The Olympics are when the greatest athletes from all over the world gather to compete in their respective sports. Except for men’s hockey this year.
Hockey is going to be incredibly weird at Pyeongchang 2018 because, for the first time since 1994, NHL players are not allowed to participate. So instead of the best hockey players in the world going up against each other in a de facto World Cup, it’s the KHL providing the star attractions—mostly for the Russian team—and a lot of countries scrambling for solid replacement rosters. If you’re rooting for a North American team, you have a lot of new faces to learn before the pucks drop on Wednesday.
There are 12 teams spread out over three groups. However, the group stage only determines seeding for the playoff bracket, with nobody actually eliminated until then (though the top four teams will earn first-round byes). These are the countries, ranked from least to most likely to take home gold.
12. South Korea (Group A)
Root for them if: You’re a masochistic underdog-lover, or you’re from Bemidji, Minnesota.
Automatic qualifiers thanks to their host role, South Korea’s hockey team is very much just happy to be here. Making their first-ever appearance at the Olympics, South Korea has never even won at the Asian Winter Games, let alone made any mark at the World Championships. Their roster, composed entirely of players currently playing in Korea (some of whom obtained citizenship ahead of these Olympics), has a combined total of 27 games of NHL experience. All of that is provided by just two players—defensemen Alex Plante and Bryan Young, who each had cups of coffee with Edmonton several years ago. A handful of their players aren’t even professionals, but are part of the Sangmu, or the athletics division of the South Korean army.
Canadian-born starting goalie Matt Dalton, however, is the best netminder in the Asian League, and if you’re going to have a star player at just one position, that’s the place you want him. Dalton took his Bemidji State Beavers to the NCAA Frozen Four back in 2009, so he at least has some experience being the backbone of a surprising tournament run. Still, if South Korea can even just play a close game with any of its group stage opponents—Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Canada—that’d be a massive victory for the unseasoned home squad.
11. Slovenia (Group B)
Root for them if: You’re a degenerate gambler who took them winning gold at +25000.
Slovenia earned seventh place at their first-ever Olympics in 2014, but without LA Kings captain Anže Kopitar, there is very little to fear from them. Besides Kopitar, they do return most of last tournament’s squad, but that only includes one guy with NHL experience—forward Jan Muršak, currently of the Swedish league and owner of 46 career games with Detroit Red Wings.
Muršak, though, is still his country’s best hope for goals. Their roster, otherwise, is aggressively unspecial, with concerns from team leaders that betray Slovenia’s small-time status.
“It was much easier in Sochi, where everything was within arm’s reach,” Dejan Kontrec, head of of the country’s national hockey federation, was quoted as saying. “There will be much more travel and logistics in South Korea.”
Somehow, I don’t think Canada shares those same travel anxieties.
10. Norway (Group C)
Root for them if: ... You’re from Norway? There’s really no other reason.
From a pure talent perspective, Norway is one of the worst teams of the tournament. Honestly, the only glimmer of hope for the regular Olympic punching bag is the possibility that Finland is just a bit overrated and maybe, by a stroke of luck, they’ve landed in the easiest group. Even if that’s the case, they have an enormous mountain to climb.
Norway has qualified for the past two Olympics (after missing the three before that), and in the eight total games they’ve played in those tournaments, they’ve won none. You might think it only can get better from there, but really, it doesn’t. Without NHL players Andreas Martinsen and Mats Zuccarello, the Norwegians are floundering with a complete lack of depth. If you’re looking for names to watch, defensemen Johannes Johannesen and Mattias Nørstebø are both young yet have plenty of experience, but not at this kind of level.
Meanwhile, head coach Petter Thoresen will be in charge of his sons: forwards Patrick and Steffen Thoresen. And Mathis Olimb, who played in the last two Olympics, will join forces again with his brother Ken Andre Olimb for another familial forward pair. That’s kind of cute, I guess.
9. Germany (Group C)
Root for them if: You’re a fan of the underachieving San Jose Sharks of the mid-2000s. (Not metaphorically. Like, literally that exact team.)
Germany had a long run of Olympic appearances interrupted in 2014, but they weren’t much missed. The German team hasn’t medaled since 1976, and they pretty much exist as an early-round tune-up game for the more serious contenders. That likely won’t change in 2018, but Germany could stand to benefit just a little from the lack of NHL players by icing a lineup that still has plenty of World Championship experience. We won’t see Edmonton young gun Leon Draisaitl or Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer suit up for their country, but some longtime European veterans will finally get a shot on a massive stage.
Those guys include defenseman Yannic Seidenberg, brother of the Islanders’ Dennis Seidenberg, and Felix Schütz, who scored a dramatic OT goal against the USA in the 2010 Worlds (which was one of their best international tournament runs in history, with the home-ice Germans finishing fourth). Additionally, Germany features former NHL-ers Marcel Goc and Christian Ehrhoff, a duo that makes them particularly attractive to San Jose Sharks fans from a decade ago. That lukewarm phrase is really the best thing you can say about an otherwise pretty bad team.
8. Slovakia (Group B)
Root for them if: You enjoy surprises. Not if you’re one of those idiots who’s like “I love surprises!” but really means they like it when good things unexpectedly happen to them, but if you legitimately welcome the unknown and don’t mind if it’s shit.
Slovakia should have as small a chance as Slovenia of beating Russia or the USA in their group, but they’re a little bit of a wild card thanks to a brand-new coach and a potentially exciting style of play. The hockey team has made every Olympics since the country formed, but rarely made a mark. Back in August, however, a bit close to such a big tournament, Slovakia made an ambitious move and hired new coach Craig Ramsay, a longtime Buffalo Sabres player with four different stints of NHL head coaching. Ramsay will get to command a creative group of players who will likely play a very aggressive style motivated by their coach’s reported favorite phrase: “Safe is dead.”
Ramsay is clearly trying to imprint himself on his new team, with a surprising roster that draws almost exclusively from the Slovak and Czech leagues while ignoring all but one Slovak KHL player. Headlining this group, which was overseen by GM and longtime NHLer Miroslav Šatan, is old man Ladislav Nagy, who was drafted by the St. Louis Blues all the way back in 1997. But there are just six players who appeared in the 2014 Olympics, so this is a new, very unproven gang of guys who are looking to learn.
We don’t know yet whether this overhaul means that Ramsay is clueless, or has a smart plan, but Slovakia’s roster is either a recipe for fun, disaster, or disastrous fun. If Ramsay provides some new-guy spark, Slovakia could give the U.S. a scare for second place in the group. If this is a rebuilding Olympiad for a new philosophy, their untalented roster is an easy target. But in a Games with more question-mark teams than ever before, Slovakia could be very much in its element. Close your eyes and dive in.
7. Switzerland (Group A)
Root for them if: You eat food solely for sustenance, not for any kind of culinary pleasure.
Switzerland scored a surprise silver back at the 2013 World Championships, but any hardware is an anomaly for a traditional also-ran that’s qualified for the past four Olympics but hasn’t medaled since 1948. Once again, they project as a thoroughly average team, with its entire 25-man roster coming from the Swiss domestic league, and very little big-game experience that could put them over Canada or the Czech Republic in the group.
The most recognizable name on the roster is probable starting goaltender Jonas Hiller, who had a long run with the Anaheim Ducks and even made an NHL all-star game in 2011. He’s protected most notably by defenseman Raphael Diaz, who’s picked up a couple hundred games of NHL service and currently captains EV Zug.
But the team’s solid-enough defense isn’t matched by any kind of offensive firepower, which makes the Swiss a potentially frustrating opponent, but not a truly dangerous one. They should avoid getting blown out, even against Canada, but unless veteran forward Andres Ambühl or some previously unknown name makes some spectacular plays on the attack, Switzerland’s run in this tournament will be forgotten by March.
6. Finland (Group C)
Root for them if: You describe yourself as “quirky” and “random” and want to cheer for a hip underdog without actually investing your energies in a terrible team.
Finally, we’ve reached some legit medal threats. Finland may not be quite the brand-name hockey power that, say, neighboring Sweden is, but with medals in five of the last six Olympics, they very much need to be taken seriously. The Fins lost all-time Olympic top-scorer and 2018 Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne, who was putting pucks in nets all the way back at Albertville in 1992, but looking to replace him as national hockey icons are two must-see 18-year-olds—defenseman Miro Heiskanen and forward Eeli Tolvanen.
Heiskanen is still based in the Finnish league, but he went third overall to Dallas in the 2017 draft. He’s a precocious blueliner with great vision and skating ability who makes very few mistakes for a teenaged prospect. Tolvanen is also a 2017 first-rounder, and he’ll make the trip over from the KHL when Nashville decides he’s ready. As an offensive threat, Tolvanen is much more likely to capture attention at these Games, and if he does, it’ll be because teams make the mistake of giving him any kind of space with possession in the slot. His wrist shot is lethal.
Both of these guys are still very young, so it may be foolish to expect too much of them, but getting to see players like these before they make it huge in the pros is the one major upside of the NHL boycott. And even if the wonderteens are underwhelming, they’re balanced out with enough KHL talent like center Petri Kontiola and longtime leaders like Lasse Kukkonen that Finland should stay steady on its current path of success. That’s great news for hockey hipsters who want to keep watching all through the medal games.
5. United States (Group B)
Root for them if: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
We, as a country, will never shut up about the Miracle On Ice. Not only is it one of the greatest sports stories of all-time, but it’s also a perfect entry point for hockey people to get folks into our beloved sport. And with a cast of unknowns wearing the red, white, and blue for the first time since 1994, and a looming group stage match against Russia, everyone on TV is going to be reminiscing about the last USA team to win gold at the Olympics.
Unfortunately, that was a college all-star team working miracles in 1980, and this 2018 squad is more like an assortment of Salvation Army hand-me-downs. While it would be wonderful and exciting to be able to send the future generation of NHL stars to Pyeongchang, instead, we got a bunch of weirdos and wash-outs—with just a few kids mixed in—with whom we have no choice but to fall in love over the next 10 days.
So, who’s good? Well, nobody, as far as we know, or else they’d be in the NHL right now. But the ones with the most upside are clearly the four who are still playing in college and may have NHL futures: Troy Terry (a Ducks prospect), Ryan Donato (Bruins), Will Borgen (Sabres), and Jordan Greenway (Wild). Donato’s a Harvard junior with 21 goals in 23 games played this season, so his name is the one you’ll hopefully hear the most, while the towering six-foot-six winger Greenway is said to have the brightest pro future.
They’ll be led by captain Brian Gionta, a 39-year-old former Stanley Cup winner in New Jersey, who said he turned down offers to stay in the NHL to preserve his Olympic eligibility. He has almost double the NHL experience of any of his teammates, and at least until KHL goalie Ryan Zapolski or one of the goal-scorers has a breakout game, Gionta’s the face of the team. It’s not ideal, but it’s at least a start.
4. Czech Republic (Group A)
Root for them if: Your friends won’t let you root for Russia.
Czech Republic’s recent Olympic results may be underwhelming—only one bronze medal since 2002—but only Russia benefits more from the lack of NHL talent in the 2018 Games. The KHL-heavy Czech roster isn’t a desperate, shallow group like some of the lesser hockey countries were forced to string together, but a collection of top European talent with a real shot at gold.
Without Jaromir Jagr, forward Martin Erat is the biggest name here, having notched over 500 career NHL points and played in three previous Olympics, and it’s possible that no player in this tournament is more beloved by his country. He’s joined by prolific goalscorer Roman Červenka, currently playing in Switzerland, and the relatively young Jiří Sekáč, who couldn’t quite hack it in the NHL but found comfort in Russia, which makes him the perfect player for these Games. The Czechs are also formidable in net with Dominik Furch, who draws only somewhat unfair comparisons to another goalie with the same first name, and they have a former NHL defenseman named Michal Jordán, which is kind of cool.
The youngest player on the Czech roster is the high-ceiling 22-year-old Dominik Kubalik, while even the elder statesman Erat, at 36, still has gas left in his tank. What this roster (average age 29) tells you is that the Czechs know that this is their best opportunity to win another gold, and they’re going to make the most of it by icing an entire squad of guys in or near their primes. Despite the eligibility changes, this group may not be much worse than the one from 2014, and with the drop in quality that almost all other countries will see, the Czech team is in an enviable position.
3. Sweden (Group C)
Root for them if: You’re thrilled by seeing an indie band in a small club just a few months before they take over the world.
Two words: Rasmus Dahlin. If there’s one single reason to watch this tournament, he is it. Dahlin is only 17 years old, yet he already proved himself as the top defensemen at the 2018 World Juniors, and he’s going to be the number-one pick in the next NHL draft. Dahlin is a prodigy in the truest sense of the word. He’s a brilliant passer with breathtaking puck control who, at least in the Swedish league, totally controls the game on both ends of the ice. The hype around Dahlin is immense, but based on the highlights he’s already produced, it’s rooted in fact.
The Swedish team is much more than just Dahlin, though. Stanley Cup winner Viktor Stålberg and Henrik’s brother Joel Lundqvist lead the forward group, while likely starting goalie Jhonas Enroth is a stand-out in the KHL. Front to back, it’s a deep squad with no real holes, and while this group couldn’t hope to hang with the likes of 2014's Erik Karlsson and Henrik Zetterberg-led silver medal team, the replacements are all right. It’s the newcoming teen defenseman, though, who could make the difference between bronze and gold.
2. Canada (Group A)
Root for them if: You love wearing khakis because they “go with everything.”
It’s the back-to-back defending gold medal winners who probably lose the most from the lack of NHL-contracted talent, but Canada is deep enough to still build a contender. This is an old team, with no player younger than 25-year-old Christian Thomas (who played in nine total NHL games with the Rangers, Habs, and Coyotes), but that means the Canadians will have tons of NHL experience on the ice for every shift. There will be no flashy, exciting prospects wearing the red maple leaf, but Canada’s average joe off the bench is plenty better than almost any other country’s.
There are a lot of journeymen to sift through on this roster. The most recognizable is probably Rene Bourque, a 36-year-old who played a long and fruitful career across the NHL, as well as Stanley Cup winning Boston Bruin Chris Kelly and 2008 Buffalo Sabres leading points-getter Derek Roy. Those guys are fine, but if you’re looking for a good story, forward Wojtek Wolski has made it to the Olympics after battling back from a freakish injury in the KHL that broke his neck less than two years ago.
The relatively youthful Stefan Elliott (27) and Cody Goloubef (28) help anchor the defense, with enough potential left in them that a strong Olympics could bring them back to the NHL. And Ben Scrivens likely starts in goal, with his otherwise spotty NHL career highlighted by a record-setting 59-save performance in a shutout back in 2014.
Probably very little of this intrigues you, but the good news is, Canada won’t let you down. This is a group of proven guys whose talent sits just outside the NHL’s lowest tier, and together, they’re one of the safest bets to win some kind of medal. For USA fans looking for a familiar culture to cheer for, they’ll be a fine second choice if the stars and stripes bow out early and you can get over the rivalry. But for any true neutral, they don’t offer much besides dependability. Canada is too solid to screw up, but they’re also too solid to be able to do anything that will surprise or excite you.
1. “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (Group B)
Root for them if: You don’t care about “good guys” or “villains” in sports and just want to watch the most talented players.
If patriotism isn’t really your thing, Russia—which will not be referred to as “Russia,” and will not fly the Russian flag or play the Russian National Anthem—will absolutely be the most interesting and most fun team to watch at these Olympics. Perennial underachievers, the lack of NHLers finally gives them a chance to field a KHL all-star team in a wide-open tournament, and it’ll be a massive failure if Russia doesn’t, at the very least, take home its first medal since 2002.
We’ve been grading a lot of these teams on a curve, tacitly acknowledging that of course these teams are awful if you stack them up against the last two decades of Olympic squads. But Russia is actually very good, even without Ovechkin, Malkin, and its other North American pros. Unsurprisingly, they also have the most star power, with former NHL all-stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk leading the way. Kovalchuk, now on his fifth season in the KHL, is still one of his country’s top players, while Datsyuk, even at 39, remains a unique playmaker and a lovely skater when healthy.
Also headlining the squad is Vadim Shipachyov, who played three NHL games and scored a goal with Vegas this season, but went back to Russia when he got sent down to the minors. There’s also former Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, who left the NHL after pleading no contest to a domestic assault charge. In net, they’ll roll with Vasily Koshechkin, who’s never played in the NHL but was the KHL playoff MVP in the 2016-17 season. This is a weird roster, just like all the others. But this is also without a doubt the best roster.
Russia is scary, fun, exciting, and very easily hate-worthy. It’ll be a huge disappointment for them if they can’t carve up the opposition, and it’ll be fascinating to watch some random journeymen try to take out the KHL’s best. Regardless of who you like, we’re lucky to have this squad in the Olympics. Russia’s either the perfect team to enjoy or the best possible villains.