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The Biggest Obstacle for Each 2014 Olympic Hockey Contender

Rob VollmanContributor IFebruary 12, 2014

The Biggest Obstacle for Each 2014 Olympic Hockey Contender

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    As great as most of these Olympic teams are, they are not flawless. Every team has its Achilles heel which can be exploited by well-coached opponents. This year's Gold medal will likely be awarded to whichever team has the greatest understanding of their main weakness, and how it can be overcome.

    In this analysis I went team-by-team to find the most significant obstacle standing between each of the seven major medal contenders and the podium. In each case the biggest potential problem was identified, its impact was roughly established, and some suggestions on how to fix it were assembled. 

    It's a short tournament, and even a single misstep at the wrong time will be enough to eliminate even the greatest of these teams, potentially even at the hands of a non-contender. Let's begin.

     

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

     

Canada: Under Pressure

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Problem: Hockey is practically a religion in Canada. By winning a Gold medal, the Canadian Olympic hockey team is merely meeting their nation's expectations, not exceeding them.

    This selection may seem like a cop-out, but think about the incredible talent that was left at home, and consider the pressure that puts on those who were chosen for this opportunity.

    On paper, Team Canada is essentially without an obvious flaw. Unless the risk posed by sub-elite goaltending is really enough to sink them, the pressure of representing Canada is their greatest threat.

     

    Potential Impact: How can opponents exploit this weakness? The Canadians would have to get rattled, which isn't easy to do to a team that is so big, so fast and so skilled. And yet, it has happened before.

    Tight, disciplined defensive play combined with great goaltending and some good bounces in an elimination game could get some players frustrated and/or holding their sticks too tight. Turnovers and penalties could soon follow.

    It may not be a scientific answer, but it's one of the more effective ways of getting an edge against a team like this.

     

    How to Fix It: Canada had the wisdom to include several veterans who are already accustomed to handling this type of pressure and should use them if a game starts to slip.

    The Canadians have also built a tight defensive team that is unlikely to take gambles trying to be individual heroes. They will no doubt be coached to play the entire 60 minutes and to stick to their game plan no matter what may come.

    Obviously there will be times where they will need to be briefly carried by superstar Sidney Crosby, as well as Roberto Luongo or Carey Price, but in the end, they just need to stay confident and play their best.

Czech Republic: Defensively Weak Blue Line

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Problem: The Czech Republic's blue line can not keep up with their high-scoring opponents.

    When taking on opponents with three or four lines of strong top-six NHL forwards, a team needs defenders who are already accustomed to taking on the world's best. That's not the case here.

    Only Zbynek Michalek and Marek Zidlicky are currently regularly facing the type of opponents they will likely see in Sochi. To make matters worse, Zidicky won't help in shorthanded situations, where he's averaging just 0:21 minutes per game in the NHL this year.

    Ladislav Smid is the only other Czech blueliner who is averaging at least two minutes of penalty-killing time per game (2:14), though Radko Gudas isn't far off the mark (1:55).

    Though Zidlicky, Smid, Gudas and Michal Rozsival clearly have some defensive talent, Michalek is the only one who has had any experience and success this season in consistently shutting down the league's best.

     

    Potential Impact: While a questionable defensive blue line might not have been that serious an issue when they had the legendary Dominik Hasek in net, it's actually aggravated by having Ondrej Pavelec instead, one of the NHL's least effective starting goalies.

    The Czech Republic could bleed goals this year, and not just against the powerhouse teams.

     

    How to Fix It: Where is Jan Hejda? Including the nation's best defensive defenseman (potentially after Michalek) would have gone a long way to upgrading the blue line.

    In the absence of effective goal prevention on the blue line (or behind it), the Czech Republic will be relying on their otherwise defensively sound forward corps. It is led by Selke oversight Tomas Plekanec, who could be awesome alongside two-way veteran Patrick Elias. Underrated secondary players like Ondrej Palat and Vladimir Sobotka could also help.

    Having left potentially their best top-six scoring line at home, the Czech Republic is going to have to keep opposition scoring to a minimum in order to get back on to the podium. That will depend greatly on Michalek, aggressively backchecking forwards, and a serious step up from the team's other defensemen.

Finland: Not Enough Firepower

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    HANS PUNZ/Associated Press

    The Problem: Sure, Finland is capable of keeping the puck out of their net, but who is going to score?

    With Valtteri Filppula's injury, the Finns have only two players with at least 10 goals in the NHL this year, Jussi Jokinen (16) and Olli Jokinen (13). With Mikko Koivu also out, they are also the only two players with 30 NHL points so far.

     

    Potential Impact: No matter how great their goaltending is, they will still need some scoring. They needed four goals a game to make the gold medal game in 2006, for instance.

    Scoring even two goals a game could be quite a challenge against one of the powerhouse nations, one of which they'll need to beat for even a chance at a medal. Maybe a strong defensive system backed up by Tuukka Rask can get them through one such game, but not two or more.

     

    How to Fix It: The Finns will need to spread out what offense they do have as best they can, and they need to play sufficiently tight defence so as to avoid ever falling behind.

    Finland can rely on all-time scoring leader Teemu Selanne for one more great tournament. European-leaguers Petri Kontiola and Jori Lehtera need to take advantage of their familiarity with international ice, and their opponents unfamiliarity with them, to generate some secondary scoring.

    Youngsters Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund also have tremendous offensive potential, and Olli Maatta could turn out to be the team's most effective puck-moving defenseman.

    It's fair to say that Olli and Jussi Jokinen (no relation) won't provide enough offence by themselves. The Finns aren't completely without weapons, but they do need to make sure they get maximum value out of those they do have.

Russia: Defensive Depth

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Problem: There's no question that Russia will be able to score, but so too will their opponents. They can only field a single line of established defensive talent.

    Other than perennial Selke contender Pavel Datsyuk, the Russian team arguably have only two defensive-minded NHL players up front, Nikolai Kulemin and Artem Anisimov. No other forward takes on top opponents or kills penalties in the world's top league.

    The situation is only slightly better on the blue line, where they can shut down top opponents with Andrei Markov, Fedor Tyutin and, in a pinch, Slava Voynov.

     

    Potential Impact: Expect some high-scoring games!

    Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin and Pavel Datsyuk will generate a lot of primary offense, as could Alexander Radulov, Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin behind them.

    The Russians do have potentially strong goaltending in Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky, and could easily breeze by a non-contender. The problem is when they face one of the three nations with arguably comparable firepower, but a lot more defensive depth. What then?

     

    How to Fix It: They say the best defence is a good offence. An aggressive forecheck could persuade opponents to focus on goal prevention instead of trying to capitalize on Russia's shaky depth lines.

    Their set of five shutdown players could also be spread out amongst their scorers, and possibly supplemented by defensive-minded KHL stars like veterans Alexander Popov and Alexei Tereschenko, not to mention two-way forward Viktor Tikhonov. Not much can be done on the blue line, where Voynov and perhaps Nikita Nikitin will have to really step it up.

    In the end, it could come down to either Varlamov or Bobrovsky standing on their heads when they face one of the few teams with more than two scoring lines. Or they can hope that those teams are avoided altogether.

Slovakia: Depth Lines

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    Misha Japaridze/Associated Press

    The Problem: We have reached the point where many nations can field at least a single line of elite hockey players. The only difference that remains between a team like Slovakia and a strong medal contender are the other three lines.

    Zdeno Chara and Andrej Sekera will be a highly effective top defensive pairing. Marian Hossa, Michal Handzus and Tomas Kopecky are already well accustomed to playing a tight game against opponents like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. And Jaroslav Halak is a goalie that no team would refuse.

    The question is: what then? While these five skaters are catching their breath, Slovakia will have to resort to a collection of mostly replacement-level NHLers and mediocre KHLers.

     

    Potential Impact: A single top-tier two-way line should actually be sufficient against the non-contenders, and possibly even against teams like Finland, whose scoring is only a single line deep. This is especially true with an elite goalie like Jaroslav Halak playing behind them.

    The issue begins in the elimination rounds, when Slovakia is likely to start facing contenders with about three lines at roughly the same level as their first. One will get shut down, while the other two give the back of Halak's neck a red-light sun tan.

    End result? A solid round robin, and an unceremonious exit after a decisive loss to one of the big guns, much like 2006.

     

    How to Fix It: For Slovakia to succeed, its stars need to be workhorses, secondary players need to step up, and Halak needs to stand on his head (not literally).

    On the blue line, Chara and Sekera can be split up, and NHLers Andrej Meszaros and Martin Marincin will need to quickly elevate their game to a top-four level.

    Under normal conditions, Slovakia should also consider splitting up Hossa, Kopecky and Handzus to cover two or three lines. Veteran former NHL-ers Marcel Hossa and Tomas Surovy, and young NHLers Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Richard Panik are all candidates to be blended in on those top lines.

Sweden: Risky Goaltending

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Problem: It's hard to believe that goaltending is an obstacle to a team with potentially the world's best netminder, Henrik Lundqvist. He has an almost untouchable .923 save percentage in 290 games over the past five seasons.

    The problem is that Lundqvist isn't having as dominant a season as usual. He got off to a very slow start and currently has his worst save percentage in five years.

    If he should get hurt or falter, and nobody is saying that he necessarily will, the Swedes are left with only Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth as their remaining options. Their save percentages are .901 and .912 over that same five-year period, respectively. They're fine NHL backups, but probably not Olympic gold medal material.

     

    Potential Impact: Sweden is a stacked team from top to bottom, both offensively and defensively. There isn't a single area where this team is considered more than a small stride away from being the best. Even on his worst day it seems impossible for Lundqvist to blow a game for a team like this.

    That being said, there are some awesome teams in this tournament, and it's the expectation of elite goaltending that has made this nation the favorite in the eyes of many analysts.

     

    How to Fix It: Should Lundqvist stumble for a period or two, don't panic, and give the team in front of him a chance to change the momentum themselves. A cold Lundqvist is actually better than a hot Gustavsson.

    It should also be kept in mind that Lundqvist has an amazing .937 save percentage so far in 2014, so his struggles are most likely long behind him.

    On the other hand, if Sweden's bad injury luck should spread to their goaltending, they'll regret not having brought along Robin Lehner as backup.

U.S.A.: Puck-Moving Defensemen

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Problem: The Americans have built an almost flawless team defensively, but will they be able to move the puck up the ice?

    Compare the U.S. blue line to that of their continental rivals. Over the past four seasons, Ryan Suter has 111 points, which is the most among the team's defensemen. The Canadians have four defensemen with at least as many points over that same period. That's a team with four blueliners with at least 38 points this year, while the Americans don't even have one.

     

    Potential Impact: Fully unleashing the team's potential scoring will require fast, puck-moving defensemen, especially on the big international ice.

    Suter can log big minutes, but that will still leave plenty of time where the Americans will be without the threat to quickly move the puck up the ice. That could allow for more aggressive forechecking by their opponents.

    While the net impact isn't that dramatic, it is the sort of thing that could make the difference in a big medal game.

     

    How to Fix It: Kevin Shattenkirk gives the Americans a second puck-moving defenseman, but at the potential risk of weak defensive play. Shattenkirk is not accustomed to taking on the top lines for the Blues, a situation that may have made Dustin Byfuglien (but not Keith Yandle) a superior roster selection.

    Beyond those two, the Americans do have several middling offensive talents in Ryan McDonagh, John Carlson and Cam Fowler, all of whom have scored between 71 and 81 points over the past three seasons combined.

    If one or more of those three step up or if Suter can be freed up to focus more on scoring, the full offensive potential of America's scoring lines can be felt in Sochi.

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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