We're a year out from the 2010 Vancouver Games and one of the most anticipated Olympic hockey tournaments in history. So, our experts decided to have a little fun and place early odds on the men's tournament.
This team will have it all, from top-notch goaltending in Evgeni Nabokov to the most dynamic offense in the tournament, featuring Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin. Yikes.
The defense will be the team's Achilles' heel and will be helped immeasurably if Sergei Zubov can recover from a hip injury that has cost him most of this season. If there is a question about this team, it will be about its leadership and ability to overcome adversity, something the Russians have been notoriously poor at in these kinds of competitions in recent years.
The defending Olympic champs will once again be a team to be reckoned with, starting with Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes and a blue line that will include Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Mattias Ohlund and the emerging Alexander Edler of Vancouver. Up front, the Swedes are deep and talented and will be well-suited for play in an NHL rink with Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel), Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin. The one nagging issue may be the team's advancing age; Lidstrom, Sundin, Alfredsson and Markus Naslund are all heading into the twilight of their careers.
Until the goaltending situation is cleared up and Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo show they're back to form, the Canadians fall back behind Russia (Evgeni Nabokov), Sweden (Henrik Lundqvist) and Finland (Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom) in terms of goaltending. That's key. And then, there's the home-ice issue; is it a curse or a blessing? If Canada gets off to a slow start, as they did in both Salt Lake City and Torino, it could be a curse, with the enormous expectations placed on the players and coaching staff. Still, it would be unwise to write Canada off. A team as deep and talented as this one will always be in contention. In the end, though, it comes down to the goaltending. If Brodeur and/or Luongo are in top form, the Canadians will be hard to beat.
Czech Republic: 6-1
The Czechs will be an interesting squad because we expect that the erstwhile Jaromir Jagr will be leading the troops even though he will have been absent from the NHL for a year and a half at the time of the Olympic tournament. Will that effect his game or will he be determined to prove he's still got it even though he'll turn 38 on the eve of the tournament?
The Czechs will be balanced, if not overpowering, up front with the likes of Patrik Elias, David Krejci, Jiri Hudler, Ales Hemsky and Milan Michalek. Likewise, the blue line will be steady and able to move the puck quickly and smartly with Tomas Kaberle, Marek Zidlicky and Pavel Kubina. With Dominik Hasek now fully retired, it will fall to Tomas Vokoun to lead the way in goal for the Czechs, who won't be favored to win a medal but could definitely surprise.
United States: 8-1
The Americans can expect to be fast, tough and relentless in their pursuit of the puck. At least that's the plan. The U.S. doesn't boast the raw talent of the top three countries (Russia, Sweden and Canada), so the Americans will have to hope to medal on guts and determination. Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas will have to be superlative in the American nets, while the small, skilled forwards will have to produce and hope their defense and special teams can carry the day. Tall order, but not as tall as some may think.
The Finns will be able to keep it close with their trademark strong goaltending and gritty play, a style that will be enhanced by playing on the smaller NHL ice surface. But where will the scoring come from? At the time of this writing, Finland did not boast an NHL scorer at a point-a-game pace. Mikko Koivu was the closest with 50 points in 51 games for Minnesota. That's not enough to keep pace with the big boys in this tournament. To stay close, the Finns will need Kiprusoff/Backstrom to come up big and offensive help from the likes of Kimmo Timonen and Joni Pitkanen along the blue line. It's a lot to ask of the plucky Finns, who earned a silver medal in Torino.
Every four years, we look at the Slovaks and wonder: Is this the tournament the Slovaks jump up and steal a gold or silver? And every Olympic tournament, the answer turns out to be no. There is talent here, to be sure, when you consider Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and Marian Gaborik. Just not enough. And without a bona-fide No. 1 goaltender (with all due respect to Peter Budaj and Jaroslav Halak), the Slovaks may hope to upset one of the big boys in the quarterfinals, but as far as earning a medal, that's too much to ask.
It might surprise some to realize there are actually eight German-born skaters in the NHL this season and a number of others with NHL experience playing back at home or in the minors (we don't count Dany Heatley, who was born in Germany but is a former Canadian Olympian). So the Germans have more than a little knowledge of what awaits them in Vancouver. Toronto rookie Mikhail Grabovski will be on hand, as will Marco Sturm, while Christian Ehrhoff of San Jose and Carolina's Dennis Seidenberg will provide some pop from the blue line. Goaltending will be an issue with Olaf Kolzig nearing the end of the line. Look for Sharks farmhand Thomas Greiss to carry the freight in net in what will be a David-versus-Goliath effort for the Germans.
On home ice, the Canadians have to be the favorite, right? That doesn't make them a value play. The Red and White will be challenged by several strong hockey nations and they could be weighed down by gold-medal-or-bust expectations.
Last spring, on Canadian soil, the Russians upended the Canadians in the gold-medal game of the World Championships. They'd love to turn that trick in Vancouver. Team Russia will feature several of the best players in the world. It's hard to bet against guys like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. They will be very dangerous.
The defending Olympic champs will again be backstopped by ace stopper Henrik Lundqvist. That's the good news. The bad news? A few of their key players -- Mats Sundin and Nicklas Lidstrom -- are getting a little long in the tooth. More bad news? It's tough to repeat.
United States: 15-1
This will be a young American team that shouldn't be weighed down by expectations. They figure to benefit from the NHL-sized rinks. Still, they'll need some breaks to have a shot at a medal.
An earnest, hard-working team with a choice of good stoppers make the 2006 silver medalists a tough opponent. Overlook the Finns at your own peril.
Czech Republic: 25-1
The Czechs will be a team in transition in Vancouver. It could be Jaromir Jagr's last big-game twirl on North American ice.
Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik figure to lead the upstart Slovaks. They could be dangerous in a one-game situation, but will be hard-pressed to take it all.
Boy, Mark Streit will have to be really good! The Swiss did stun the Canadians in Torino.
In 2002, Belarus shocked the Swedes out of the tournament. We don't see another upset coming in Vancouver.
Will ex-NHLer Arturs Irbe return to the crease for the Olympics? Doubtful. The same can be said for Latvia's gold-medal chances.
They'll try to stay competitive with an ultraconservative game plan. It won't work and it will be boring to watch.
I had a great time in Oslo during the lockout. It's really a very nice city.
Ever since Scott Burnside left home, he's tried to curse his native country. Anyone who doesn't think Canada won't be ranked as the favorite heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics should get their heads checked. Especially red-headed people. That means you, Burnside. With an offense that will be led by Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier, Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf and Joe Thornton, and a blue line likely featuring Shea Weber, Dion Phaneuf and Chris Pronger, no team is as deep on paper.
Having said that, the pressure will be enormous. Imagine England hosting the World Cup of soccer. That's what it will be like with the Olympic hockey tournament being hosted by the country that invented the sport and still cares about it more than any other place. That overwhelming pressure might be Canada's undoing. But when it comes to setting the odds? C'mon Scotty!
We still can't believe Russia hasn't won a gold medal in three NHL Olympics. There's just so much skill here every time around. The Russians are still asking themselves how they lost to the U.S. in the 2002 Olympic semifinals. This might be their best team yet in the four Games. Everyone mentions Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin up front, but the key will be Pavel Datsyuk, the world's best two-way player.
The defense will be led by Sergei Gonchar and the underrated Andrei Markov. And the big difference this time around is in goal, where Evgeni Nabokov and Nikolai Khabibulin form arguably the best 1-2 punch in Russian history. Vladislav Tretiak was the country's greatest netminder ever, but did you ever trust his backup? We'll show our hand here a bit -- despite Canada's best-on-paper roster, we believe the Russians will win gold in Vancouver.
As Canada found out in 2006, defending the gold is no easy task. The Swedes were full value for their victory in Torino, a balanced team that made very few mistakes. The core of the national team has some aging pieces in Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin and Daniel Alfredsson, but there is some young blood looking for a first-time Olympic chance in Loui Eriksson, Nicklas Backstrom and Tobias Enstrom. And don't forget, the Red Wings' Johan Franzen wasn't on the 2006 team, either. Like Dominik Hasek in 1998, Martin Brodeur in 2002 and Henrik Lundqvist in 2006, goaltending is paramount in such a short tournament with one-game knockouts, and the Swedes are in good hands with the return of the Rangers' Lundqvist.
The Finns just don't produce as many world-class players as Big Brother Sweden, but that's because they're such a small country. Given their small population base of 5.2 million, it's actually amazing to see how many NHLers the country does pump out. Too bad so many of them are goaltenders. If you can believe it, 10 Finnish-born netminders have appeared in at least one NHL game this season. What's in the water over there, catching-glove sweat? Miikka Kiprusoff and Niklas Backstrom are the favorites to fight for the No. 1 job, while Vesa Toskala, Antero Niittymaki (who was in goal for the silver medal in Torino), Pekka Rinne and Kari Lehtonen will battle it out for a roster spot.
The defense has only one true NHL star in Kimmo Timonen. The rest will be filled by the likes of Joni Pitkanen, Toni Lydman and Sami Salo. The forward group is a little better. Since Teemu Selanne signed a two-year deal with the Ducks this season, we figure he wanted one more Olympic splash. Fellow veteran Saku Koivu should also be back for another adventure. Mikko Koivu (little brother), Olli Jokinen, Antti Miettinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Valtteri Filppula and Niklas Hagman are other options in a decent forward group. But what always sets the Finns apart -- and it's why we've grown to admire them while covering six World Championships and two Olympics -- is their amazing work ethic. They put on the hard hats and don't back down. In a tournament with one-game knockouts, that's a dangerous intangible.
United States: 7-1
With Brian Burke in charge, one can guarantee Team USA won't put together four forward lines based solely on offensive skill. Burke will want some sandpaper on his bottom two lines, and given that the 2010 tournament will be played on NHL-sized ice at GM Place, that's not a bad thing. It tells you how far the USA Hockey cycle has come that some fairly big names will be left off this roster. The offense should be led by the likes of Zach Parise and Patrick Kane, and the moxie of Dustin Brown and Jamie Langenbrunner. Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas give the Americans a solid 1-2 punch in goal. A bronze medal is not out of the question, but we just have this feeling about Burke's U.S. squad being a dark-horse team.
We've decided to rank the Slovakians ahead of their brothers from the Czech Republic for no other reason than to upset the Czechs. Slovakia is also going to send its best-ever team to the Olympics. Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik will lead an offense that's always explosive, and Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky anchor a decent blue-line. But it's in goal where the mystery beckons. I think we've seen enough of Peter Budaj over the last few years to know he's not a true No. 1 NHL netminder. But we're curious about Habs backup Jaroslav Halak, who doesn't get much of a chance behind Carey Price in Montreal. We believe Halak's coming-out party will be in Vancouver.
Czech Republic: 10-1
Most people likely will have the Czechs rated higher than me. After all, there's lots of firepower up front with David Krejci, Ales Hemsky, Milan Michalek, Patrik Elias and Martin Havlat, among others. The blue line is solid with the Kaberle brothers, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek and Filip Kuba leading the way. But we've downgraded this country because we don't like what we see in goal right now. Tomas Vokoun has been up and down this season with the Panthers, losing his job at times to Craig Anderson. Ondrej Pavelec is next on the NHL food chain among Czech goalies ... I know, that's what I said. Mind you, there's always Milan Hnilicka, who is now playing his native country ... I know, that's what I said. It's all on you, Mr. Vokoun!
The Germans continue to make strides in their development program, but still aren't ready to play with the big boys. They'll trap the heck out of the bigger nations in Vancouver and hope for the best.