The Olympics have always felt like the pinnacle for several sports around the world. Only the best sprinters in the world can win gold at the 100-meter dash. Only the fastest swimmers can rise above everyone else in the 200-meter freestyle. Yet, for other sports, the Olympics hasn’t felt like the top of the sport ever. Take baseball, for example. Most of the best players in the world can all be found playing for Major League Baseball. So, when the International Olympic Committee announced that baseball would make its return to the Olympics earlier this year, we were all ecstatic. However, when MLB announced that players on any team’s 40-man roster would not be eligible to compete in the Olympic Games, the excitement largely subsided. The Olympics don’t feel like the best competition in the world if the best players in the world aren’t allowed to participate.
Yesterday, the NHL and NHLPA announced their agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation to allow a break in the upcoming NHL season for players to play in the Winter Olympics in Beijing, should they want to. This will be the sixth time that NHLers are allowed to play in the Olympics — the first being in 1998 in Nagano. The NHL continued to allow players to participate in the Olympics all the way up until 2018 in PyeongChang. Now, barring any major setbacks with COVID-19, the NHL will make its triumphant return.
A lot has changed in the NHL over the past eight years. The 2014 United States Olympic men’s ice hockey team consisted of four players who are now retired: Jimmy Howard, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, and Ryan Callahan. There are only two players from that team still in their twenties: Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk. Obviously, the U.S. can’t trot out a similar roster in the 2022 Olympics if they want any chance of winning.
So, with that, here are a few of the rosters we could see in Beijing next year. Obviously, these are making the assumption that no players opt out of the Olympics. I know several will likely opt out, but for the sake of this piece, let’s just say no one does. Fourteen forwards, eight defensemen, three goalies. Let’s do it!
Forwards: Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Max Pacioretty, Jake Guentzel, Matthew Tkachuk, TJ Oshie, Blake Coleman, Kevin Hayes, Kyle Connor, Alex DeBrincat, Brock Boeser
Defense: John Carlson, Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox, Torey Krug, Jaccob Slavin, Ryan McDonagh, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones
Goalies: Connor Hellebuyck, Alex Nedeljkovic, John Gibson
The American team is a bit thinner than most people realize. It is very heavy at the top and pretty light near the bottom. The must-haves on the team are Matthews, Eichel, and Kane.
The biggest omissions from this team are probably Brady Tkachuk and Joe Pavelski. Personally, I feel Tkachuk has regressed in efficiency every season in the NHL, although that may be in part due to the fact that he plays in Ottawa. As for Pavelski, I know he’s a menace when it comes to tipping pucks in front of the net, but I tried to build this team with facilitators and defensive-minded players at the blue line rather than offensive defensemen, so Pavelski’s skill set doesn’t quite fit with this roster. Not to mention that the other forwards on this list are better all-around players than Pavelski. He’s also 37.
On the point, no Quinn Hughes and no Jeff Petry may come as a surprise to some, but all in all, these defensemen were mostly set from the get-go. The most questionable inclusion is probably Torey Krug. I know he didn’t have the greatest or most efficient 2021 season, but he’s been an All-Star in three of the last five seasons and is very disciplined on the defensive end. I like his presence on this roster a lot.
As for the goaltenders, Nedeljkovic was a must-have for me. I believe he’s shown a ton of potential in his short time in the NHL. He’s got an incredible ability to find the puck through players and come up with miraculous saves. That being said, I’d still have Hellebuyck be the starter and Gibson be the back-up. I’m not crazy. I promise.
Forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin, Evgeni Malkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Kirill Kaprizov, Andrei Svechnikov, Evgeny Dadonov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Pavel Buchnevich, Alexander Radulov, Ilya Mikheyev, Vladislov Namestnikov, Denis Gurianov
Defense: Dmitry Orlov, Mikhail Sergachev, Ivan Provorov, Dmitry Kulikov, Artem Zub, Alex Romanov, Nikita Zadorov, Vladislav Gavrikov
Goalies: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Semyon Varlamov, Ilya Sorokin
The Russian team is even more top-heavy than the American team. They have arguably the greatest goal-scorer of the 21st century and arguably the best player in the NHL right now not named McDavid. Yet, the bottom of their roster includes players like Namestnikov. The additions of young guys like Mikheyev and Gurianov may seem questionable, but they’ve proven themselves more than capable goal-scorers on the bottom line of this roster. Obviously, this team would be carried by their top two lines as well as their special teams.
The defense for this team was pretty much entirely set. There’s really only 10 Russian defensemen in the NHL today who could compete for these eight roster spots. The two I’m thinking of who I omitted were Nikita Nesterov and Nikita Zaitsev. I just believe Zaitsev is too reliant on the talent around him to make him look good. As for Nesterov, he might be a fantastic penalty kill option, but, in my opinion, his skill set is too limited to fit on an Olympic roster. He’s not elite enough at any one aspect of the game to warrant a roster spot.
Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the NHL. He was a no-brainer. Varlamov is inconsistent, and his great 2021 seems a little suspect after so many mediocre seasons, but I’m a sucker for recency bias, so say what you will. The final netminder spot could’ve gone several ways. I considered Sergei Bobrovsky and Ilya Samsonov, but ultimately went with Sorokin. I know Samsonov has a tremendous 2020, but he wasn’t nearly as good in 2021 despite what his record might say. Sorokin played on a worse team with worse defenders in front of him and still managed to put together a better 2021 season than Samsonov. He earns the spot.
Forwards: Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Aleksander Barkov, Sebastian Aho, Joonas Donskoi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Erik Haula, Kasperi Kapanen, Teuvo Teräväinen, Mikael Granlund, Joe Kiviranta, Roope Hintz, Kaapo Kakko, Joel Armia
Defense: Miro Heiskanen, Sami Vatanen, Olli Määttä, Esa Lindell, Markus Nutivaara, Mikko Lehtonen, Rasmus Ristolainen, Henri Jokiharju
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Kaapo Kähkönen, Juuse Saros
The forwards on this team are all but set. I could see an argument made for players like Eeli Tolvanen, Artturi Lehkonen, or Leo Komarov, but these 14 forwards are pretty solidly the top at their positions in the NHL. I’m a huge believer in Erik Haula’s ability despite his lack of stats. I love myself some Joonas Donskoi, and Joel Kiviranta has the potential to be a great goal-scorer in just a few more years. He’s shown flashes of immense potential in his 37 NHL games, and those moments could come in clutch in a tournament like the Olympics.
The defense is a much bigger question mark. I know not a lot of people would agree with the inclusions of Nutivaara and Lehtonen, but I personally love Lehtonen’s “defense first” mindset. The guy didn’t take a single shot for either Toronto or Columbus in 2021. He’s somebody that a power play can run through even if he’s not a threat to light the lamp. Nutivaara is the same sort of player, but more effective in even strength settings than Lehtonen is.
Finally for the goaltenders. Any one of these three could be the starter. I believe Rask to be the best option given his history of winning, but I could see any argument made for Kahkonen or Saros. Even Joonas Korpisalo and Anti Raanta could have a chance to make the team. Undoubtedly though, Rask should be the one getting the starting job.
Forwards: Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mitch Marner, Ryan O’Reilly, Mark Scheifele, Taylor Hall, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Tyler Seguin, Mark Stone
Defense: Alex Pietrangelo, Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, Cale Makar, Shea Theodore, Aaron Ekblad, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Ellis
Goalies: Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, Chris Driedger
You could literally put anyone on the bottom of this Canadian roster and it would do well. The fact that Ryan O’Reilly, who just finished 18th in Hart Trophy voting isn’t a for-sure make on this roster is insane. I understand Tyler Seguin is coming off a pretty serious injury, but he’s one of the best in the world when healthy. He likely won’t be available for Dallas at the start of the NHL season, but he should be 100 percent before the start of the Olympics on February 4.
On defense, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Ellis, and Mark Giordano are probably the most questionable choices. Mark Giordano can still skate with the best of them. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I don’t care how old he is. He showed in 2021 that he can handle himself. He’s very disciplined and that has helped his game adjust as he’s gotten older. He’d also provide a remarkable veteran presence to the blue line.
No Carey Price? Nope! Should he be on the team? Absolutely, but personally I’d rather see Driedger don the red maple leaf. Carey Price is undoubtedly the better goaltender when healthy, but Driedger is certainly no slouch. His .927 save percentage and 2.07 GAA in 2021 should be enough evidence.