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With no NHL, Olympic hockey nations turn to Plan B

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The morning after the NHL announced it wasn’t going to the 2018 Olympics, some Americans playing in Europe started wondering if they should keep their schedules open for next February.

“Myself and couple other Americans, Deron Quint and Dave Leggio, were joking around to not make any plans over the Olympic break next year because they might need us to play,” said Keith Aucoin, a 38-year-old former NHL forward who is playing in Germany.

No joking, they might. In the aftermath of the NHL’s decision, USA Hockey and other national federations insisted they have a Plan B – but it’s not clear how to proceed.

Just because the NHL doesn’t stop its season to participate in South Korea doesn’t mean some players won’t try to go anyway, and the league hasn’t decided if it will allow teams to give players permission to leave. The federations can’t just raid the American Hockey League – many players have NHL contracts – and the same is true even in European professional leagues.

The result in coming months may be nations navigating a wild set of complications in putting their Olympic teams together.

If Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews aren’t available, USA Hockey will likely look to Americans playing Europe to fill the bulk of its roster and mix in a handful of college players. Former NHL forward Mark Arcobello leads the top Swiss league in scoring, Aucoin is among the leaders in Germany, and former NHL defenseman Matt Gilroy and Jonathon Blum are piling up points in the Kontintental Hockey League based primarily in Russia.

Goaltending options for the Americans could include Leggio and Jerry Kuhn playing in Germany, Ryan Zapolski from the KHL, Notre Dame’s Cal Peters and Tyler Parsons of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, who just led the U.S. to world junior gold. USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean called the country’s player pool “as deep as it has ever been,” and executive Jim Johannson – who could be tasked with putting the team together – said the U.S. will “have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”

Two-time defending Olympic champion Canada always has gold-medal expectations but is arguably hurt the most of any country by the NHL not going. Canada’s benefit is that it has depth of talent that spills over into the AHL and European professional leagues.

It’s not the elite of the elite, but there are more than 550 Canadians playing in the AHL and more than 200 across Europe, including former NHL goalie Ben Scrivens, defensemen Cam Barker and Brendan Mikkelson and forwards Derek Roy, Daniel Paille and Jonathan Cheechoo.

“We have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said.

In a recent interview, Renney said Hockey Canada has already pursued its Plan B and will be nimble enough to adjust to any changes to rules concerning eligible players.

Two-time Canadian Olympic gold-medal winner Jonathan Toews expects top junior and college and a lot of European players to make up Canada’s roster.

“There are some really good players playing in Europe,” the Chicago Blackhawks’ captain said.. “They’re guys, you look at them, and you’re surprised they’re not playing here and making big money. Canadian hockey, obviously I’m biased, we’ve proven we’re the best over the course of time. The amount of talent and players we’ve produced out of Canada is so great, that we could ice a good team whether we had NHL players or not.”

Although the International Olympic Committee said “players from all the other professional ice hockey leagues will participate” in PyeongChang, there’s even a small amount of uncertainty about that. Assuming European leagues do give players permission or stop their seasons, the player pool for the U.S., Canada and other countries could grow if potential borderline NHL free agents choose to go abroad next season for a chance to play in the Olympics.

Russia is likely to be the gold medal favorite thanks to former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk playing in the KHL and being available. Alex Ovechkin intends to go to the Olympics anyway, and Washington Capitals teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov said they plan to join him.

Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could benefit from the absence of NHL stars because of the players they have in Europe. Big goalie Mikko Koskinen isn’t Tuukka Rask but would give the Finns a chance, and the Czechs could get stable goaltending from KHL stars Dominik Furch and Pavel Francouz – plus maybe Jaromir Jagr goes home at age 45 for one last Olympic chance.

Sweden’s NHL talent base is growing, but that could mean a rough go at the Olympics, leaning on former NHL goalie Viktor Fasth and forward Joakim Lindstrom and maybe young Philadelphia Flyers prospect Oskar Lindblom.

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Golden again: Canada tops Sweden for men’s hockey crown

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source: AP
Photo credit: AP

Four years ago, Canada was anointed king of the hockey world.

On Sunday, it retained the crown.

Canada became the first team in over 20 years to win back-to-back Olympic hockey gold medals, beating Sweden 3-0 in the tournament finale at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. With the win, Canada also became the first three-time gold medalist since NHLers began participating in the Olympics at Nagano ’98.

Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz scored the Canadian goals — the first of the tournament for each — while Carey Price was fantastic once again, stopping all 24 shots faced for his second consecutive shutout. With the win, Price finished the Sochi games boasting a 971. save percentage, allowing just three goals the entire tournament.

Price’s counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist, was equally solid in the Swedish goal. Lundqvist was the busier of the two — facing 36 shots to Price’s 24 — and did well to keep the Canadian attack at bay, especially during the opening two periods when Canada fired 23 pucks on goal.

The team in front of Lundqvist, though, failed to offer much support.

Sweden was shut out for the first time this tournament and failed to capitalize on the few chances Canada’s stifling defense allowed. The team was also dealt a major blow prior to the game when Nicklas Backstrom was ruled after reportedly testing positive for a banned substance — already down the services of centers Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin, Sweden lacked major depth down the middle with Backstrom sidelined.

That said, it’s hard to think any lineup would’ve generated much offense against the Canadians.

As was the story all tournament long, Canada’s team defense was outstanding. It kept the Swedes mostly to the perimeter and prevented them from generating offense through the rush, something Toews said was the plan heading into Sunday. As a result, Canada finished these Olympics with some staggering defensive statistics — three goals allowed over six games (two at even strength), outscoring opponents by 14 while outshooting them 241-129.

As mentioned above, the back-to-back golds put Canada in some rare Olympic company. The country hasn’t won back-to-back since the ’48 Games in St. Moritz and ’52 in Oslo; the last nation to win consecutive gold medals was the Soviet Union in ’84 and ’88 (and in ’92, though under the Unified Team moniker.)

Swedish great Peter Forsberg rips refs selected for men’s hockey final

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When Canada plays against Sweden in the gold medal game on Sunday, the contest will be officiated by three Canadian-born referees and one American who lives in Calgary.

“What a (bleep)ing joke,” retired NHL star and Swedish gold medalist Peter Forsberg said, according to the Toronto Star. He added that the Canadian-heavy referee selection was “comedy at its highest level.”

Not everyone shares his opinion on the matter though. Swedish captain Niklas Kronwall thinks the referee selection makes sense, given that the players on both sides are used to NHL referees.

In fact, the IIHF said that it was a condition of the NHL’s participation that the Olympics employ NHL officials for the big games, reports CBC’s Elliotte Friedman. The referees also had to be approved by both teams.

The IIHF later issued a statement to clarify their selection process for the gold medal game. Officials have been evaluated throughout the tournament and they were selected based on their previous performance. The nationalities of the officials weren’t used as factors when determining who would be assigned to the medal games.

Even still, Forsberg isn’t the only one worried about the potential for bias. CBC’s Don Cherry thinks the referees will go to the other extreme to make it clear they’re not siding with Canada.

“It’s the biggest break (the Swedes) could have got,” said Cherry. “I guarantee you the first penalty (Canadian referee Kelly Sutherland) calls will be against a Canadian. Watch and see. And I’m never wrong.”