Monday, February 15, 2010

10 Players to Watch at the Vancouver Olympics

drew doughty canada hit
It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that the men’s Olympic hockey tournament is important. It’s especially important for Canadians, not only because it’s in Canada, but because of the absolute debacle in Torino four years ago. Too bad USA Basketball already coined the Redeem Team. There is a lot at stake for the Russians as well. This is a chance at the ultimate retribution for the game 8 loss incurred in Russia over 30 years ago during the Summit Series. Teams like Sweden and Finland are being overlooked by the media as serious contenders for the Gold medal, despite being the two finalists in 2006. They have motivation to defend their national honour and prove that Gold isn't just a two-nation race.

There is not only a lot at stake for each country, but there is a lot at stake for certain players. Of course we all understand the pressure on players like Crosby and Ovechkin, but it’s highly probable that these players will perform to our expectations regardless of how high they are. We know how good these guys are. It's unlikely they will change our perception of them, barring some cataclysmic collapse. But there are many players throughout the tournament that have something to prove. 

Who will use this tournament to catapult themselves into national superstardom like Jarome Iginla did in 2002? Who will elevate their game to the next level and prove their critics wrong? Who will become this year’s Tommy Salo and have their career self-destruct before our eyes?

Here is a list of the players with the most to prove and those with the most to gain from these Olympics.

Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton

This tournament can go a long way in erasing the big game bust status that these two players have accumulated over their time in San Jose. I’ve openly derided both players, as have many, but this can be their ultimate stage for their redemption. If Marleau and Thornton play at the high level they do during the regular season then it could be over for the rest of the competition. Plus, a strong performance in Vancouver can not only prove to everyone else that they can win big, but, more importantly, would prove to themselves that they are capable of such a performance. This confidence could carry into the playoffs and the Sharks could finally lift a Stanley Cup after being the trendy pick for the past decade.

Peter Forsberg

The endless Forsberg return/retirement/injury saga wore everybody out. Seemingly every year Peter decided his precarious health was positive enough to attempt a return to the NHL for brief playoff runs. The will he/won’t he garbage that went on week after week was torture. When healthy, Peter Forsberg was the most dominate player of the late-90s/early-2000s. Has the time off healed Forsberg enough that he can have a turn back the clock type performance in the Olympics and prove to everyone that he still can play hockey at a high level? Hey, he might even convince himself he’s fit enough to sign with a team for the stretch run. Or maybe he won’t even play. Who knows with Forsberg.

Alexander Radulov

The former Nashville Predators player who bolted for the KHL after two promising seasons in the NHL is tearing apart the KHL. He has 57 points in 51 games and is +38. Of course, this is a league where Marcel Hossa has 32 goals and Alexei Yashin is 3rd in league scoring. Belittling the KHL aside, Radulov is a premier talent who has the chance to land a spot on the top two lines depending on his play. A strong tournament for him could go a long way in legitimizing the KHL. It would show the world that the KHL isn’t only a place for old European stars or marginal NHLers. His success may also make the KHL more attractive in the eyes of the NHL's younger Russians (I'm talking to you Nikolai Kulemin! Stay in Toronto).

Jaromir Jagr

Jagr is another KHL star who will be playing in the Olympics. He’s 37 years old and isn’t the dominating player he once was (currently 18th in KHL scoring), but he could potentially use the Olympics to showcase his talents for any interested NHL teams. There would certainly be some interest in Jagr if he made himself available to any team down the stretch or next season. He is under contract with Avangard Omsk (cool name) for the rest of the season, but I’m not convinced the KHL has a steady cash flow. And I certainly don’t believe that the KHL has the money to pay Jagr’s reported salary of $10 million a year. Maybe Jagr gets out early. Or maybe he honours his contract and decides to give the NHL one more shot next year. Either way, a strong Olympics can go a long way in solidifying interest.

Drew Doughty

The 20-year-old London native has ice in his veins. He made the jump to the NHL right from junior and never looked out-of-place. In fact, he played more minutes than any other rookie (quick shout out to Luke Schenn for being second) and was 16th in the entire league in total minutes played. He dominated at last year’s world championships and looks like a legitimate contender for the Norris Trophy in his sophomore year (45 points, +17, 10th in total minutes played). He’s currently Canada’s seventh defenceman, but how long does it take before he works his way up the depth chart? If anyone falters in front of him there is no doubt Coach Babcock and staff will increase his responsibility. I say by the end of the tournament he will no longer be the seventh man.

Jaroslav Halak

The Slovakian netminder has taken the starting job away from Carey Price in Montreal and is the main reason the Canadiens remain competitive in the East. If Halak performs well at the Olympics it may be the evidence Montreal needs to commit themselves to Halak long-term. Whether or not that means trading Carey Price or not is questionable, but at this point it looks awfully unlikely that Carey Price will be able to develop into a superstar underneath the immense pressure in Montreal. Maybe the Olympics is where Canadiens fans fully support Halak and give management enough PR leeway to trade Price.

Ryan Miller

The fortunes of the U.S. lie solely with Ryan Miller. They have a solid, young team in front of him, but lack the depth of other teams in the tournament to truly be considered a threat. However, Miller is doing his best impersonation of a stone wall in the crease this season and is carrying the Buffalo Sabres to a potential division title. Remember, in 1998 Dominik Hasek basically single-handedly won a Gold medal for the Czechs who were serious underdogs.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin

The Canucks and their fans claim that they are overlooked as true Stanley Cup contenders and both Daniel and Henrik don’t seem to get the respect they deserve (although, I’m one of the people that aren’t giving them this respect…). Henrik is second in the league in points only to Alex Ovechkin (who is on pace to score over 120 points) and everyone thought he was the (very slighty) less talented brother because he wasn’t the “goal scorer”. Plus, the twins will be playing as home town favourites and should ensure the Swedes get treated like the home team provided they aren't playing Canada. This Olympics can go a long way in not only giving the Sedins national respect, but the entire Canucks team as well.

1 comment:

TannerGlass said...

I have seen very little of Drew Doughty's play, but I think based on the fact that a veteran of the Canadian system like Steve Yzerman would pick Doughty over another veteran like Jay Bouwmeester speaks volumes about Doughty. A 20 year-old playing at this level for the most talent-laden country in the world is huge, and could put a lot in store for his future.

I'm also interested to see how Finland fares, like you said, they've been quickly forgotten but they won silver in Torino with Niittymaki in net, so they will logically be even stronger with Kiprusoff between the posts.

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