The 2014 Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi will be stacked with top NHL superstars, and it promises to provide the highest possible level of play. While everyone is talking about the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane, there are plenty of solid players who are going unnoticed.
While players are still judged primarily on what they do in the professional ranks, a strong performance in the Olympics can make or break careers. The entire world is going to be watching, so fringe NHL players can make their presence felt, and even some players who aren't currently in the NHL can generate interest.
Here is a closer look at three players who aren't receiving much publicity ahead of the Olympics, but will ultimately prove to be impact performers in Sochi.
Zemgus Girgensons (Latvia)
The Buffalo Sabres began the 2013-14 season with a multitude of youngsters on the roster, and while most of them have either been sent back to juniors or the AHL, one player has stuck around. Latvian forward Zemgus Girgensons has proven that he belongs at the NHL level, and the 20-year-old rookie has a very bright future ahead of him. Although his 17 points in 54 games doesn't necessarily jump off the page, he puts in an honest effort night in and night out.
The 6'1", 190-pound Girgensons is an extremely physical player who is more than willing to plaster opponents to the boards, but he does it the right way. Despite the fact that he dishes out a high volume of body checks, Girgensons has only racked up six penalty minutes on the year. Girgensons has also managed to thrive even with a ton of different things being thrown in his direction. According to Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News, Girgensons is currently in the midst of converting from winger to center.
While Latvia isn't expected to contend for a medal, and may not even win a game, Girgensons is still in position to shine. For starters, he is the only NHL player on the Latvian roster. Also, his head coach in Sochi will be Ted Nolan, who also happens to be his coach in Buffalo. That familiarity should be great for Girgensons' game during the Olympics. Most don't view international hockey as a hard-hitting game, but Girgensons will undoubtedly change that perception in 2014.
Andrej Sekera (Slovakia)
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Andrej Sekera has always possessed a great deal of potential, but it wasn't until this season that it finally came bubbling to the surface. Sekera showed flashes of brilliance in seven seasons with the Sabres; however, he never posted more than 29 points in a season despite his immense skill. Buffalo ultimately decided to move on by trading Sekera to the Canes for Jamie McBain and a second-round pick, and Sekera has thrived ever since.
Sekera has already set a career high in points with 31, and he also boasts a plus-six rating for what has been an up-and-down Carolina team. Although Sekera already has a wealth of NHL experience, he is just 27 years of age, which means that he is now hitting his prime. That is an obvious explanation for Sekera's impressive 2013-14 campaign, but Sekera also feels as though the Canes are utilizing him correctly, according to John Vogl of The Buffalo News.
Even when Sekera was playing inconsistently while with the Sabres, he always seemed to elevate his game during international competition. Sekera has been a mainstay for Slovakia, and he will be key in Sochi. Sekera posted nine points in 10 games during the 2012 World Championships, and he has been a workhorse on the back end for the Slovaks over the years as well. Captain Zdeno Chara will receive most of the praise if Slovakia performs well, but Sekera will certainly have plenty to do with it as well.
Roman Wick (Switzerland)
With just seven games of NHL experience under his belt, it is entirely possible that even hardcore hockey fans aren't familiar with the name Roman Wick. Once the 2014 Winter Olympics come and go, however, that may very well change. The Swiss are slowly developing into an international hockey power, and even though they enter Sochi with a mere eight NHL players on their roster, they have a chance to contend for a medal thanks in large part to players like Wick.
Wick was a fifth-round selection by the Ottawa Senators in the 2004 NHL entry draft, but aside from a cup of coffee with the team in 2010-11, he hasn't been on the NHL radar. Wick did rack up 42 points for the AHL's Binghamton Senators that same season, but he was never given a fair shake. According to Ticinonline, Wick does not intend to return to North America to play professionally unless it is at the NHL level.
"First we should agree on the conditions, in any case, I would not play in the AHL anymore because I want to progress," Wick said.
There is no question that Wick is beyond the point of playing in the AHL as the 28-year-old sniper is currently the leading scorer in the Swiss National League with 46 points in 44 games with ZSC Lions. Wick shouldn't have much trouble carrying his success over to the Olympics since several of his ZSC Lions teammates will represent Switzerland in Sochi as well. Thanks to his fine form and likely comfort level, Wick could be the breakout star of the tournament.
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