Gold medal: Russia or Canada?
Nah, neither. Personally, I’m looking for Sweden to repeat as champions. The Triple Crowns always dress an intelligent, cohesive, and deep squad, and their talent may be even better now than in previous Olympics. For sure, the top three teams in the 2010 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament are Russia, Canada and Sweden, with the former two as the big favorites. For all the pundits considering Canada as the top seed, Puck Prospectus recently agreed with Steve Yzerman in calling the Russians as the gold medal favorites. If you wanted to bring a fourth team into the tier of elite teams, you’d go with the United States, although they clearly have more weaknesses than the top three.
Let’s break down the top seven teams and see what we can learn:
Strengths: Deepest group of very good to elite two-way forwards (Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Backstrom, Loui Eriksson) throwing in Peter Forsberg as well if he can turn back time; Nicklas Lidstrom anchoring the defense (he’s having a good year, despite lower counting stats); proven gold medal winning goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.
Weaknesses: Third and fourth lines feature mostly checking line types (Fredrik Modin, Samuel Pahlsson); no credible backup goaltender.
Strengths: Quality depth at forward through three-plus lines, better than any other team; three good defensive pairings (although they could have been better); the cohesive, elite unit of Sharks’ first line (Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton). Sidney Crosby.
Weaknesses: They won’t go with Roberto Luongo in goal as much as they should. Too much ice time for Niedermayer. Nitpicking a bit, their forwards are more scorers than two-way talents.
Likely Regrets: The exclusion of Mike Green, who would have been their best defenseman. Inclusions of non-optimal choices like–rolling eyes–Scott Niedermayer, Brenden Morrow and Patrice Bergeron.
Strengths: More offensive talent than even Canada, with Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, Evgeni Malkin at forward and Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar on defense. No weakness at defenseman or goaltender, which is sometimes the case for Russia. Not only does Evgeni Nabokov look like a new man–the highest ranked player by GVT currently–but Ilya Bryzgalov is no slouch as backup either.
Weaknesses: Disappointing in recent Olympics, like in the 4-0 semifinal loss to Finland in 2006. Nabokov’s penchant to melt under the lights of a big tournament. Third and fourth lines feature older players like Sergei Federov, hit-and-miss talents like Maxim Afinogenov, and KHL players.
Strengths: Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas, the best goaltending tandem in the Olympics, can steal any game. Blueliners Brian Rafalski and Ryan Suter provide a solid first pairing. Zach Parise is one of the top half dozen forwards in the world, even though many folks don’t know it. Better second line talent than they’re given credit for.
Weaknesses: Puzzling choices for the rest of the defense corps, making the United States clearly flawed for their second and third pairings – Miller and Thomas better be good. Strange, defensive forward-type choices for third and fourth lines; Team USA looks to want to match up checking lines with their opponents’ top lines – This may backfire.
I see a big dropoff between the above four teams and the next three, although some might rank the United States and the Czech Republic similarly.
Strengths: Tomas Vokoun has been one of the better goaltenders in the NHL in recent years – Unfortunately, every other contender has a netminder of similar value. Tomas Kaberle is a good offensive defenseman. Tomas Plekanec has been a surprise for the Montreal Canadiens.
Weaknesses: The lineup is full of overrated players and question marks - Patrik Elias is good if he isn’t bothered by postconcussion symptoms, Martin Havlat’s had an uneven season, Martin Erat is an enigma, and who knows what Jaromir Jagr will bring. Big drop down from Vokoun to Ondrej Pavelec – a better backup goaltender would have been useful in a preliminary group with both Russia and Slovakia.
Odd qualm: Needing two words to refer to a country; how about revising it to Czechland?
Strengths: A veteran core that’s proven it can overachieve in these tournaments; the motivation of the finals loss in 2006; three deep in quality goaltenders; good first pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Joni Pitkanen; the power play skill of Teemu Selanne; North American ice may help slow down speed and skill teams like Russia and Sweden; an understanding up and down the lineup of playing a team game. Mikko Koivu.
Weaknesses: Less raw talent than the top five teams, up and down the lineup.
Likely regrets: Not including Jussi Jokinen on the squad.
Strengths: Red hot goaltending of Jaroslav Halak could carry through to the Olympics; elite scoring talent of Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa; the intimidation and skill of Zdeno Chara.
Weaknesses: Balancing act between overplaying their stars–wearing them out–and playing significantly weaker players; huge step down to Peter Budaj, who might be called upon in back to back games against Russia and the Czech Republic.