Winter Olympics 2014: Early Hockey Predictions and Gold-Medal Odds

Nicholas Goss@@NicholasGoss35Correspondent IJuly 19, 2013

Winter Olympics 2014: Early Hockey Predictions and Gold-Medal Odds

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    At the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Canada will attempt to become the first nation to win three gold medals in men's ice hockey since the NHL first started allowing its players to participate in the Olympics.

    The NHL announced Friday that it finalized an agreement to allow its players to travel to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Olympics.

    Per an official NHL news release:

    NHL players will be available to the 12 participating IIHF Member National Associations for the men's Olympic ice hockey tournament (February 12-23, 2014). This will mark the fifth consecutive time dating back to Nagano 1998 that NHL players have participated in the Olympics. More than 120 NHL players are expected to compete for their respective nations in Sochi.

    After receiving confirmation that NHL players will go to the Olympics, let's look at the top contenders for the gold medal and make some predictions.

5. Russia

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    Early Outlook

    Russia's gold-medal chances have improved over the last year with Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and defenseman Slava Voynov emerging as legitimate stars for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings, respectively.

    Scoring goals won't be a problem for the Russians, but keeping pucks out of the net and having the toughness/truculence to beat deeper, more physical teams will be.

    Star Power

    The Russians are loaded with superstars at forward. Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin and Alexander Radulov will form a top six with as much talent as any opponent.

    On the blue line, Voynov will likely be the only star, unless veteran Sergei Gonchar makes the squad. Between the pipes, Bobrovsky leads a talented but inexperienced group of goaltenders.

    Biggest Question: Who's the No. 1 Defenseman?

    The Russians don't have a No. 1 defenseman capable of shutting down opposing teams for 20-plus minutes each game. There will be no player of Duncan Keith (Canada), Ryan Suter (USA) or Zdeno Chara's (Slovakia) caliber on this roster.

    Russia needs one of its young defensemen, such as Voynov or Dmitry Kulikov, to step up and have a great tournament for the team to win a medal.

    Gold-Medal Odds


    They'll Win Gold If, Prediction

    The pressure to win the gold medal as the host country will be a huge burden for this Russian team. They have a ton of firepower at forward with Ovechkin and Kovalchuk leading what should be a high-scoring offense, but the lack of talent on the blue line and inexperience between the pipes are major concerns.

    Expect Russia to not medal for the third straight Olympics.

4. Finland

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    Early Outlook

    Finland has the most goaltending talent and depth of any Olympic team, which is a great situation for a squad that lacks star power on the blue line. At forward, Finland has plenty of skill to compete with the world's best. The good news for this squad is that it won't need to score many goals if the goaltending performs to expectations.

    The concern for Finland is a lack of toughness, but this group of players has a wealth of medal-winning experience and should be able to overcome most challenges thrown at them.

    Star Power

    Finland has three elite goaltenders to choose from before Sochi, including former Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne (Nashville), Stanley Cup finalist Tuukka Rask (Boston) and Vezina Trophy finalist Antti Niemi (San Jose).

    At forward, future Hall of Fame winger Teemu Selanne leads a group of veterans that includes Olli Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula. Kimmo Timonen is the only star NHLer on the blue line.

    Biggest Question: Who's the No. 1 Goaltender?

    Miikka Kiprusoff will not be on the 2014 team, so Finland must name a new No. 1 goalie. Even though Niemi and NHL wins leader Niklas Backstrom are quality players, the choice will likely come down to Rask and Rinne. Boston's goalie has enjoyed more playoff success in the NHL and is arguably more talented than Rinne, but Nashville's No. 1 is older and brings more experience.

    This is a great problem for Finland to have because no matter who is chosen, the team's defense will be anchored by an elite goaltender.

    Gold-Medal Odds


    They'll Win Gold If, Prediction

    Finland will win the gold if the goaltending is excellent and its best young players perform at a high level.

    This squad doesn't have the offensive firepower to win high-scoring games against opponents like Russia, the United States and Canada, which means that young forwards such as Mikael Granlund and Aleksander Barkov must play an important role in the team's success.

    Finland will lose in the bronze medal game to the United States.

3. United States of America

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    Early Outlook

    The United States won the silver medal in 2002 and 2010 with losses to Canada each year, but the 2014 squad is the nation's best chance for gold in a long time.

    As a gritty team with a deep defense and strong goaltending, the United States will be among the toughest teams to beat at the Sochi Olympics.

    Star Power

    The most impressive part of the team is its amazing group of goaltenders to choose from, led by Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson, Cory Schneider, Jimmy Howard and Ryan Miller.

    On the blue line, Ryan Suter, Keith Yandle, Jack Johnson and Kevin Shattenkirk give the Americans a good combination of offensive skill, shutdown defense and special teams ability.

    At forward, there is a great combination of size and skill, headlined by reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Callahan, Phil Kessel and Bobby Ryan.

    Biggest Question: Who's the No. 1 Goalie?

    The United States has so many quality goaltenders to choose from, but the leader for the No. 1 role has to be Quick. Many believe the Kings star is the world's best netminder. The hero of the 2010 squad, Miller, will also get consideration, but he needs to have an amazing 2013-14 NHL season to win the job.

    Gold-Medal Odds


    They'll Win Gold If, Prediction

    The United States will win gold if the goaltending is excellent and the team uses its bottom-six depth to wear down teams physically. The 2010 squad blocked shots, dedicated itself to great defense and played a physical style of hockey, which should also be the identity for the 2014 team.

    Unfortunately for the United States, it will win the bronze medal for the first time since 1936.

2. Sweden

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    Early Outlook

    The 2006 gold medalists failed to win a medal in 2010, but they will still be among the top favorites for gold in Sochi.

    The Swedes are led by arguably the best goaltender in the world with Henrik Lundqvist, who was also the starter on the 2006 team, between the pipes. Overall, this squad has an impressive roster of experienced veterans and young stars ready to add Olympic success to their resumes.

    It would be shocking if Sweden didn't make the medal round based on the fact that this team has very few weaknesses.

    Star Power

    The Swedish blue line is loaded with defensive stars and offensive defensemen capable of taking over a game. This group includes 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Jonas Brodin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alexander Edler and arguably the most underrated defenseman in the NHL, Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

    At forward, Sweden is led by veteran NHL superstars Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin.

    Biggest Question: Will the Best Players Perform at a High Level?

    At the 2010 Olympics, one of the reasons why Sweden didn't medal was because Zetterberg and the Sedin twins combined for just six points in four games, including two goals. Sweden has good forward depth, but it doesn't have the same elite talent that other top contenders do. This is why the team's best players must be consistently strong for the entire tournament.

    Gold-Medal Odds


    They'll Win Gold If, Prediction

    If Lundqvist plays well, which is expected, this team should easily medal; he shouldn't have to make too many unreal saves because the group of defensemen in front of him is stellar.

    The Swedes will also have tremendous talent on all four forward lines and the most talented blue line of any team in the Olympics. This is one of Sweden's best teams ever, but it won't win the gold medal. Expect this squad to win the silver for the first time since 1964.

    between the pipes

1. Canada

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    Early Outlook

    The defending gold medalists will have the most talented roster of any team at the 2014 Sochi games. The roster of forwards who will make the team is just unreal, and there will be a few NHL superstars who don't make the final cut because of Canada's surplus of elite talent.

    Without the pressure of having to win on home soil, like it faced in 2010, Canada will be the top contender for the gold in Sochi.

    Star Power

    There are too many names to list, so here are the most notable players.

    • Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Claude Giroux.
    • Defensemen: Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban and Drew Doughty.
    • Goaltenders: Carey Price, Corey Crawford, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith.

    Biggest Question: Will the Goaltending be Good Enough for Gold?

    Canada's concern at almost every Olympic Games is the goaltending. Luongo was the starter in 2010 and gave a less-than-ideal performance, but the team bailed him out to win gold in overtime.

    Price is the youngest and the most talented goalie to choose from, but Crawford is coming of a Stanley Cup title with Chicago in which he was brilliant throughout the playoffs. He's a bit more reliable than Price and should be the starter for Game 1.

    Gold-Medal Odds


    They'll Win Gold If, Prediction

    If the goaltending is up to par, it's incredibly difficult to pick against Canada. The offensive firepower and depth on the blue line is amazing. This team will be able to win close, defensive battles and high-scoring games. It also helps that Mike Babcock, the NHL's best head coach and the bench boss of the 2010 gold-medal squad, will once again lead the team.

    Canada will become the first team to win three gold medals since NHL players started participating in Olympic hockey in 1998.

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.