Date: October 18, 2017

Olympic men’s hockey teams starting to take shape

By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports

With the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea now just a few months away, rosters for the men’s hockey event will begin to take shape over four upcoming international tournaments.

With the exception of a few U.S. college players, the odd Canadian junior teenager and some AHLers, most of the top Olympic teams will be made up of players who compete professionally in Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.

The top talents from these European leagues will come together to compete for their national teams in the following tournaments in November and December.

The top talents from these European leagues will come together to compete for their national teams in the following tournaments in November and December:

  • Karjala Cup (Zurich and Helsinki), Nov. 8-12 — Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland.
  • Deutschland Cup (Augsburg, Germany), Nov. 10-12 — Germany, Russia, Slovakia, United States.
  • Channel One Cup (Moscow), Dec. 13-17 — Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, South Korea.
  • Spengler Cup (Davos, Switzerland), Dec. 26-31 — Canada, Switzerland and four club teams.

Here’s a quick glance at the top eight medal contenders for the 2018 Winter Games.

Odds courtesy of Bodog

Canada

World ranking: 1

Odds to win gold: 3-1

General manager: Sean Burke

Coach: Willie Desjardins

Player to watch: Andrew Ebbett. A veteran of 243 NHL regular-season and playoff games, the 34-year-old forward from Vernon, B.C., plays for Bern in the Swiss league. He was a standout for Canada at the 2016 Spengler Cup and sits second in his league’s scoring race with 19 points (five goals) in 12 games.

The skinny: Canada has plenty of depth playing in Russia and Switzerland. Burke and his scouts also will keep an eye on the junior loops at home.

Russia

World ranking: 2

Odds to win gold: 7-4

General manager: Vacant

Coach: Oleg Znarok

​Player to watch: Ilya Kovalchuk. The 34-year-old left wing decided to forego a return to the NHL and stay in Russia for one more season in order to play in Pyeongchang. He has 17 goals and 28 points in 23 games for KHL-leading SKA St. Petersburg.

The skinny: Since the Russians were upended by Dominik Hasek and the Czechs in the 1998 gold-medal final, they have just one Olympic men’s hockey medal — a bronze in 2002. But because of Russia’s depth, they will go to Pyeongchang as the favourites. Znarok coaches Kovalchuk’s St. Petersburg team, which set a KHL record with 20 wins in a row to start the season and also features Pavel Datsyuk.

Sweden

World ranking: 3

Odds to win gold: 7-2

GM: Vacant

Coach: Rikard Gronborg

​Player to watch: Robert Nilsson. The 32-year-old Calgary-born forward leads the Swiss league in scoring with 20 points in 14 games with Zurich SC. The son of former NHLer Kent Nilsson has formed quite an on-ice partnership with fellow Swede Fredrik Pettersson in Zurich.

The skinny: Sweden won its 10th world championship last spring, defeating Canada in a shootout in the gold-medal final. Of course, in the last non-NHL Olympic Games, in 1994, Sweden also beat Canada for gold in a shootout. Former NHLer Johan Garpenlov is Gronborg’s trusted assistant coach.

Finland

World ranking: 4

Odds to win gold: 8-1

General manager: Jere Lehtinen

Coach: Lauri Marjamaki

Player to watch: Eeli Tolvanen. The Nashville Predators selected the 18-year-old right wing 30th overall in the NHL draft last June. He has started his KHL season with Jokerit with an eye-popping 11 goals and 21 points in 18 games.

The skinny: The Lehtinen-Marjamaki combination didn’t produce good results for the Finnish team in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where the Finns failed to win a game and finished a disappointing eighth out of eight teams.

United States

World ranking: 5

Odds to win gold: 10-1

GM: Jim Johannson

Coach: Tony Granato

Player to watch: Brian Gionta. At 38, the 2003 Stanley Cup champion and 2006 Olympian signed a practice-only contract to play with his hometown Rochester Americans of the AHL to keep sharp for the Pyeongchang Games.

The skinny: Granato played for the United States in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and was an assistant coach in Sochi four years ago. He coaches at the University of Wisconsin and will use the Deutschland Cup next month as the U.S. Olympic team’s main tryout opportunity.

Czech Republic

World ranking: 6

Odds to win gold: 9-1

General manager: Milan Hnilicka

​Coach: Josef Jandak

​Player to watch: Jan Kovar. The 27-year-old forward will be asked to provide offence for the Czechs. He has strung together four consecutive 20-goal seasons in the KHL with Magnitogorsk Metallurg and is on his way to a fifth with six goals in his first 22 outings.

The skinny: The Czechs have put together an impressive coaching staff with assistants Vaclav Prospal and Jaroslav Spacek (both former NHLers) as well as Jiri Kalous, the head coach of Sparta Prague.

Switzerland

World ranking: 7

Odds to win gold: 33-1

GM: Raeto Raffainer

Coach: Patrick Fischer

Player to watch: Gregory Hofmann. The Carolina Hurricanes selected the 24-year-old forward in the fourth round (103rd overall) of the 2013 draft. He has scored 10 goals in his first nine games with Lugano HC.

The skinny: The Swiss are only four years removed from when coach Sean Simpson of Brampton, Ont., steered them to a silver medal at the 2013 worlds. They have an ability to stifle the opposition with a strong defensive system and outstanding goaltending.

Slovakia

World ranking: 11

Odds to win gold: 80-1

GM: Miroslav Satan

Coach: Craig Ramsay

Player to watch: The Slovaks are hamstrung by the fact most of their top players — like Zdeno Chara (Boston), Christian Jaros (Ottawa-Belleville) and Martin Reway (Montreal-Laval) — are in the NHL or AHL, and thus not allowed in the Olympics. Left wing Libor Hudacek, 27, had a strong 2012 worlds, when the Slovaks settled for silver. He plays for Orebro HK in Sweden. His brother Julius could be one of the Slovakia goalies.

The skinny: Satan hired Ramsay on a two-year deal that takes him through Pyeongchang and the 2019 worlds, which Slovakia will host. The Slovaks surprised some with their trip to the bronze-medal game at  the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but they lost 5-3 to Finland.

OLYMPIC WATCH: WHO’S ON THE RADAR FOR CANADA, USA?

By Jared Clinton – The Hockey News

Without NHL participation, the focus for Hockey Canada and USA Hockey is on players who are performing well overseas and in the minors. So, who is standing out as pre-Olympic tournaments approach?

If this were a normal Olympic year, or an Olympic year the likes of which we’ve come to know over the past two decades, much of the conversation surrounding the rosters for the Canadian and American squads would focus on the early season play by some of each respective nation’s top stars.

For instance, there’d have to be some talk about Dustin Brown, who is having a somewhat remarkable resurgence through the early part of the year with the Los Angeles Kings. Will Butcher would certainly be garnering some attention from USA Hockey, as well. And with eight points through six games, not to mention good chemistry with Patrick Kane, the American team might consider sending Ryan Hartman to the Olympics. The Canadians, meanwhile, might be looking at Brayden Point, Brayden Schenn and James Neal as players whose early play has thrust them into the spotlight.

Unfortunately, though, we all know that’s not the case. There will be no NHL participation in the 2018 Winter Games, so these early season performances, while impressive, do nothing for what Olympic squads will look like come February. What will, mind you, is the play of those who are spending this campaign overseas, and through the early part of the respective seasons in Sweden, Finland, Russia and beyond, there are a fair number of players who are starting to make their case.

For those players, the hot start is coming at the right time, too, as tournaments for both national teams are around the corner. Canada will be sending a team to yet another tournament, the Karjala Cup, beginning on Nov. 8. It will be the third tournament for the Canadians in the lead-up to the Olympics. As for USA Hockey, the new-look, non-NHL men’s national team will get its first taste of international action on Nov. 10 when the Deutschland Cup opens. But who will be there? Here are the players who have been turning heads:

KHL

Standouts:
CAN: Linden Vey, Wojtek Wolski and Justin Azevedo appear to be well on their way to locking down spots on the Canadian squad. Vey is currently third in league scoring, seven points off the lead, with five goals and 25 points through 21 games, and Wolski (19 points) and Azevdeo (18 points) aren’t too far off. And while he sits third among Canadian scorers, it might actually be Azevedo who’s having the most impressive early season, but there’s good news and bad news. The good? In 19 games, the former Kings draft pick has 12 goals. The bad? He’s out two months with injury.

USA: Matt Gilroy might be the name to watch for the American side. Like any team, production from the back end could be a difference-maker, and Gilroy is certainly managing that in the KHL right now. Through 18 games, his five goals and 15 points are the second-most among American skaters. Dan Sexton is the top American scorer, however, with four goals and 18 points through 21 games.

Keep An Eye On:
CAN: Defenseman Mat Robinson will be an option on the back end. In goal, Ben Scrivens is pacing all Canadian netminders with a .919 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average in 16 outings. Brandon Kozun, a standout scorer last season, has struggled to find the scoresheet.

USA: Nick Ebert is another defender who is putting up points at a steady pace, but keep an eye on goaltender Ryan Zapolski. He won top goaltender honors this past week and is rocking a stellar 1.11 GAA and .955 SP through 17 appearances.

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SHL

Standouts:
CAN: Derek Roy’s veteran presence, not to mention two-point performance at the Puchkov, makes him someone in heavy consideration for the Canadian squad, and his three-goal, 11-point start to the Swedish League season isn’t going to hurt his chances of donning the maple leaf. Rene Bourque has made himself a player to watch, too. One year removed from a 12-goal NHL campaign, Bourque already has half of that total in nine games in Sweden. 

USA: Making the jump to the NHL hasn’t happened, but 2011 Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele has been nothing short of phenomenal everywhere he’s played since turning pro. It’s no shocker that has carried over to Sweden, where he’s already put up three goals and seven points in eight outings. He’s not the top American scorer, however. That honor goes to Ryan Lasch, who is building off of last season’s solid performance in the Swiss League.

Keep An Eye On:
CAN: Mike Kostka bounced between the NHL and AHL over the past few seasons, but he seems ready-made for the Canadian blueline. Daniel Paille may also be an option if looking to add a veteran presence up front.

USA: Aaron Palushaj has had a tough time catching on full-time overseas, but his hot start in Sweden gives him hope of sticking around and of landing a spot with Team USA. He has a history, previously representing his country at the 2009 World Junior Championship.

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NLA

Standouts:
CAN: Andrew Ebbett has carved himself out a nice spot with SC Bern in the Swiss League, but he’s seemingly taken his play to the next level this season. After seasons of 13 and 25 points, Ebbett has blown the doors off the competition early on with five goals and 19 points in 12 games. He had two assists at the Sochi Hockey Open, so he’s only making his case stronger with his current performance. Don’t sleep defenseman Maxim Noreau, either. His four goals and 11 points put him third in scoring by defensemen.

USA: Two of the league’s top eight scorers, Garret Roe and Mark Arcobello, are American-born. Some will be familiar with Arcobello, who has 139 NHL games under his belt, but Roe is a player who could make himself known at the Olympics. He has been a consistent contributor in European leagues since turning pro and his first season in the Swiss League, which has seen him score seven goals and 18 points in 13 games, is getting him noticed.

Keep An Eye On:
CAN: A fixture of the European leagues, Barry Brust could be a backup or third-string option in goal. Mason Raymond has only suited up in seven games thus far, but he impressed when Hockey Canada called on him for the tournament in Sochi.

USA: Nathan Gerbe was a point-per-game player in Switzerland last year and, with nearly 400 NHL contests to his name, his experience could be a valuable asset for the American side at the Olympics.

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DEL

Standouts:
CAN: Trevor Parkes is hardly a household name, but Hockey Canada saw enough there to invite him to the Puchkov. He didn’t manage to find the scoresheet at the tournament, but he’s gone back to the German League and put up six goals and 13 points in 13 games. Not a bad start. Dane Fox is also showing he still has his scoring touch. In 13 games, he has six goals and 11 points and could be a power play triggerman for the Canadians.

USA: You know one great thing about the Olympics sans NHLers? A guy like Keith Aucoin might get his due. He’s one of the most prolific players in AHL history and he continues to produce as a 38-year-old overseas. He has three goals and 21 points in 13 German League games this season. Put him on the American power play and let him go to work. Goaltender David Leggio has also turned some heads with a .931 SP and 2.14 GAA through six games.

Keep An Eye On:
CAN: He’s nowhere near the top of the scoring list, but Devin Setoguchi’s four goals and seven points might be enough to create some conversation. He played half a season with the Los Angeles Kings in 2016-17 and he chipped in four goals and 12 points.

USA: After 655 games in the NHL, Tom Gilbert found himself out of a job this summer and headed to Germany. He hasn’t put many points up — five assists in 13 games — but he might be hard to pass over for Team USA.

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LIIGA

Standouts:
CAN: Ryan O’Connor hasn’t pulled on a national team jersey since his U18 days back in 2009-10. In fact, the last time he skated on the same ice as Team Canada, he was the opponent at the Spengler Cup. But the rearguard’s two-goal, nine-point start to his season in the Finnish League could open some eyes.

USA: Former U18 and U19 rearguard Teemu Kivihalme — despite what his name suggests, he was born in Minnesota — is off to a good start in his first pro campaign. He won’t be a top-pairing guy, but as a depth option, he could have an outside shot.

Keep An Eye On:
CAN: Shaun Heshka’s solid performance last season earned him an invite to the Spengler Cup. He’s not at the top of the list, but he could be in line for an invite to camp.

USA: Ben Blood is big, strong and tough as nails. The game will be played on the big ice, but if Team USA wants to add a blueliner who can punish players, Blood might be their guy.

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AHL

Standouts:
CAN: Players on two-way deals aren’t eligible, but that does leave some options for the Canadian team, the clear standout being Colin Campbell. He re-upped on a two-year deal with the Grand Rapids Griffins and has started off with one goal and six points in four games for the defending Calder Cup champions.

USA: No Olympic squad may draw more talent from the AHL than Team USA. Chris Conner, Chris Bourque, Steve Moses and Travis Morin are all capable scorers who could add offensive depth to the team, while Ryan Malone’s comeback seems to be going according to plan. He has two points in four games in the AHL.

Keep An Eye On:
CAN: Patrice Cormier is a former World Junior Championship captain who could be a sneaky addition to bulk up the bottom-six. He’s a role player and a lead-by-example type.

USA: T.J. Hensick hasn’t found the scoresheet yet, but it’s only a matter of time. He put up 16 goals and 52 points with the Kings’ farm team, the Ontario Reign, last season.

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UNSIGNED

CAN: Andreas Athanasiou is set to make a decision regarding his future this week, and, if he’s available, Canada may as well prepare his jersey early. He’s a lock for the team if he wants to play. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman also reported that Jarome Iginla will get an invite to camp. Another name to keep an eye on is Chris Lee. Cut from Kings training camp, Lee was a stud blueliner in the KHL last season and earned a spot on the World Championship club. He could be an offensive addition. Also watch for P-A Parenteau if he’s available.

USA: Brian Gionta is skating with the Rochester Americans and wants a shot at playing for Team USA. He’s a no-brainer for camp and probably a lock for the roster. After getting cut from a PTO, Drew Miller remains without a job. Chris Vandevelde also is seeking work and could have his eye on the Olympics. After a good season in the DEL, Rob Schremp could also be an option.