Russia, OAR, ROC — whatever the name, now that
the NHL is out of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Russians will be the favourites for
the gold medal.
After the NHL withdrew from the Beijing Olympics
on Wednesday to save a league schedule ravaged by virus outbreaks on numerous
teams, Europe-based players are set to dominate the Olympic men’s tournament.
That puts the Russians, competing in Beijing as
ROC for Russian Olympic Committee, in a strong position to retain the gold
medal it won in 2018 under the Olympic Athletes from Russia name. The name
changes were required as part of Russia’s sanctions for various doping-related
issues across multiple Olympic sports.
Just as it was four years ago, the Kontinental
Hockey League remains the strongest league outside of the NHL. Russia has used
the big-spending SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow clubs to keep some talented
younger Russians at home when they might otherwise have moved to North America.
The Russian roster will be less familiar to
North American fans than the 2018 lineup led by Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya
Kovalchuk, who haven’t officially retired but haven’t played any hockey this
season. Kovalchuk may be in Beijing in a manager role for the Russian Hockey
Federation. Some 2018 gold medalists are now in the NHL, including Minnesota
Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov, Ottawa Senators defenseman Artem Zub and two of
the three goaltenders: the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin and Islanders’
Expect centre Vadim Shipachyov, briefly of the
Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18, to star for the ROC. He has 21 goals and 36
assists in 40 games in the KHL this season for Dynamo Moscow. Experienced
forward Mikhail Grigorenko is available because he moved back to Russia this
season after spending 2020-21 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and former New
Jersey Devils wing Nikita Gusev is likely to make the roster, too. Former Los
Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov has not played in the NHL since a 2014
domestic violence arrest and subsequent suspension, but he is also considered
key to Russia’s plans.
The Russians can be beaten, though. Finland
proved that Sunday with a 3-2 overtime win in Moscow during the Channel One
Cup, a tournament used as a pre-Olympic tune-up for non-NHL players.
The game-winning goal was a bizarre one,
awarded by the referees because of a penalty on a Finland breakaway facing the
empty Russian net. The puck never entered the net. Finland won all three of its
games in the tournament but needed overtime twice.
Former NHL players who are candidates for
Finland include forwards Markus Granlund and Leo Komarov and defenseman Julius
Honka. Komarov played a game for the Islanders earlier this season before
agreeing to mutually terminate his contract.
Canada sent a team to the tournament too,
beating Sweden but losing to Finland and Russia with a roster assembled from
clubs in six different countries. Two free agents, defenseman Jason Demers and
centre Eric Fehr, brought much-needed experience with 699 and 652 career NHL
games, respectively, and both subsequently signed with the same KHL team.
Former Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien
is in line to be behind the bench for Canada, with ex-Arizona Coyotes captain
Shane Doan the top candidate to serve as general manager.
Wearing throwback Soviet Union uniforms, Russia
had wins over Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
USA Hockey could soon turn to assistant
executive director of hockey operations and retired NHL goaltender John
Vanbiesbrouck as GM. Former Rangers coach David Quinn is a leading candidate to
get the U.S. Olympic job overseeing a roster that include some college players.
Germany’s year again?
The absence of the NHL creates opportunities
for a surprise medalist. In 2018, that was Germany, which took silver after a
4-3 overtime loss to the Russians in the final.
The Germans were helped by their team cohesion,
with players almost entirely drawn from their national Bundesliga and familiar
with each other’s play. The NHL’s decision means MVP Leon Draisaitl is still
waiting to represent his country at the Olympics. Germany beat Slovakia,
Switzerland and a Russian “B” team in a tune-up tournament on home ice in
Boost for China
Host nation China was under pressure to prove
its men’s team meets the competitive standard to play Olympic hockey. That’s
less of an issue now.
China has used KHL club Kunlun Red Star as a
proxy for the national team, with mostly naturalized players born in the U.S.
and Canada, many of them with Chinese heritage. Kunlun is ranked last among the
24 teams in the KHL and lost two games used by the International Ice Hockey
Federation to gauge its readiness.
China is drawn against the US, Canada and
Germany in the pool stage. Without the NHL, there’s less chance of China’s
games becoming record blowouts.