There are at least seven hockey nations with elite top lines, but the disparity between them begins to grow as you descend the depth chart. This year's Olympic gold medalists could very well be the team whose secondary lines can best neutralize opponents and generate some scoring. Which nation has the best depth?
To answer that question we've broken it down into the following areas.
- If the top lines cancel each other offensively, which teams will get the most secondary scoring?
- When the depth lines wind up on the ice against the opposing first line, which teams have the defensive skill and experience to reduce that disadvantage?
- If the starting goalie is injured or struggles at a critical time, which teams have the depth to make a smooth replacement?
Each team has had their offensive, defensive and goaltending graded, and then ultimately ranked by a roughly even weighting of the three. Knowing which teams have an advantage, and in which areas, can help predict the winner of a round-robin or elimination round matchup of any of the following teams.
We'll start with a single slide for the non-medal contenders, then one apiece for the big seven.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
12. Slovenia. Very few players on Slovenia's roster are playing in the top professional European leagues. This level of competition will be a shock to even those on the top line.
11. Latvia. Latvia's depth lines up well among the non-contenders. In this context they have a good checking line, and a potential sleeper offensively in Martins Karsums. They are sunk without their starting goalie Edgars Masalskis.
10. Norway. About half of Norway's lineup is playing in the Swedish league, and therefore have some experience taking on top opponents and playing on international ice. Keep an eye on Patrick Thoresen's scoring numbers.
9. Austria Other than a top line that features Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner, the highlight for Austria will be a deep and defensively experienced blue line.
8. Switzerland. Both of Switzerland's backup goalies have some NHL experience, and their blue line is arguably competitive with one or two of the medal contenders.
Offensive Depth: D
Slovakia's scoring talent is rather thin, even on the top lines. Defensive-minded players like Michal Handzus and Tomas Kopecky will actually be relied upon to help Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik—if he's healthy—generate top-six scoring.
To make matters even worse, beyond Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky, the puck-moving abilities on Slovakia's blue line is unlikely to be competitive with the other medal contenders.
Defensive Depth: D
With so little NHL experience among their forward corps, it is hard to accurately grade how they may perform against the world's best hockey players. Again, a lot of the weight is gong to be placed on the shoulders of Handzus, Kopecky and Hossa.
On the blue line, Slovakia has decent defensive strength in their top four, but their third pairing could struggle.
Goaltending Depth: C-
In Peter Budaj the Slovakians have a quality NHL backup who is having a good year and has plenty of experience facing the world's best players. In this one (and possibly only) area, the Slovakians are arguably equal to the strong Swedish team.
Offensive Depth: C
The Czech Republic's scoring can be nicely spread out over two lines—and very possibly stretched over three. These won't be elite offensive lines, but certainly at the same level as a legitimate NHL playoff team.
Without additional scorers like Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata and Tomas Fleischmann selected for the team, there will still be at least one line without much of an offensive spark.
There's also a clear lack of puck-moving ability on the blue line beyond Marek Zidlicky, other than maybe Tomas Kaberle.
Defensive Depth: C
Up front the Czech Republic do have defensively responsible forwards for the most part, but could be in for trouble on the blue line.
Beyond Zidlicky and Zbynek Michalek, none of their roster inclusions is currently taking on the type of opponents they will see in Sochi. While Michal Rozsival, Ladislav Smid and Radko Gudas are all defensive-minded NHL blue liners, they haven't had success this season in shutting down the league's best. Where is Jan Hejda?
Goaltending Depth: D
Perhaps no team is in more urgent need of goaltending depth than the Czech Republic, whose number one goalie Ondrej Pavelec is among the NHL's worst starters.
While they are both doing exceptionally well in the KHL this year, neither Alexander Salak nor Jakub Kovar are accustomed to playing against this caliber of opponent. It is unclear how they would perform against the likes of Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, but the fact that Salak couldn't crack Florida's lineup is telling.
Offensive Depth: C-
The Finnish Olympic hockey team does not have a lot of scoring, even from the top lines. If players like Valtteri Filppula, Aleksander Barkov, Teemu Selanne and Mikko Koivu don't score, then perhaps no one will. The top four medal contenders all have third and/or fourth lines that are at least as deadly as Finland's first.
If looking for a sleeper, keep an eye on Jori Lehtera, who has been highly effective in both the Finnish league and the KHL throughout his career. Young playmaker Mikael Granlund is another name to watch out for.
Defensive Depth: C+
Finland has a depth of effective defensive players up front, though there may be some defensemen that struggle to keep up with top opponents.
The team's real advantage could actually prove to be having so many defensive-minded players that are at or near the NHL level, but are currently defending on international ice surfaces.
Goaltending Depth: A
Even if something should happen to Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen are both arguably at the same level as the starting goalies on almost every other Olympic team. This depth is fortunate for Finland, given some recent slumps by both Rask and Niemi, however brief they were.
Offensive Depth: B-
Sweden has built a classic puck possession-based team. Sweden's top two scoring lines are undeniably fantastic, both up front and on the blue line, but the team is otherwise composed of more defensive-minded players.
Still, a certain amount of offense could be generate by the likes of Loui Eriksson or Patrik Berglund, not to mention their many young speedsters.
Defensive Depth: A-
The Swedish team has great depth on the blue line. It is composed entirely of players that consistently face top NHL lines, with potentially only veteran Henrik Tallinder of limited value.
Up front, watch out for young defensively-strong forwards like Marcus Kruger, Carl Hagelin and Gabriel Landeskog. There are no obvious weak links, but the same could be said for at least two other Olympic lineups.
Goaltending Depth: C-
Sweden's medal hopes take a big hit if Henrik Lundqvist is injured or if he struggles. Most of the medal contenders have one or two above-average NHL starting goalies as their backups, but Sweden has only serviceable veteran backups Jhonas Enroth and Jonas Gustavsson.
An injury to Lundqvist is therefore this team's only legitimate concern, and it's enough to push them down to third overall.
Offensive Depth: A-
Obviously the bulk of their scoring will come their elite top lines that include Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk. However, even their secondary lines pose a strong scoring threat, up front at least.
Alexander Radulov is a KHL scoring legend, Alexander Semin can be deadly, and youngsters Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin could get enough space to be highly effective if the team's opponents are keying on their top lines.
Defensive Depth: C
The Russian team elected to go without a lot of defensive-minded players, apart from a shutdown line that will doubtlessly feature Artem Anisimov and Nikolai Kulemin.
Those that are more accustomed to checking line and penalty-killing duties, like Alexander Svitov, are mostly from the KHL, where this Olympic level of opponent is a little less common.
Goaltending Depth: B
Semyon Varlamov and last year's Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky are both solid starting NHL goalies. While they are not one of the three Olympic teams who actually have three such goalies, Alexander Yeremenko has been one of the KHL's top goalies for years, and their tournament wouldn't necessarily be over in the unlikely event that their top two goalies were both injured or struggling.
Offensive Depth: A
The Americans have solid offensive depth up front, with several 30-goal and 60-point forwards likely to find themselves on the secondary lines, not a single bottom-six NHLer among them.
The blue line has two legitimate puck-moving defensemen in Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk, but mostly features those in the 35-point range—responsible offensive players, but not necessarily players the team would want on the ice when trailing by a goal late in the game.
Defensive Depth: A+
There was a clear commitment to selecting two-way forwards up front and defensive-minded defensemen. They have perhaps only two forwards unaccustomed to taking on the top lines (Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler) and only one defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk.
Of particular excitement is a possible third line of Dustin Brown, David Backes and Ryan Callahan, which would be gritty, defensively spectacular and provide some offensive punch of its own.
It's hard to imagine any American line combination that would put them in disproportionate trouble when up against even Russia's or Canada's top guns.
Goaltending Depth: B
If something happens to starting goalie Ryan Miller, or even his likely backup Jonathan Quick, the fate of the U.S. Olympic team barely changes. Quick and Howard may not be having the best seasons, but they are still more than capable.
Offensive Depth: A+
Not a whole lot of explanation is needed here. When two of the league's top three players in shots per game over the past three seasons were not selected for their national team, you should have a pretty strong hunch which country they hail from.
And when there's actually a debate about whether or not P.K. Subban should be on the team, and when Kris Letang and Brian Campbell aren't even considered for inclusion, you know there's a depth of puck-moving defensemen. Four of the top six defensemen in scoring over the past three seasons are on Team Canada.
Canada's large advantage here, with non-stop scoring threats on every line, more than makes up for the more razor-thin edge the Americans might have on them defensively and possibly in net.
Defensive Depth: A
When Ken Hitchcock, Claude Julien and Lindy Ruff are the associate coaches, you know the team is going to be defensively strong and focused. Up front the team is almost entirely without players unaccustomed to facing the NHL's best each and every night. Of particular note is Patrice Bergeron, arguably the game's best defensive forward.
What pulls the Canadians potentially even with the Americans is the blue line, which is essentially without equal players in this tournament. In fact, an all-star team of the best defensive defensemen on the other teams wouldn't be significantly better than whichever six players Canada selects for their blue line on any given night.
Goaltending Depth: B+
Canada is one of four nations with at least two solid NHL starting goalies on their roster, but probably in the lower half of those four. There's not a big difference between Roberto Luongo and Carey Price, giving them some flexibility if their chosen starter gets hurt or starts to struggle.