8 NHL Prospects to Watch at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor IJanuary 29, 2022

8 NHL Prospects to Watch at the 2022 Winter Olympics

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    The Winter Olympics are exciting for many reasons, with the biggest being that it represents the pinnacle of international ice hockey. 

    The 2022 women's tournament, which begins February 3, is slated to showcase as much talent as it ever has. Team USA, in particular, will be led by household names such as Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker.

    NHLers will not be traveling to Beijing, though, once again leaving the tournament without the world's top men's players.

    There's no getting around what a massive buzzkill it presents, but that doesn't leave the tournament without intrigue. Countries had to get creative in filling out rosters with the best remaining talent not currently obligated to the NHL.

    As a result, some of the top prospects around the world will get a chance to play on a massive stage and show themselves at a level that will still be unlike what many have experienced before. It's a huge test that will indicate where they are in their development and what the future might hold.

    The rosters for all 12 participating countries can be viewed at Elite Prospects.

    Here are eight NHL prospects to watch at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. 

Matty Beniers, United States (Seattle Kraken)

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    The Seattle Kraken's second overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft made the right decision to return to Michigan for his sophomore season. It's been a cakewalk for the American center, with 32 points in 26 games this season.

    Beniers participated in the World Championship last year but was fairly raw and had a more diminished role.

    With that experience under his belt, he'll report to Beijing more confident and ready to take on more responsibility. Beniers is a capable two-way center who battles hard for every puck and has impressive vision with the puck on his stick.

    Beniers is likely to sign with Seattle once his college season ends. With the World Juniors having been canceled in December, this will be his chance to put himself on the radar of more casual hockey viewers and foreshadow the lengthy career he'll have in the NHL.

Jake Sanderson, United States (Ottawa Senators)

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    The fifth-overall pick of the Ottawa Senators in the 2020 NHL draft, Sanderson has earned top prospect status and has six goals plus 16 assists in 19 games as a defenseman for North Dakota.

    The caveat with Sanderson is that he is stronger and faster than most of his competition at the NCAA level—which is impressive—but it leaves questions about what happens when those physical advantages are mitigated at the professional level.

    Sanderson will jump immediately into Ottawa's lineup as soon as his season at North Dakota ends, and he should be ready for the transition. The only debate is whether Sanderson will develop into a great or merely good player for the Senators, who need all the help they can get.

    Sanderson will have a chance to match up against many of the top European pros, and the Olympic-sized rink will allow him to show off his ability to cover ice quickly.

    Expect him to play a lot of minutes for an American squad that features a number of other young defensemen. If the United States is going to win gold, he'll have to be a key factor.

Owen Power, Canada (Buffalo Sabres)

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    The top pick of the 2021 NHL draft has a lot of pressure to help revive the Sabres after the failures of the Eichel era. Power has had a strong sophomore season in the NCAA for Michigan but, like Beniers, hasn't really been tested by inferior opponents.

    Nobody doubts Power will be a good NHLer, but there is debate about whether he can really become an elite defenseman.

    The World Junior Championship looked to present an opportunity for him to prove himself, and he dominated in the team's opening game against the Czech Republic before a COVID-19 outbreak forced a cancellation of the tournament.

    In a way, the Olympics presents a better litmus test. He did not look out of place for Canada at the World Championships last season, and this is his moment to find that next gear and become a top player against grown men.

    Canada has some relative star power on defense, including former NHL defensemen Jason Demers and Mark Barberio, but Power will be expected to play a crucial role as Canada seeks gold.

Mason McTavish, Canada (Anaheim Ducks)

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    The third overall pick in 2021, McTavish isn't necessarily the most exciting player to watch, but his effectiveness and maturity made him arguably the most NHL-ready of his draft class.

    The center has strength that makes him hard to knock off the puck, a heavy wrist shot and the competitive aspiration to make impacts in many little ways every shift.

    McTavish is temporarily in a developmental no man's land. He made the Ducks' opening night roster and held his own over nine games, scoring twice, but it was obvious he was ever so slightly under-ripe and needed more playing time than the Ducks could afford him.

    However, McTavish is head and shoulders above his competition in the OHL and has nine goals and five assists in eight games. McTavish turns 19 on January 30, but he fits right in with the top pro players outside the NHL.

    This will be a brilliant opportunity for him to battle against a level of competition that suits him. Expect McTavish to have a strong tournament and leave little doubt that he'll be back in Anaheim for good next season.

Kirill Marchenko, Russian Olympic Committee (Columbus Blue Jackets)

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    NHL teams sometimes get anxious about Russian prospects, who spend more time in the KHL than their drafting teams would prefer, but the wait is often worth it. That's been the case for Kirill Kaprizov in Minnesota, Igor Shesterkin in New York and Evgeny Kuznetsov in Washington.

    Marchenko could be next on the list. The Blue Jackets drafted the offensive winger in the second round in 2018, and the 6'2" winger with a blistering wrist shot has developed into a star at SKA St. Petersburg.

    Marchenko was one of the top performers at the 2020 World Junior Championship and currently has registered 12 goals and eight assists in 39 KHL games.

    The Russian Olympic Committee is the heavy favorite to take gold on the men's side, per DraftKings Sportsbook. The 21-year-old Marchenko won't feature as prominently as some other prospects on this list—the KHL providing Russia a much greater talent pool to grab from compared to other countries—but he should still see his share of minutes.

    He's in the final year of his KHL contract and will likely line up as a top-nine winger for the rebuilding Blue Jackets next season. 

Simon Nemec, Slovakia (2022 NHL Draft)

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    If you're a fan of an NHL team having a rough season, then consider passing up games in favor of watching the Olympics. There are a few players participating in the tournament who are eligible for the 2022 NHL draft, with Simon Nemec arguably the most prominent.

    The 17-year-old defenseman is the cornerstone of a Slovakia hockey program producing talent unseen since the early 2000s.

    The puck-moving defenseman made his debut in Slovakia's top league as a 15-year-old in 2020 and has averaged over 20 minutes per game for HK Nitra this season. He's a smooth skater who distributes the puck remarkably, gets shots through from the point brilliantly and defends well with his stick.

    Nemec has represented Slovakia internationally before, and the coaches will not hesitate in the slightest to give him a massive role for the underdog country. Nemec is the top defenseman available in the 2022 NHL draft and is a strong contender to get selected within the top five picks.

Juraj Slafkovsky, Slovakia (2022 NHL Draft)

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    It will be a banner year for Slovakia at the 2022 NHL draft, with Slafkovsky joining Nemec at the Olympics. Slafkovsky stands at a tantalizing 6'4" and 225 pounds, yet the winger is more finesse than brawn.

    He's an excellent stickhandler who is fearless in taking on defenders on rushes up the ice. He has a quality snap shot but is at his best when carrying closer to the net and beating the goaltender with a flurry of dekes and delicate release.

    Slafkovsky has had a turbulent adjustment to pro hockey, with just one goal and three assists in 21 games in Finland's Liiga, but he's dominated at the junior level and, like Nemec, has represented Slovakia internationally, including at the qualifying tournament for the 2022 Olympics.

    Slafkovsky projects as a top-10 pick in the 2022 NHL draft.

Josh Ho-Sang, Canada (Toronto Maple Leafs)

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    This one is a bit of a wild card. Ho-Sang just turned 26 years old and technically doesn't qualify as a prospect. His situation is unconventional, though.

    The 2014 first-round pick has always been known for his immense skill with the puck, but he's been plagued by concerns about his defensive play and, more prominently, questions surrounding his attitude.

    After several painful years with the Islanders where Ho-Sang actually played 53 games but endured multiple demotions, the Islanders assigned him to play in Sweden in 2020-21 and then released him.

    Ho-Sang signed with the Toronto Marlies, minor league affiliate of the Maple Leafs, on an AHL contract this season, and his tenure has been a major success. He has 11 goals and nine assists in 27 games and has been one of the top players in the AHL.

    Because he is not on an NHL contract, Ho-Sang is allowed to join Canada at the Olympics, and he figures to be one of their top players. Technically, Ho-Sang is no longer part of the Maple Leafs and is free to sign with any NHL team at any moment, but he and the Leafs were discussing an NHL contract before his Olympic call-up, per Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.

    The fresh start in Toronto might be the chance he needed to finally realize his potential, and a strong Olympics showing would only help his cause. With his skill and the big rink, he'll be one of the most entertaining players participating in Beijing.