Team-by-team breakdown (Canada)
Underlining the modern parity of international hockey, there has not been a repeat Olympic champion since NHL players made this tournament the greatest show on ice back in 1998.
The Czechs won the inaugural NHL Olympics, followed by Canada in 2002, Sweden in 2006 and again hockey's mother country, Canada, in 2010.
Actually, when you throw in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Canada has won three of the past five "best-on-best" tournaments, which certainly counts for something.
A daunting challenge awaits Team Canada in Sochi, however. Not only will it be trying to be the first back-to-back Olympic champion in the NHL Games era, but it is going to try to break the overseas hex that has plagued both the U.S. and Canada, which have gone without a medal in Nagano and Turin.
Can Team Canada do it? You'd better believe it has a good chance.
Five things to watch
1. If you're among those who believe championship teams are built down the middle, we're not sure how you can possibly top having Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron as your five centers, with Matt Duchene another option but likely playing wing. Getzlaf is currently penciled in to begin the tournament as the fourth-line center, if there's such a thing, really, on this team. This is the area, for sure, in which Team Canada hopes to exploit matchups and dominate puck possession, right from the faceoff. There isn't a country in the tournament that matches up at center with Canada.
2. The loss of Steven Stamkos will still be felt, regardless of Canada's ridiculous forward depth. OK, so no other country would be able to choose between Martin St. Louis, Claude Giroux, Eric Staal, James Neal, Tyler Seguin et al as an injury replacement? All of them would have made the other countries' rosters. Canada chose the veteran St. Louis to replace Stamkos, and there's no denying the Tampa captain will brings lots to the table in Sochi. However, let's not completely dismiss the loss of Stamkos. He's the best pure goal scorer in the world with a Canadian passport, bar none. Nobody is on his level for goal scoring in Canada. Don't tell me his absence won't be felt on the Canadian power play or when Canada needs a goal in a medal-round game. It will be.
3. The story in camp last August was goaltending, and it will remain a storyline unless there's a gold medal hanging around each Canadian player's neck on Feb. 23. Head coach Mike Babcock says he'll give Carey Price and Roberto Luongo each a start to begin the tournament before deciding ahead of Game 3 who will be his man for the rest of the way. No matter how you look at it, this is where Canada stacks up the least confidently. Luongo was in goal for gold in Vancouver even though nobody gives him much credit for that. That's unfair, really. You can't win when you win? Price, meanwhile, has the upside according to NHL scouts to be the guy who steps up big time in this tournament -- if given a chance. But is he ready?
4. The P.K. Subban factor will be fascinating to watch. The reigning Norris Trophy winner barely made this team. There was debate right up to the end on the eve of the Jan. 7 roster announcement, with internal discussion centered on whether to take Subban as the fourth right-handed blue-liner or Brent Seabrook. Subban was the winner of that debate. First, Canada is loaded on the right side of defense with Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo locked in as the top three on the right. So it was no easy feat making this team if you're Subban. Why the Habs star makes the Canadian coaching staff nervous is because of his odd defensive gaffe. On the flip side, I would argue no other defenseman on the team has Subban's momentum-changing, game-breaking ability in terms of the way he can rush the puck up the ice or find a seam with a blistering shot. Given's Canada's big-ice history, it may very well need to give Subban a chance if it needs a goal in a big game.
5. Ah yes, big ice. Canada looked like a deer in headlights the last time the Olympics were played on international-size ice in Torino (2006), crashing and burning and looking very much uncomfortable on the bigger sheet. To that end, much thought and preparation has been put into this very factor, right from the opening day of camp last August. It was the thing the most talked about by Babcock and his staff. It's why they picked a roster built for speed on the big ice; it's also why they brought in former Swiss national team coach Ralph Krueger as a consultant. Krueger has been advising Babcock and the staff on the kind of systems that work better on big ice, and on how European countries play on big ice these days, making him very much the X-factor in Canada's preparation. Still, when all is said and done, Canada's NHL stars have almost no experience on the bigger ice, which is why they need to use their two opening games against weaker opponents (Norway and Austria) as scrimmages to get comfortable with the big ice.
Bonus thought: This is the first time since the historical 1972 Summit Series that Canada has sent its very best NHL players to Russia with so much on the line. It's something Wayne Gretzky always wishes he had had the chance to do -- play a best-on-best tournament in Russia just for the thrill and challenge of it. Sidney Crosby is very much aware of this special historic aspect of the Sochi Olympics, openly talking about the chance to create some new history for Canada in Russia for the first time since '72. Don't underestimate this part of it all for Crosby and company.
Breakthrough player to watch: John Tavares, New York Islanders
Well it's kind of hard to pick anyone on this all-star roster to "break through," but in the context of playing in the shadow of stars like Crosby and Toews, I'm betting big that Tavares will show the hockey world more than ever where he stands among the very best. He's going to rock this tournament.
I still harbor questions about Canada's ability to feel comfortable on big ice no matter how much preparation it made. But given Sweden's injury issues and the incredible pressure on host Russia, there's certainly a strong chance for gold here.
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