The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are stacked with exciting events, but there is no question that the marquee competition is men's hockey due largely to the fact that the NHL sends its very best players overseas to participate.
The top 12 hockey-playing nations will vie for gold in Sochi, and most of them will have plenty of NHL talent leading the way. If things go as expected, however, that may change in the Winter Games that follow in 2018 and beyond.
Since the NHL has to halt play in the middle of the season to take part in the Olympics, it certainly isn't an ideal situation. Many have spoken out against it, including Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, according to Ken Campbell of The Hockey News:
I hate (the Olympics). It's ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t care if it is in Philadelphia, I wouldn't want to break up the league. I think it's ridiculous to take three weeks off in the middle of the season. How can anybody be happy breaking up the season? No other league does it, why should we? There's no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.
That point of view isn't limited to just Snider, and MSG's Stan Fischler can see the NHL pulling out of the Olympics moving forward in order to make way for amateur players:
If the Lords of Hockey at the NHL follow through on what they believe this will be the last Olympics for the pros. Time to go amateur as '80— Stan Fischler (@StanFischler) February 6, 2014
If that is ultimately the case, then hockey fans across the globe would be wise to take in the 2014 Winter Olympics and enjoy every second of the men's hockey tournament.
With 151 current NHL players participating in Sochi, the level of play simply can't get much higher. Excelling professionally is the main goal for these players, but doing so at the international level can make them legendary.
Here is a look at how every NHL player is faring in Sochi as they go all out to win gold in what could possibly be the NHL's final Olympic Games.
Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry helped lead Team Canada to gold during the 2010 Vancouver Games, and they'll look to do the same in Sochi. Also, the ageless Teemu Selanne will appear in his sixth Olympics at age 43, having already captured three medals.
Perhaps the player to watch closest is Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller, who can potentially make Switzerland a medal contender if he is on top of his game.
|David Krejci||F||Czech Republic||1||2||3||-1|
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara carried the flag for Slovakia during the opening ceremony, and he'll carry Slovakia's medal hopes on his broad shoulders as well after finishing a surprising fourth in 2010.
Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson and David Krejci will play critical roles for their respective teams up front, while goalie Tuukka Rask is the biggest reason why Finland is considered a dark-horse contender for the gold by prognosticators.
When it comes to the Sabres' Olympic involvement, the conversation starts and ends with Ryan Miller. He was Team USA's starter in 2010, winning tournament MVP honors and leading the Americans to the silver medal. It is unclear whether he or Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick will get the starting nod, but Miller has the benefit of Olympic success.
Forward Zemgus Girgensons is also a name to keep tabs on as the only NHL player on Team Latvia. He'll be playing under Sabres head coach Ted Nolan in Sochi as well, so familiarity could be a big help.
|Ladislav Smid||D||Czech Republic||0||0||0||0|
No NHL team is lighter on impact Olympic players than the Flames. Stay-at-home defenseman Ladislav Smid will make his Olympic debut for the Czech Republic, while goalie Reto Berra will serve as Jonas Hiller's backup on Team Switzerland.
Neither will be anything more than a role player in Sochi.
The Hurricanes will send an underrated stable of players to Sochi with forward Alexander Semin leading the way for host Russia. Semin wasn't on the original roster until an injury opened the door, so he'll be eager to prove that he deserved a spot all along.
Justin Faulk will be a linchpin of Team USA's young defense corps, and Andrej Sekera has quietly developed into one of the NHL's best offensive defensemen. He'll be an interesting complement to Slovak captain Zdeno Chara.
|Michal Rozsival||D||Czech Republic||0||0||0||-5|
With 10 players in Sochi, the Blackhawks are among the best represented NHL teams in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane is Team USA's biggest offensive threat up front, and he'll look to build off a strong showing in 2010, which saw him score three times.
The Blackhawks will also have a major impact on Team Canada's gold-medal hopes. Duncan Keith is arguably Canada's steadiest and most reliable defenseman, while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp will provide the Canadians with some chemistry and familiarity at forward.
Colorado will send one player from each of the top four medal contenders to Sochi, so it is a distinct possibility that the Avalanche will boast a medal of every color once the Olympics come to an end. Goalie Semyon Varlamov has had a spectacular season, and he'll have the weight of a nation on his shoulders if he gets the starting nod for Russia in Sochi.
Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny are all expected to be top offensive contributors for their respective teams. Stastny is the only repeat Olympian among them, having won silver with Team USA in 2010.
It will fittingly be an all-Russian affair for the Blue Jackets in Sochi as all four of their representatives will play for the host nation. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, but it remains to be seen who will get the bulk of the playing time in net between Bobrovsky and Colorado's Semyon Varlamov.
Russia's defense may be its biggest question mark, and Fedor Tyutin will be called upon to serve in a top-four role. If he rises to the occasion, then Russia's chances of capturing gold will go up significantly.
Forward Jamie Benn's inclusion on Team Canada may have come as somewhat of a surprise to those who don't follow the NHL religiously, but there is no question that he earned his spot on the squad. The same can be said for Russian youngster Valeri Nichushkin, who has thrived in his first NHL season.
Goalie Kari Lehtonen might have been Finland's starter in any other Olympic year, but with Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi also on the roster, Lehtonen may be relegated to the press box in Sochi.
The Red Wings have long been known as a team with plenty of international flavor, and that is certainly apparent heading into Sochi. Detroit boasts an especially large Swedish contingent led by forward Henrik Zetterberg, who helped the Swedes capture gold in 2006.
Center Pavel Datsyuk is one of the biggest offensive weapons for a stacked Russian team, but his defensive responsibility may be more valuable than anything. Goalie Jimmy Howard very nearly missed out on making Team USA due to his erratic play this season, and it is unlikely that he'll see the ice unless there is an injury to Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick.
|Ales Hemsky||F||Czech Republic||3||1||4||0|
The Oilers have some of the best young talent in the NHL, but since Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle are all Canadian, they will be staying home rather than going to Sochi. The most notable Oiler vying for a medal is forward Ales Hemsky, who may be on the move soon after the Olympic break with his contract set to expire at the end of the season.
Defensemen Anton Belov and Martin Marincin are relative unknowns, but Belov stands a solid chance of nabbing a medal as a depth player for Russia.
After a decorated career for Finland's junior teams, Panthers rookie forward Aleksander Barkov will make the jump to the senior team for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Finland is somewhat short on explosive offensive talent up front, so Barkov will be counted on to provide some punch in that regard.
As one of just six NHL forwards on Team Slovakia, Tomas Kopecky will have to play a more offensive game in Sochi compared to his usual two-way game at the NHL level.
The Kings figure to be very much in the medal mix with two representatives each for USA and Canada along with defenseman Slava Voynov playing a significant role for Team Russia. Drew Doughty was a huge part of Team Canada's gold-medal win in 2010, while Jeff Carter just missed out on making the team, so he'll be hungry for hardware in Sochi.
Both forward Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick felt the sting of losing in overtime of the gold-medal game in Vancouver. Team USA's biggest question mark relates to whether Quick or Ryan Miller will start in goal.
Not to be forgotten is forward Anze Kopitar, who is Slovenia's only NHL player. The Slovenians are expected to make a quick exit, but Kopitar will be tasked with ensuring that they are competitive.
Forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter came to the Wild together as free agents prior to the 2012-13 season, and they will go to Sochi together as well with gold-medal aspirations in tow. Parise will be Team USA's captain, while Suter will be its unquestioned No. 1 defenseman, so there is plenty of pressure on them to perform.
Like Florida's Aleksander Barkov, youngster Mikael Granlund will have to carry much of the offensive load for Finland. Nino Niederreiter hasn't yet lived up to his lofty NHL draft stock; however, he always seems to rise to the occasion for Switzerland.
|Tomas Plekanec||F||Czech Republic||1||3||4||+1|
Canada won gold in 2010 despite a shaky goaltending performance from Roberto Luongo, but Canadiens netminder Carey Price will try to shore up that area of the game for Canada in 2014. Price is the expected starter between the pipes, which could be a daunting task considering the fact that he doesn't have a long track record of success in big games.
Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin may serve as a defensive pair for Team Russia, which promises to play a run-and-gun style. Defenseman P.K. Subban is perhaps the most interesting Montreal representative as it remains to be seen how Canadian head coach Mike Babcock will utilize him aside from the power play.
The Predators will send three players to Sochi, but they are certainly important ones. Shea Weber is one of the NHL's best defensemen, and he will play in all situations for Team Canada from power play to penalty kill and everything in between.
Roman Josi is far less heralded than Weber; however, he'll play a similar role for an underrated Switzerland team that could surprise some people after reaching the gold-medal game in last year's World Championships.
|Patrik Elias||F||Czech Republic||0||1||1||+1|
|Jaromir Jagr||F||Czech Republic||2||1||3||+1|
|Marek Zidlicky||D||Czech Republic||2||2||4||+2|
Most seem to be sleeping on the Czech Republic when it comes to vying for an Olympic medal, but the Devils will send three of the NHL's best Czechs to Sochi. These will be the fifth Olympic Games for 41-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr, who won gold back in 1998. He is having an incredible season with 49 points, and he will be a key player in Sochi.
Patrik Elias is having a strong year as well despite playing through injuries, and he could potentially play on a dynamic line with Jagr. Also, forward Damien Brunner is one of just eight Swiss NHL players at the Olympics, and he will play a top-six scoring role for upstart Switzerland.
Although Sidney Crosby is receiving most of the attention for Team Canada, Islanders captain John Tavares will need to be one of Canada's top scorers in order for them to succeed. Tavares was among the Hart Trophy candidates last season, and he is currently on pace for the best campaign of his career with 66 points.
Most figure that Austria will make a quick exit in Sochi, but the Austrians will be bolstered by Islanders forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner, who represent two of the team's three NHL players. Austria won't be able to compete with the big boys from a depth perspective, but it will have at least one big line that may be able to find the back of the net with some measure of regularity.
After leading Sweden to the gold medal in 2006, goalie Henrik Lundqvist will look to do the same eight years later. Lundqvist gives the Swedes an advantage over essentially every other team between the pipes, and he is the biggest reason why Tre Kronor are considered a legitimate gold-medal contender.
The Rangers will also be a big part of Team USA with forwards Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan as well as defenseman Ryan McDonagh dawning the stars and stripes. Callahan is the only returnee from Vancouver, although McDonagh will be the be the biggest key as a top-four defenseman.
Rick Nash shook off an early season injury to make Team Canada, while Mats Zuccarello will be Norway's only NHL player after the diminutive forward made a big impression back in 2010.
|Milan Michalek||F||Czech Republic||0||0||0||-2|
It is somewhat surprising that only two Senators will play in the Olympics, but they certainly should make an impact. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is the best offensive blueliner in the world, and he will add another dimension to a Swedish team that arguably has as much offensive talent as more heralded teams such as Canada and Russia.
Forward Milan Michalek will be one of the Czech Republic's top forwards, and he will have to play at an extremely high level in order for the Czechs to compete.
|Jakub Voracek||F||Czech Republic||1||1||2||-5|
No Flyer will play for one of the "big four" nations in Sochi; however, Philadelphia will send a diverse group of players. Kimmo Timonen will anchor a Finnish defense that has given teams fits over the years, while Mark Streit will do the same for a Swiss team that is in search of its first Olympic medal in men's hockey.
Should the Czech Republic surprise some people by earning a shot at a medal, it's likely that the play of forward Jakub Voracek will be a big reason for that. The big, 24-year-old forward is on pace for a career year with 40 points through 59 games, and his skill will be counted upon heavily in Sochi.
|Martin Hanzal||F||Czech Republic||0||1||1||0|
|Zbynek Michalek||D||Czech Republic||0||1||1||+3|
The Coyotes' highest-profile representative in Sochi will be goalie Mike Smith, who may very well come home with a gold medal after representing Team Canada, but the expectation is that he won't see any game action behind both Carey Price and Roberto Luongo on the depth chart.
Young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be an intriguing fit on Team Sweden as his aggressive style should help activate the squad's strong forward corps. Center Martin Hanzal will be one of the Czech Republic's most important players due to his faceoff ability and penalty killing, as well as his penchant for causing havoc in front of the opposition's net.
After scoring the gold-medal-clinching goal for Team Canada in Vancouver, Penguins superstar center Sidney Crosby will once again be the focal point in Sochi. Crosby is unquestionably the best player of this generation, and he has a chance to cement his legacy already by giving Canada consecutive Olympic golds for the first time since 1952. Linemate Chris Kunitz will be along for the ride as well, and could surprise some people provided he produces.
Evgeni Malkin has outperformed Crosby at various times throughout his career, and he'll look to do it again in Sochi. Malkin is one of Russia's biggest stars, and he can reach legendary status by leading Russia to a gold medal. To top things off, Pittsburgh's defensive pairing of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik will represent Team USA and figure to be pillars within an inexperienced group of American defenders.
With 29 goals, Sharks center Joe Pavelski is the No. 2 American scorer in the NHL this season. He has progressed significantly since 2010, and he will undoubtedly be one of Team USA's key players. Patrick Marleau has been one of the most consistently productive players in the NHL for a decade, and that makes him an ideal fit for Team Canada.
Team Canada will also roster Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It was a decision that surprised many, but Vlasic's levelheaded defensive play will prove valuable. Goalie Antti Niemi rounds out San Jose's Sochi crop, and while he will likely play at least one game, Tuukka Rask figures to handle the bulk of the goaltending load for Finland.
The Blues boast one of the NHL's deepest teams, so it is no surprise that nine St. Louis players will compete in the 2014 Winter Games. The defensive pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester will be leaned upon by Team Canada since they are the only two NHL teammates on defense playing for the Canadians. Rearguard Kevin Shattenkirk will go to Sochi as well for Team USA, and he'll be a key defender despite his lack of Olympic experience.
American forwards David Backes and T.J. Oshie will add both toughness and scoring ability to Team USA, and both of them play a strong two-way game to boot. Patrik Berglund and Alexander Steen will be secondary scorers for Sweden, which speaks to the level of depth that the Swedes boast.
If Slovakia is going to repeat its run to the semifinals again in 2014, goalie Jaroslav Halak must be incredible. Halak is capable of looking like one of the best goalies in hockey over shorts stretches, so don't discount the possibility.
|Ondrej Palat||F||Czech Republic||0||0||0||0|
|Martin St. Louis||F||Canada||0||0||0||+2|
|Radko Gudas||D||Czech Republic||0||0||0||-1|
Steven Stamkos was supposed to be Tampa Bay's primary representative in the Olympics, but his inability to recover in time from a broken leg left the door open. Fittingly, Stamkos was replaced by Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis, according to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com.
Many considered St. Louis to be a snub in the first place, so there weren't many complaints when it came to his inclusion.
Aside from St. Louis, veteran defenseman Sami Salo will play for Finland, and a trio of unheralded youngsters will go to Sochi as well. If nothing else, the Olympic experience should be great for the development of Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik and Radko Gudas.
|James van Riemsdyk||F||USA||1||4||5||+6|
The Maple Leafs are one of Canada's most talked-about teams, so it is somewhat ironic that Team USA's gold-medal hopes hinge largely on Leafs Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Kessel is the NHL's leading American goal scorer this season with 31 tallies, and JVR has thrived alongside him, which makes putting them on a line together in Sochi a no-brainer for head coach Dan Bylsma.
Also, Nikolai Kulemin will play for Russia. He has struggled mightily since putting up 57 points in 2010-11, but skating with some of Russia's dynamic offensive players may bring out the best in him.
The Sedin twins played a huge role in Sweden's gold-medal win during the 2006 Torino Games, and while Daniel Sedin figures to do the same in 2014, Henrik won't be so lucky. Henrik was tabbed to be part of Team Sweden, but the Canucks' slick center will be sidelined with a rib injury, according to TSN.
Center Ryan Kesler fits the Team USA mold perfectly due to his gritty, two-way play, and he should be a heart-and-soul player for the Americans. Goalie Roberto Luongo led Team Canada to gold in 2010 on his home ice in Vancouver, and even though he will likely be Carey Price's backup, his presence should be an asset.
|Martin Erat||F||Czech Republic||1||0||1||-1|
Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin is the face of Russian hockey, so much of the glory or the disappointment will rest on his shoulders depending upon how Russia fares. Ovechkin is the best pure goal scorer in the world, the No. 1 goal scorer in the NHL currently and arguably the most dangerous offensive weapon in the Olympics.
Center Nicklas Backstrom is often overshadowed by Ovechkin, but he will be looked upon as a primary playmaker for Sweden. Also, American defenseman John Carlson barely made Team USA, but his impressive two-way play could make him one of the United States' best blueliners in Sochi.
|Michael Frolik||F||Czech Republic||0||0||0||0|
|Ondrej Pavelec||G||Czech Republic||2||2||2.88||.886|
In order for the Czech Republic to make some noise, Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec will need to be locked in. Inconsistency has been his biggest issue over the years, but he is most definitely capable of stealing games when he is playing his best.
Finnish forward Olli Jokinen isn't the offensive producer he once was, but he'll have to step up for what could be an offensively challenged Finnish team. Although Blake Wheeler appears to be an extra forward for Team USA, his combination of size and speed should play very well on the larger Olympic sheet of ice.