The 2014 Winter Olympics men’s hockey tournament is over and done with and, despite featuring some of the best hockey to be seen this year, it will be an afterthought for many players in the NHL looking to push through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
While the Games are finished, the widespread impact of the competition will continue to be felt on clubs back in North America, altering the landscape of the league at a pivotal time.
For a handful of Eastern Conference teams, significant injuries suffered in Sochi have dampened any sense of pride at being represented on the world stage. John Tavares (New York Islanders), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), Mats Zuccarello (New York Rangers), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers) will all miss extended periods of time, changing the dynamic of their clubs with their absence.
Detroit, New York and Pittsburgh are all in the hunt for a postseason position, making the loss of key pieces that much harder to deal with. Even a club like the Islanders, floating near the bottom of the standings, isn’t happy with seeing a superstar fall off the roster, prompting harsh words from general manager Garth Snow.
"This is probably the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn't be in the Olympics, it should just be amateurs. And it could have happened to anyone; it just happened to be us that lost our best player," Snow told Arthur Staple of Newsday. A lot of people pay to see John play. It wouldn't matter if we were 10 points clear of a playoff spot or 10 points out. We lost our best player and he wasn't even playing for us."
Injuries aren’t the only concern for NHL team owners and managers. With every franchise having been represented in Russia, the possibility of player fatigue upon returning is certainly something that each club will be monitoring.
While a guy like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix Coyotes), who hardly played at all, might be fine returning to America, someone logging longer minutes, like Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), could be a little worn out from battling through six games in 11 days.
According to a study done at the University of Massachusetts, as reported by the New York Times, this issue can be compounded for teams that had more than one or two members playing in the tournament.
“(The) numbers show that the more Olympians an NHL team supplies, the greater its post-Olympic drop-off relative to its pre-Olympic performance,” professor Neil Longley told the Times. “The best-performing NHL teams—because they send the most players to the Olympics—are somewhat disadvantaged relative to weaker NHL teams.”
According to Longley’s findings, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, which each sent 10 players to Sochi, are among the clubs poised to see this fatigue factor the most. Both are on the fast track for a tough adjustment back to the final push of the season, and it's possible that the dominant Blackhawks will fall a seed or two by the end while the Red Wings drop out of the playoff picture altogether.
Physical weariness is one thing, but self-confidence is a whole other beast to deal with. A few clubs could soon find out the hard way what kind of damage is done when a player doesn’t believe in himself. This could be the case with younger players, guys who just couldn’t carry their national teams to victory or even goalies on the losing side of big matches.
Semyon Varlamov was mostly blamed for Russia's early exit from the Games at the hands of Finland. His resolve might be shaken as he returns to the Colorado Avalanche given that the Russian national team had such lofty expectations placed on it from the beginning.
The same might be said of Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who was strong all tournament until losing 3-0 to Canada. While the loss is hardly his fault, Lundqvist was Sweden's best shot at a gold medal and must now forget that as he fights for the playoffs.
Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) watched as his squad disintegrated around him, forcing him to do the best he could to keep the contests close. Returning to a struggling Kings team that needs his best every day could end up being more than he can offer.
These clubs—Los Angeles, Colorado, New York—need their netminders, and everyone else, to be at the top of their game if they are to go anywhere at the end of the season—and they might not get it if there are any lingering questions.
Just how bad can the loss of confidence be? Ask Matt Duchene (Avalanche), who started seeing a sports psychologist last summer in an effort to lessen the personal weight of the struggles that come with being a professional athlete. If left unchecked, the self-destructive damage can affect the team as a whole.
Of course, not everyone returning from Sochi is going to struggle. Guys like Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild), Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens) and Drew Doughty (Kings) had great showings on the international level and will certainly take the momentum with them back into the NHL after the stress of living abroad and playing a compressed schedule subsides.
This could be longer for some than others, though, as Price has already been sidelined with a lower-body injury exacerbated from playing in the Olympics. Both Kessel and linemate James van Riemsdyk have missed some practices in an effort to acclimate back to life in North America.
It’s going to be a mixed bag with the league returning to action this week, but that’s what makes the NHL so great. Every team has a chance to win any given night and, with the lasting impact—positive or negative—that Sochi will have on returning players, the playoff picture might change quite a bit before the last regular-season game is played out.
It will also serve as a key piece of the ongoing conversation about whether the NHL will continue to allow its players to participate in unaffiliated world events, such as the Olympics. There are already murmurs that this will be the last time the league allows its players to compete at the Olympic level, so expect this drama to continue to play out after the season ends.
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