Ranking Every 2014 Olympic Hockey Team's Blue Line

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IJanuary 17, 2014

Ranking Every 2014 Olympic Hockey Team's Blue Line

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    Which Olympic team can expect the most support from its blue line this year in Sochi? Whether it's Sweden's Erik Karlsson, USA's Ryan Suter or Canada's Shea Weber, each Olympic team has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, which we can combine to form an overall ranking.

    Analytics are notoriously limited when it comes to measuring a player's defensive contributions, but they can help determine what kind of competition a defenseman typically faces and how his team did when he was used in such situations.

    Combine that with each player's offensive contributions and we can get a sense of each Olympic team's biggest strengths and weaknesses. Whether it's scoring, shutting down opponents, killing penalties, working with the man advantage, or a team's size, speed, age or experience, each Olympic nation has a certain character.

    Beginning with a quick look at the five teams not expected to contend, each team will be reviewed and ranked in order of its greatest positive impact to its nation's medal hopes.

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


The Non-Contenders

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    Here is how those teams not considered to be medal contenders rank on the blue line.

    12. Slovenia. They may have trouble competing even with their fellow non-contenders.

    11. Austria. Former NHLer Thomas Pock forms the top pairing with 35-year-old 5'9" veteran defender Robert Lukas. 

    10. Norway. Tough and defensively effective Ole-Kristian Tollefsen isn't the only former NHLer. Jonas Holos played 39 games for the Avalanche in 2010-11.

    9. Latvia. Forty-one-year-old long-time NHLer Sandis Ozolinsh is the biggest name on a blue line that mostly plays in the KHL. It is populated by players who wouldn't be out of place as replacement-level NHL call-ups.

    8. Switzerland. Four current NHLers including Roman Josi, Mark Streit, Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber headline a blue line that's just as competitive as that of the first couple of medal contenders.

7. Finland

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    The Lineup: Juuso Hietanen, Lasse Kukkonen, Sami Lepisto, Olli Maatta, Sami Salo, Kimmo Timonen, Ossi Vaananen, Sami Vatanen

    Biggest Strengths: Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo have a combined 30 seasons and 1907 games of NHL experience as solid top-four defensemen, not to mention seven combined Olympic appearances. They'll be potentially paired up with the young and promising legs of Sami Vatanen and Olli Maatta. It could also prove advantageous that the other half of their lineup is already currently playing under international rules and ice size.

    Areas of Concern: There may be some concern about the team's ability to shut down the tournament's top offenses. Finland has only two defensemen who have regularly faced the level of opponents they're likely to see in Sochi, both of whom are pushing 40.

    Overall Impact: Finland has arguably the best goaltending in the world, which diminishes the consequences of having a more mediocre blue line.

6. Czech Republic

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    The Lineup: Michal Barinka, Radko Gudas, Tomas Kaberle, Lukas Krajicek, Zbynek Michalek, Michal Rozsival, Ladislav Smid, Marek Zidlicky

    Biggest Strengths: Defensively, the Czech blue line should be quite competitive. Zbynek Michalek is one of the league's better shut down defensemen at even-strength and shorthanded, and he is quite experienced at taking on top opponents. Almost everyone else in their lineup has been a defensively responsible top-four NHL defenseman, at the very minimum, at some point over the past few years.

    Areas of Concern: Other than Marek Zidlicky, where's their scoring going to come from? Tomas Kaberle? And although their blue line is among the larger ones in the tournament, it is also among the oldest. That may not work to their advantage on the large international ice surfaces.  

    Overall Impact: The Czech Republic made some bold roster decisions and are potentially the only medal contender without established elite goaltending. A lot will be riding on a blue line that lacks the youth and speed of the others.

5. Slovakia

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    The Lineup: Ivan Baranka, Dominik Baranka, Zdeno Chara, Martin Marincin, Andrej Meszaros, Andrej Sekera, Michal Sersen, Lubomir Visnovsky

    Biggest Strengths: Zdeno Chara is potentially the best defensive player in the world today. Chara shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, and he can shut them down in Sochi. The highly underrated Andrej Sekera is also quite comfortable shutting down top opponents. Behind them, almost their entire blue line is in their prime.

    Areas of Concern: Other than a 37-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky, there won't be a lot of scoring generated from the point. The greater concern could actually be their depth, since about half of their lineup is more at the AHL-level. That being said, this blue line is essentially even with Russia's overall. 

    Overall Impact: Very important. Slovakia's secondary players are not at the same level as the top contenders. Their best chance at an upset is if Chara, Sekera and company can shut down the top opposing lines and allow their best players to compete at a more even level.

4. Russia

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    The Lineup: Anton Belov, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov, Yevgeny Medvedev, Nikita Nikitin, Ilya Nikulin, Fedor Tyuin, Slava Voynov

    Biggest Strengths: Andrei Markov is one of the world's best power-play quarterbacks and, along with the highly underrated two-way star Fedor Tyutin, could form one of the tournament's most competitive top pairings. Behind them, their blue line is big, with the majority currently in their primes.

    Areas of Concern: The blue line is a good example of how the Russian team may be light on defensive depth. While their top pairing can skate with anyone, it becomes increasingly less obvious how they will shut down the world's best players as you progress down the depth chart.

    Overall Impact: The Russian team will hopefully pose enough of an offensive threat of its own to minimize the need for more than one or maybe two elite blue line pairings.

3. United States of America

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    The Lineup: John Carlson, Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler, Paul Martin, Ryan McDonagh, Brooks Orpik, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan Suter

    Biggest Strengths: There's quite a gap between fourth and third! Like most of the team, the blue line is exceptional defensively. Virtually everyone is accustomed to taking on the world's best players in tough situations. In fact, Team USA could potentially have the best penalty kill in the entire tournament.

    Another obvious highlight is Ryan Suter, runner-up for the Norris Trophy last year, who is a strong possibility to be ultimately chosen as the team's (and the tournament's) Most Valuable Player.

    Areas of Concern: In any given season up to half of these defensemen have had below-average possession numbers. Kevin Shattenkirk in particular sticks out like a sore thumb in Player Usage Charts. He is not used to facing this level of competition and, up until this season, neither was Cam Fowler. But the Americans will need to turn to both these youngsters for scoring, as several of their other defensemen are almost strictly defensive-minded.

    Overall Impact: Team USA is being underestimated and is superior to Russia and essentially even with Sweden, in my view. There's virtually no doubt that the American blue line will be sound defensively, but a strong showing offensively could be the key difference-maker.

2. Sweden

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    The Lineup: Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya, Henrik Tallinder

    Biggest Strengths: Sweden's blue line is composed almost exclusively of solid possession-based top-four defensemen and has an ideal blend of experience and youth. Led by 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, it also has the potential of being the best in the tournament offensively.

    Areas of Concern: Though not liabilities, their top puck-moving defensemen, Karlsson and Alexander Edler, are not known to line up against and shut down the world's best (unlike the rest of their blue line). The only other concern is that Henrik Tallinder is no longer a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman and likely wouldn't have a positive impact against the other top contenders.

    Overall Impact: Sweden is essentially a team without flaw, and they are backed up by potentially the world's best goalie. There's very little possibility of any disappointment with the blue line, merely the concern that it won't be the one to steal the show.

1. Canada

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    The Lineup: Jay Bouwmeester, Drew Doughty, Dan Hamhuis, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Shea Weber

    Biggest Strengths: Shea Weber is arguably the game's best defenseman, consistently taking on the toughest opponents and killing penalties. All but the first point could also be made for speedy veteran Jay Bouwmeester.

    In the offensive zone, the team is led by defending Norris Trophy champion P.K. Subban, who could be the league's best power-play quarterback. Every single Canadian defenseman has positive possession numbers this year, regardless of the difficulty of his assignment.

    Areas of Concern: The two possible concerns of significance include the large international ice (and rules), where the North Americans teams have struggled in the past. The Canadian team also faces a pressure to win that eclipses even that of the accomplished home nation.

    Overall Impact: Canada's blue line is one of its trump cards—their top scoring line being the other. Those are the only two areas where Canada still has an advantage over the other teams and are therefore the keys to defending the Olympic Gold.

    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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