Underrated Hockey Stars to Watch at the 2014 Winter Olympics
When the 2014 Winter Olympics commence in Sochi, Russia, the NHL will be on hiatus from Feb. 9-24. The league had 150 players picked, a diverse blend of superstars, stars, grinders and up-and-comers. Of course, with the world watching, a majority of them are expected to contribute.
There’s no doubt those who have been assigned superstar status are going to be at the forefront of each team’s production. But what about the rest? What place do they hold and what is expected of them?
It goes without saying heroes are created in every Olympics. Here’s a look at 10 underrated players who likely will play pivotal roles for their country. And who knows, their contributions just may lead to a miracle.
Canada: Ryan Getzlaf
There’s little question Canada will look to Sidney Crosby and John Tavares to be the offensive catalysts in the country's gold-medal quest to repeat. However, hulking center Ryan Getzlaf always seems to get lost among the stars. In the 2010 Olympics, Getzlaf registered seven points in seven games. Not only was he second in team scoring but finished fourth overall among all tournament scorers.
The boon for Canada is that the 6’4” Getzlaf is a two-way gritty center who is strong with the puck offensively and a hound defensively. Further, he has uncanny chemistry with Anaheim Ducks linemate Corey Perry. Should coach Mike Babcock opt to keep them together, and why wouldn't he based on their past success, Getzlaf may be Canada's ace in the hole.
Czech Republic: Vladimir Sobotka
It’ll be more than just about putting up offensive numbers for the St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Sobotka (right) in his Olympic debut. The energetic Czech Republic pivot simply makes things happen with both his body and defensive passion as an in-your-face shut-down pest against top players.
It’s not inconceivable, too, that Czech Republic coach Alois Hadamczik may throw Sobotka on a third line with Jaromir Jagr, a last link to the 1998 gold-medal squad. What it means is that Sobotka can do the dirty work along the boards and corners to spring the puck. Oh yeah, Sobotka does possess some offensive chops, too, scoring the occasional goal here and there.
Finland: Aleksander Barkov
An imposing 6’3” center who hasn’t quite grown into his body, Aleksander Barkov is only 18 years old and likely will have a limited role with the Finns. However, the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft has shown flashes of brilliance with his playmaking ability and on-ice intelligence for the Florida Panthers.
Finland is solid at the center position, but Barkov’s raw ability might be relied upon if Mikko Koivu isn’t ready coming off recent ankle surgery.
Russia: Alexander Radulov
Alexander Radulov fits the bill as an underrated player to make an impact in his second Olympics. When he did play in the NHL, his talent was construed as a Peter Forsberg type but one with explosive speed. He has terrific hands and enters the Olympics with the benefit of playing on the Kontinental Hockey League's larger ice surfaces. Through Jan. 29, he had 34 points in 33 games for CSKA Moscow.
Expected to play on Russia’s second line with all-world talents Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom will be shadowed, Radulov could be the offensive X-factor. He’ll be expected to feed the puck to the aforementioned two.
Czech Republic: Tomas Plekanec
Tomas Plekanec (right) has never scored more than 29 goals or exceeded more than 70 points in his nine-year NHL career. But the Czech Republic captain has played in a slew of international tournaments, including the 2010 Olympics (one goal, two assists), and international experience cannot be overstated enough.
Besides an aging Jaromir Jagr, there are few standouts on this team. Plekanec, expected to play on the third or fourth line, won’t be counted on to light up the scoreboard. Where he’ll benefit the team is in three key categories: the playmaking department, being strong at both ends of the ice and winning faceoffs, one of the most underrated facets of hockey.
Finland: Valtteri Filppula
With above-average speed and exceptional playmaking skills, two-way center Valtteri Filppula certainly has the prowess to be an offensive threat. That sounds a lot like his scouting report, largely unrealized thus far, when he entered the NHL in 2005-06. Filppula, projected to play on the Finns' second line, could utilize his skills better on the larger Olympic-sized 200 feet by 100 feet sheet of ice.
Normally a streak player, Flippula may be counted on by Finland coach Erkka Westerlund to notch more than the three goals he netted in the 2010 Olympics. If he gets going, the Finns may make it five medals in the last six Winter Games.
Slovakia: Jaroslav Halak
The St. Louis Blues netminder will be relied on to stand on his head since Slovakia isn’t that deep. Jaroslav Halak has been on the precipice of becoming an elite goalie in the NHL and has been downright dominating in spurts. In the 2010 Olympics, Halak started every game, posting a .910 save percentage and 2.41 goals against average. He nearly led the Slovaks to a medal, losing to Finland in the bronze medal game.
Halak also brings a wealth of international experience to the team, having been the starter for Slovakia on numerous occasions outside of Olympic competition. He’s the type of goalie who can get red hot and steal games, something that shouldn’t be overlooked in a short tournament.
Sweden: Nicklas Backstrom
What’s a guy have to do to move up the depth chart? After leading Sweden with six points in the 2010 Winter Olympics, puck-dangling center Nicklas Backstrom (left) finds himself on the third line heading into Sochi. That’s because two dynamic guys named Henrik (Sedin and Zetterberg) fill out the first two lines.
Backstrom’s open-ice vision is well-suited for the larger ice surface, as his game is predicated on being patient with the puck and distributing it at the right times. It doesn’t hurt that the NHL’s power play points leader (though Jan. 29) will boost Sweden’s special teams. With other top teams looking to neutralize Sweden’s best two lines, it opens the door for Backstrom to flourish.
USA: Joe Pavelski
In the 2010 Olympics Pavelski had a meager three assists in the USA's six games. However, don’t underestimate “The Big Pavelski,” who thrives playing on any of the top-nine forward positions, much like Canada contemporary Patrick Sharp. Throughout his seven-year career, Pavelski has had a knack for scoring clutch goals. USA coach Dan Bylsma now has the luxury of inserting him anywhere and likely will get results.
Since injury has depleted the San Jose Sharks, Pavelski was inserted into the team’s top line and has been near unstoppable. He’s tied for second in goals (through Jan. 29) and as coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com recently: “He can win faceoffs, kill penalties, play on the power play, 5-on-5, he's good on the shootout. It's hard to find an area of the game where you can say he doesn't excel in.''
Canada: Patrick Sharp
Projected to play on Canada's third line, the 6’1” Sharp has always lived outside the spotlight. The guy, similar to the USA's Joe Pavelski, is one of the most versatile players on the planet. He can do virtually anything on skates outside of a high-wire act. He can play any forward position, puts up quietly consistent numbers, has a high hockey IQ and is an adept penalty killer.
Some hockey pundits were left scratching their heads when Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman didn't select Joe Thornton and Martin St. Louis. But all-around talents like Sharp are rare and minimize such malarkey. Don’t be surprised if Sharp turns out to be a key ingredient to Canada’s success.