Commentary

Your 100 Olympic hockey storylines

From Crosby's heroics to Quick's forecast, plenty to watch as Sochi approaches

Updated: October 31, 2013, 8:48 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

One hundred days from now the Sochi Olympic Games begin. Here's a look at 100 storylines, questions and thoughts surrounding the Winter Olympics' marquee event: the men's hockey tournament.

1. What will things look like in Sochi? As in, will there will be roofs overhead and floors underfoot? Lots of work yet to be done on facilities, but most pre-Olympic visitors agree the facilities, especially in the so-called "coastal cluster" where the hockey tournament will be held -- many of which offer a view of the Black Sea -- will be spectacular.

2. The big ice. How many times will we hear NHL players, coaches and GMs speak in ominous tones about "the big ice" in Sochi and how it will impact the game vis-a-vis what fans are used to in North America? We put the over/under at 14,576 and take the over.

[+] EnlargeSochi Arena
Alexander Nemenov/Getty ImagesHow will a larger rink affect NHL players who are accustomed to a smaller space?
3. How big is "the big ice"? Well, more wide than big. The standard NHL rink is 200 feet in length by 85 feet wide. The ice surface at both Sochi rinks will be 200-by-100. That's a lot farther to go to get to the corners and the boards.

4. Fans will also notice an extra 2 feet between the goal line and the end boards on the Olympic ice and an extra 8 feet in the neutral zone, while the offensive zones are 4 feet shorter.

5. Can Canada and/or the United States adjust to "the big ice"? Zero medals for the two hockey powers in the past two Olympics held outside North America ('98 Nagano, '06 Torino) suggest just how tough the challenge will be. But we're guessing the Euro medal drought ends in Sochi.

6. Officiating, always different, often controversial at these international events will be a storyline. Here's hoping it doesn't become a distraction, although the presence of the NHL's top referees and linesmen should mitigate the issue.

7. Who will captain Team Canada as they try and defend their 2010 gold medal in Vancouver? Our guess is Sidney Crosby, although Jonathan Toews will also get a long look.

8. Which top Canadian player left off the team would generate the most howls of protest or at least the most arched eyebrows? Our early pick would be Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux.

9. Which top-end U.S. player could suffer the same fate? Tougher call, but at least one top-end netminder isn't going to make the grade. Our guess Cory Schneider and Jimmy Howard.

10. Who will start in goal for Canada? Carey Price looks as if he has the early inside track, but don't count out Mike Smith, whose start to the season has been more up and down.

11. What will the angst level be for Canadians about the uncertain state of their goaltending as the tournament approaches? Hint: DEFCON 4 and keep going.

12. What Canadian goalie won't get a sniff at the starting job, regardless of whether he's won 20 in a row? Sad to say, but Marc-Andre Fleury's playoff performances the past couple of years have made him persona non grata with Team Canada officials. If he didn't get a shot in '10 after winning a Cup, he has no shot now in spite of his strong start to the season.

13. Who will captain the U.S. squad that hopes to avenge a gold-medal-game loss to Canada in Vancouver? Our guess is Dustin Brown, although David Backes and Zach Parise will also get a good look.

14. Is there a nation with better goaltending depth than the Americans? No. OK, maybe the Finns.

15. So who ends up the U.S. starter? It's Jonathan Quick's job to lose, but we still think Ryan Miller ends up having a hand in the final outcome in Sochi.

16. Injuries will play a big role in the final Olympic rosters, and already some players are battling injuries that could have an impact on their inclusion, and in some cases their country's chances of success, including Rick Nash, Max Pacioretty, Pekka Rinne, Loui Eriksson, Ryan Callahan and Dan Boyle.

17. How often will we hear about the pressure facing the Russians heading into this tournament? Our guess is 3,213,467.

18. Does Ilya Kovalchuk, erstwhile New Jersey Devil, have the last laugh by taking a star turn for the host Russians after abandoning millions of dollars in salary, not to mention his Devils teammates to return to the Kontinental Hockey League? Let's put it this way: Kovalchuk is not known for his sense of humor.

19. Do the Russians implode in an ugly spectacle of infighting and grousing, as has been the case at past international events, or do they rise to the occasion and cap off a historic Olympics with a gold medal? Possible. Very possible.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
G Fiume/Getty ImagesBelieve it or not, Alex Ovechkin might not be Russia's biggest impact player.
20. Which Russian NHL star makes the biggest impact during the tournament: Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin? Let's go with the game's most delightful player, Datsyuk.

21. Sergei Bobrovsky or Semyon Varlamov in goal for the Russians? Got to go with the defending Vezina Trophy winner, but Varlamov is going to make things interesting.

22. Which top rookie may make the biggest impact in Sochi? How about Tomas Hertl of San Jose, who will be looking to provide some offensive punch to the Czech squad. And Aleksander Barkov may get a shot to help out the Finns.

23. Does Nashville rookie Seth Jones really have a shot at making the U.S. team? Yes. He really does.

24. Which Canadian not invited to the summer orientation camp has a shot at making the squad? It's not likely to happen, but how about Jamie Benn?

25. How about an American who wasn't invited to the U.S. camp who could end up in Sochi? Likewise don't like the chances of it happening, but Jason Pominville could do it.

26. Can Sidney Crosby do the unthinkable and score golden goals in back-to-back Olympics. Um, yes.

27. Yes, there are a lot of very good U.S. goaltenders. Is there a dark horse? How about Ben Bishop of Tampa who struggled at the world championships last spring but has been more than solid for the Lightning. If Tim Thomas could stay healthy for more than a day at a time, we'd throw his name in the hat too.

28. Is it possible Ryan Suter, the NHL's leading workhorse in terms of average ice time, will play 30 minutes a night in Sochi? Frankly, we'll be surprised if he doesn't.

29. Will it matter that U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma has no international coaching experience? Our gut tells us international experience is overrated.

30. So does it mean that Mike Babcock doesn't have an edge having coached Canada to gold in Vancouver? Well, we're not saying that exactly.

31. First-time Canadian Olympian poised for breakout Olympic tournament? How about John Tavares? Or Steven Stamkos?

32. First-time U.S. Olympian who will face significant pressure to produce: center Derek Stepan.

33. Can Jaroslav Halak backstop the talented Slovaks from dark horse to medal contention? If his play in St. Louis this season is any indication, why not?

34. Guy who missed the '10 Olympics we're most pleased to see get a shot at Sochi; Paul Martin, whose broken forearm scuttled what would have been a sure spot on the U.S. team in Vancouver.

35. NHL teams that will worry about having so many players in Sochi: Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago.

36. NHL teams that will relax knowing most of their players are sunning themselves during the Olympic break: Buffalo, Edmonton, Toronto.

37. Fans we're most excited to see again? The drum-banging, horn-tooting, flag-waving Latvians.

38. Olympic curiosities we're looking forward to? Members of the "media" from different countries showing up at games, often drinking beer or other alcoholic beverages, attaching flags to their workstations and vigorously cheering for their home country.

39. Or interviewing players from behind long stretches of iron gating in what is called the mixed zone. Moo.

40. Young Canadian defender ready to take the Olympics by storm as Drew Doughty did in Vancouver? Might be Alex Pietrangelo, although don't count out P.K. Subban.

41. American who would be the most popular player in Sochi if he makes the team? Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens, whose father was born in Minsk, Belarus, and played for years for Moscow Dynamo and would become the team's de facto translator.

42. Olympian we will miss in Sochi: Ruslan Salei, the longtime captain of the Belarus national team, who perished along with 43 others in September 2011 when the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team plane crashed shortly after takeoff.

43. Preliminary-round game we're already looking forward to? Canada versus Norway. OK, just kidding. Russia versus the United States on Saturday, Feb. 15.

44. One player not named Henrik Lundqvist who gives the Swedes a real shot at gold? Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsAccording to recent reports, Pekka Rinne, left, will miss at least four more weeks. How will that affect his Olympic status?
45. Player we most hope makes the Russian roster: Ilya Bryzgalov.

46. All-time Bryzgalov quote from Vancouver Games? After Canada mauled Russia in the quarterfinals Bryzgalov noted, "They came like gorillas coming out of a cage."

47. Is there an easier preliminary grouping than the one in which Canada finds itself with Austria, Finland and Norway? With all due respect to Austria, Finland and Norway, no.

48. Speaking of the Finns, which goalie, Tuukka Rask or Pekka Rinne, who was laid low in late October with a hip infection, has the best shot to start? Too close to call pending Rinne's health. Kari Lehtonen is in the mix too.

49. Here's hoping Teemu Selanne's fifth Olympic turn (we're assuming the Flying Finn will be named to the Finnish squad) goes better than Peter Forsberg's forgettable performance in Vancouver for the Swedes.

50. Team everyone knows not to take lightly: Switzerland.

51. We'll go out on a limb and predict right now that Switzerland will upset either Sweden or the Czech Republic in the preliminary round.

52. If P.K. Subban suits up for Canada, it likely means that Kris Letang, injured to start the season, stays home.

53. Dustin Byfuglien might represent the most difficult of choices for U.S. GM David Poile and his selection committee. Terrific offensive upside and a potential defensive disaster waiting to happen on the big ice.

54. Olympian we will also miss this time around: Canadian defenseman Chris Pronger. No one dominated the media mixed zone like Pronger.

55. Mixed zone event we can do without: Alexander Ovechkin storming through without stopping to speak to the media after another inexplicable Russian meltdown.

56. Canadian goaltender who could shoulder his way into the Sochi discussion? We would have said Cam Ward until he went down with a lower-body injury. How about Jonathan Bernier?

57. Chance Ward makes the team? 100-to-1.

58. Chance that Reimer makes the team? 101-1.

59. Weird dynamic? U.S. assistant coach Peter Laviolette, fired just three games into the regular season by Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren, who is part of the U.S. Olympic management committee.

[+] EnlargeMike Babcock
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty ImagesThere's a good chance that once again Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma will square off, this time in Sochi.
60. Coaching matchup we're looking forward to? Mike Babcock of Canada and Dan Bylsma of the U.S. Bylsma played for Babcock in Anaheim and faced him once in the Stanley Cup finals after becoming head coach in Pittsburgh.

61. Line you will not hear from the U.S. management team: No one gives the Americans a snowball's chance in hell of winning a medal.

62. Estimated number of times then-U.S. GM Brian Burke used that line, or a variation thereof, leading to the Vancouver Games: 5,378.

63. Will a shootout determine a medal at the Sochi Games? We'll say yes. And when it happens, how quickly will someone on the losing side decry the shootout as a terrible way to decide an Olympic medal? Two minutes.

64. One U.S. player you want to have the last shot in the shootout? Patrick Kane.

65. One Canadian player you want to have the last shot in the shootout? Corey Perry.

66. Will Corey Perry make the Canadian team? Touch and go.

67. U.S. player whose health could mean the difference between a gold medal and no medal whatsoever? Ryan Kesler, who is back to elite form for the Vancouver Canucks.

68. Where does Kesler play for Bylsma? He's enjoyed terrific success moving to the wing for John Tortorella in Vancouver, but the U.S. will likely employ him down the middle.

69. Who has a better Olympic tournament, Jaromir Jagr or Teemu Selanne? Tough. Tough. Go with Jagr.

70. Who was the top point-producer at the 2006 Olympics when Finland lost to the Swedes in the gold-medal game? Selanne and teammate Saku Koivu tied with 11 points.

71. With one fewer game in Vancouver, the top scorer was Slovak Pavol Demitra, who also perished in the Lokomotiv crash.

72. The top goal-scorer in the Vancouver tournament was Jarome Iginla, with five goals for Canada. Iginla has almost zero chance of being named to the '14 Canadian team.

73. Who is more likely to be seen smoking a cigar and drinking beer at center ice in Sochi, members of Canada's women's hockey team or Alexander Ovechkin? Ovechkin. Before the tournament starts.

74. Guy who has significant ground to make up in order to secure a return trip to the Olympics for Team USA? Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson. But he's getting there with a very good Avalanche team.

75. Same challenge for Team Canada hopeful? Joe Thornton. But he's going to make life difficult for Steve Yzerman et al with his strong play.

76. Each team will have a 25-man roster in Sochi, which means for each game, one goalie and two skaters who won't dress. But unlike Torino, there is no designated taxi squad (i.e., all players named to the roster are eligible to play).

77. NHL players taking part in the Olympics will take one of four charters that will depart Feb. 9, three from Newark and one from Chicago.

78. The U.S. and Canada both have ice time reserved for the early evening of Feb. 10 for their first practice.

79. St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock will be making his fourth appearance at the Olympics as an assistant coach for Team Canada, having been part of two gold-medal efforts: '02 in Salt Lake City under Pat Quinn and '10 in Vancouver under Mike Babcock. He was also at 2006 in Torino under Quinn.

80. One of our favorite pre-Olympic stories has been the repeated reports of packs of wild dogs roaming the areas near the coastal cluster of venues.

81. Will the Russian anti-gay policies continue to garner headlines once the Games start? And given the NHL's and NHLPA's strong stance against discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation, will the hockey tournament become a focal point for debate/demonstrations, etc.? They should.

[+] EnlargeNiklas Kronwall
John Russell/NHLI via Getty ImagesThe U.S. and Canada are not the only teams to watch. Niklas Kronwall and a stout Swedish defense will have their say.
82. No NHL players are expected at the opening ceremony on Feb. 7 in Sochi. The NHL schedule runs through Feb. 8. At the Vancouver Games, U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson made an inspired appearance, flying in to march in the ceremony, then flying out of Vancouver moments after to rejoin his then-Los Angeles Kings teammates. 

83. Which duo is more likely to appear in Sochi? Brent Seabrook/Duncan Keith or Paul Martin/Brooks Orpik. Our guess is the Pens' defensive pair.

84. Which forward duo is more likely to make the cut? Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry or Sidney Crosby/Chris Kunitz. Too close to call right now.

85. Two arenas have been built to accommodate the men's and women's tournaments in Sochi: the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Palace, a design that is supposed to resemble a frozen water drop; and a smaller rink, the Shayba Arena, with a capacity of 7,000. There is also a training rink nearby.

86. The two arenas as well as the athletes' village and other venues in the coastal cluster will be within walking distance of each other, something unique to the Sochi Games and which should reduce or eliminate travel issues for the athletes.

87. In a change from previous Olympic Games involving the NHL fans, we will be able to access more images/video replay from the tournament action, thanks to a new agreement between the IOC, broadcast rights-holders and its hockey partners, the NHL and the NHLPA.

88. The Sochi Games represent a significant test case for a new set of arrangements requested by the NHL and NHLPA. If the promises regarding tickets, access to images and other elements are kept, look for the NHL to continue its relationship with the Olympics beyond 2014. If not, there will be an even stronger push from ownership and the league to end the relationship.

89. Check out the Swedish defense: Niklas Kronwall, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alexander Edler, Tobias Enstrom, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Johnny Oduya and Erik Gustafsson. Canada may be the only team that can match the skill and experience along the blue line that the Swedes are capable of icing.

90. Speaking of the Swedes, we often marvel at Canada's incredible depth down the middle -- with good reason -- but check out the centers the Swedes could roll out in Sochi: Alexander Steen, Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, all of whom are averaging better than a point a game at this writing, and with Marcus Johansson just off that pace. Hmmm.

91. Does 39-year-old Sergei Gonchar make the Russian Olympic team? Our gut, and the lack of real NHL depth at the position, suggests yes he does.

92. We say this will all due respect to Jiri Hudler, but if he's the top scorer for your country -- as he was at the time of writing for the Czech Republic -- that's a bit of a red flag.

93. OK, that and the goaltending. Hard to imagine that Ondrej Pavelec or Michal Neuvirth have the goods to deliver a gold. But stranger things have happened: i.e., Ray Bourque taking a penalty shot in the 1998 quarterfinals for Canada against Dominik Hasek.

94. Canadian centers who could find themselves on the wing if they're going to make the team at all: Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Logan Couture, Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Joe Thornton. Wow.

95. Teams can make changes to their 25-man rosters after they are announced for injury purposes or special circumstances (illness in family, etc.) until two hours before the start of the tournament.

96. Player we're looking forward to watching in person: Evgeny Kuznetsov, the 26th overall draft pick in 2010, who has yet to sign with or appear for the Washington Capitals, but who is, from all reports, a rare talent.

97. And how about Finn Petri Kontiola, Kuznetsov's teammate with Traktor Chelyabinsk, the person who led all players at last year's world championships with 16 points in 10 games?

98. So what time is it in Sochi? Well, as of this writing, it is eight hours ahead of EDT, but it will be nine hours ahead of Eastern time for the Olympics. Sochi does not recognize daylight saving time.

99. Predictions? You want predictions? How about this? Russia takes the bronze with a win over Sweden in overtime on a Datsyuk goal.

100. And we'll take the U.S. to win gold. In a shootout over Canada. Kane with the deciding goal and earning tournament MVP honors.

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