Men's Olympic Hockey Predictions: Which Team Would've Won If the NHL Had Gone?
With the latest COVID-19 pandemic wave spiking and multiple missed games already on the league's schedule, the NHL and the NHLPA have reportedly agreed to not participate in the men's ice hockey tournament at 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
It's a huge disappointment for hockey fans who would have loved seeing the best in the world represent their countries. Just imagine Sidney Crosby playing on the same team as Connor McDavid or Adam Fox sending pinpoint passes from the blue line to an onrushing Patrick Kane.
Despite the setback, our B/R NHL Staff decided it might be fun to measure the strengths and weaknesses of the teams that would have gone to the Olympics and pick a winner. Would the Canadians have dominated the Games and captured gold? Could the Americans have pulled off a minor upset? Our team analyzed that and more in this latest roundtable.
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Why Team Canada Would Have Taken Gold Again
The most disappointing thing about the NHL not sending players to the 2022 Winter Olympics is being robbed of watching Sidney Crosby potentially win his third Olympic gold and Connor McDavid getting his first.
It wouldn't have been an easy path to gold for Canada. The United States, Russia, Sweden and Finland would've been worthy opponents. And, yes, there would've been legitimate questions about Canada's goaltending depth. Carey Price has yet to return to full practice after he underwent offseason knee surgery and then voluntarily entered a residential treatment facility for substance use in October.
Nevertheless, Canada had the depth of experience, leadership and all-around talent to take home its third gold medal in the past four Winter Olympics in men's hockey.
Start with Crosby and McDavid, two generational superstars joining forces for the first time in international competition.
Crosby has enjoyed success at every level on the international stage, including scoring the famous "Golden Goal" in the 2010 Vancouver Games. His leadership and big-game experience would be invaluable in this tournament. McDavid, the most dazzling young star of his generation, would've found the bigger ice surface a wonderful stage for his high-speed brand of offense.
Canada's forward lines would've also contained dynamic talents such as Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. They may have been augmented by the experience, skill and leadership of longtime elites like Patrice Bergeron, Steven Stamkos, Brad Marchand, John Tavares and Ryan O'Reilly.
The defense corps could have also contained a fine mix of veteran talent and young stars. Alex Pietrangelo would have likley led a deep blue line highlighted by such notables as Cale Makar, Aaron Ekblad, Shea Theodore and Morgan Rielly.
As for the goaltending, it likely would've featured Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Binnington and Darcy Kuemper. Fleury may be 37, but he's the defending Vezina Trophy winner and a three-time Stanley Cup champion. Binnington also has a Stanley Cup on his resume, while Kuemper backstopped Canada to a gold medal at the 2021 World Championships.
Given the additional motivation of national pride, Canada would've had the extra gear necessary to win it all in 2022.
Team USA Was Ready to Knock off the World's Best
It's tough to argue with one aspect of Lyle's take here. Even if you personally would have been rooting for Team USA, Russia or any of the other nations in Beijing, seeing Crosby and McDavid on the same team would have been an absolute gift to hockey fans across the globe.
It would have been like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux at the 1987 Canada Cup, but possibly on another level given the larger ice surface and speed of McDavid and Crosby. Alas, we aren't here to mourn the loss of this possible moment of hockey history.
That's because the United States would have won their first Olympic gold medal since 1980 anyway. (Does anyone else want to go sit down and watch the Miracle on Ice now?) That will always be the capstone moment for the red, white and blue regarding international play, but they would have had their hands as full at the 2022 Winter Games.
Canada is loaded. Russia would have had enough firepower to blow through anyone on their best nights. Everyone was sleeping on Finland and Sweden, both of which would have been tough outs in the medal rounds. But Team USA, assuming they would have taken a team similar to the one we projected, would have been chock full of capital-c Compete.
J.T. Miller is one of the hardest-working forwards in hockey. Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk have been skating their opposition into the ice in Calgary all year long. Plus a top line of Kyle Connor, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane would have been as good as any other in the tournament save for one featuring McDavid and Crosby.
That alone isn't enough to win gold, but there would have been enough skill in place for the United States to hang with Canada, Russia, etc on the scoreboard. Where they would have started to pull ahead is in the corners and in transition through neutral ice.
The blue line is where this team would have really stood out, though. No one would be foolish enough to suggest that the United States would be as stacked as Canada at forward, but their defensive group would have been the most dynamic in Beijing. So much so that it would have made up for the skill gap up front.
One of either Adam Fox or Charlie McAvoy could have been on the ice for almost entire games. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski would have been playing secondary minutes at five-on-five while spending a ton of time on the power play.
Both Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson are capable of going on red-hot runs in goal, and Team USA would have required stingy goaltending to medal, but that's the case for all Olympic rosters.
All things considered, the United States could have won a handful of 3-2 and 4-3 hockey games en route to hearing The Star-Spangled Banner play during the gold-medal ceremony.
Led by the Great 8, the Russian Olympic Committee Would Have Won
No one loves Connor McDavid more than this orange-and-blue-bleeding Edmonton Oilers fan.
So I concede Canada would have had the world's best player.
And I could live to be 200 and never have the thrill I had, at age 10, when the U.S. won in 1980.
So no one would have had a better nostalgia story than the Americans.
But with all due respect to my learned ice colleagues, there wasn't a team in an NHL-laden field that had anything close to the roster the Russian Olympic Committee was about to cobble together.
Where do I begin? Well, how about with the greatest goal scorer the league has seen since Gretzky hung up the skates for the final time in 1999.
And if Alex Ovechkin alone on your left wing isn't enough, how about the prospect of sending him out on a top line that features Nikita Kucherov—you know, the scoring leader from the last two Stanley Cup winners—on the opposite wing with no less than a three-time Cup champ Evgeni Malkin at center?
Guess what? It doesn't stop there.
Recent MVP finalist Artemi Panarin was a probable winger on a second line with KHL ace Vadim Shipachyov in the middle and young Carolina Hurricanes star Andrei Svechnikov on right wing.
Reigning Calder winner Kirill Kaprizov was in the mix for third-line minutes with Vladimir Tarasenko on the right side and Vlad Namestnikov at center, leaving a fourth line that could have featured established NHL stars like Pavel Buchnevich and Evgenii Dadonov, among others.
It's the sort of firepower that covers a lot of holes.
Like, for example, the perceived ones on defense, where the star power isn't quite as plentiful.
But it's not as if players like Mikhail Sergachev, Nikita Zaitsev and Ivan Provorov haven't played the game on an elite level, and if they were able to do their jobs and get pucks up to the forwards, it wouldn't be a glaring point of concern. Particularly thanks to the goaltending, which, like the guys up front, are collectively as good (and I'll say better) than anyone else's in this prognosticative exercise.
Case in point, there's not been a more reliable goalie in a generation than Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose run of shutouts in elimination games is up to five, the latest of which yielded a Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy. Back him up with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, two goalies the Lightning have had to overcome on the way to the aforementioned Cups, and it's a clear path to victories whether the games end 2-1 or 6-5.
Take your pick. Either way, it's a good day for Russia.