niemi will serve as the primary backup to Boston’s Tuukka Rask. The condensed schedule (three games in four days) may favor Niemi, as Finland opens pool play with two inferior opponents in Austria and Norway before taking on Canada. Niemi’s only legitimate opportunity would likely come if Finland opts to rest Rask in the second of the team’s back-to-back against Norway.
Concerns: It would be easy to interpret Niemi’s backup role as free of risk and concern. But of all the Sharks in Sochi, the potential risks and concerns in regard to the rest of the NHL season are, in actuality, greatest for Niemi.
While it’s true that Niemi may avoid injury—as players rarely incur bench-related injuries—the Sharks’ starter has repeatedly reiterated his preference for a heavy workload. But as Finland’s clear No. 2 goaltender, it’s entirely possible that Niemi doesn’t see any game action between San Jose’s final game before the Olympic break and the team’s first game back—a 20-day break in action.
Factor in the travel and time change, and the Olympic experience could be disastrous to Niemi’s rhythm when he returns to San Jose’s lineup. On the flip side, his lack of playing time could yield a re-energized goaltender primed to take San Jose on a deep playoff run.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic's defensive prowess will be on display. Canada will need him to shut down the opposition's top offensive threats, including Team USA's Phil Kessel.
Role: Marc-Edouard Vlasic may still be a relative unknown when he arrives in Sochi among a roster of Canada’s brightest stars, but his selection is no surprise to those in the know.
While Vlasic isn’t the most glamorous pick, his strong skating and puck-moving combined with his positioning and defensive play makes him a tremendous asset to an offense-heavy group of Canadian defensemen. His “defense first” mentality should allow Vlasic to log plenty of minutes on the penalty kill in addition to matching up against the opposition’s top line.
Concerns: Not too many concerns surrounding Vlasic’s participation. He logs heavy minutes against premier competition each night for San Jose, so conditioning should not be an issue. The risk of injury is always relevant, but Vlasic has never been particularly prone to injury, and the level of competition will be a great experience for Vlasic to bring back to San Jose.
Patrick Marleau's selection came as a surprise to many, but the 34 year-old's speed and solid two-way game make him a valuable commodity to the Team Canada juggernaut.
Role: With an average age of 28, Team Canada's senior skater is Marleau. A bit of a surprise selection, Marleau, like Vlasic, offers head coach Mike Babcock a variety of options for line combinations. With several pairs of teammates on Canada’s roster, Marleau’s left-handed shot would fit nicely alongside division rivals Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of Anaheim, or Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp.
Marleau’s speed and solid play at both ends makes him a likely candidate for both special teams situations. His seven power-play goals rank him third, but given the talent at forward, if push comes to shove, his value on the penalty kill will likely take precedence over his role on the power play.
Concerns: The primary concern surrounding Marleau’s involvement centers around the life and energy in the 34-year-old’s legs. Prior to his inclusion, many thought the extended break for Marleau and Thornton would ultimately be in San Jose’s best interest. But a strong first half led to Marleau’s selection and serious talk surrounding Thornton.
Marleau has never been short on speed, which makes him a weapon on the large international ice surface. But with San Jose’s Cup-contending window closing, and the organization still searching for its first berth in the Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks cannot afford a sluggish Marleau down the stretch.
Joe Pavelski approaches the Olympic break as one of the hottest players in the NHL with 11 goals in his last 10 games.
Role: Despite Team USA having a wealth of centers, Pavelski stands poised to center one of its top two lines. Chris Peters of CBS Sports projects Pavelski on the top line with Minnesota’s Zach Parise and Chicago’s Patrick Kane. Alternatively, Pavelski played on a line with Toronto’s Phil Kessel in 2010 in Vancouver, which could potentially result in the pair being reunited along with fellow Maple Leaf James van Riemsdyk.
Regardless of his linemates, Pavelski will see plenty of ice time as he is expected to man the point on the USA’s power play, similar to his role on San Jose’s power play.
Concerns: Pavelski’s risk of injury or running out of gas is minimal. He hasn’t missed a game with San Jose since the 2010-11 season, which speaks to his durability and conditioning. He has arguably been San Jose’s best forward all season, playing through a variety of situations and line combinations, displaying a mental toughness to match.
There’s no reason to think his involvement in Sochi will disrupt the career year he currently projects statistically.
What do you think? Will Niemi's lack of playing time help or hurt San Jose's chances to win a Stanley Cup? Will Marleau have enough gas for a long playoff run? Can Pavelski's torrid pace continue halfway around the world? Let us know in the comments below!