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Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Pittsburgh Olympians by @ExcitedBobErrey

As one of the best teams in the league, it's not surprising to see so many Pittsburgh players in consideration for roster spots in the Sochi Olympics, nor is it a surprise to see Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero involved with the US team. From the obvious (Crosby, Malkin) to the completely shocking (Maatta), the Pittsburgh Penguins placed 7 players on their respective countries' Olympic rosters, up from 5 at the 2010 Olympics. Tough decisions were made across the globe on who to bring and who to leave home, and even players who won't be making the trip to Sochi could make compelling arguments for why they should. The post below looks at what to expect from the Olympians while also attempting to explain why some in the mix missed the final cut.


Sidney Crosby, Canada 

This was as open and shut of a case as there gets, as only a severe injury could have prevented Crosby from making the Canadian team. Sidney Crosby is participating in his second Olympic Games, and will be captaining the Canadian Team in Sochi after scoring the Golden Goal to clinch the gold medal for the Canadians in Vancouver. While chemistry was an issue for Crosby in 2010 and was one of the popular subjects leading up to the roster announcement, it shouldn't be an issue this time around. Expect current Pittsburgh linemate Chris Kunitz to ride shotgun on LW, while Steven Stamkos, health permitting, would head in as the favorite to start on RW. Sidney Crosby will be top line, top power play, and top priority for opposing defenses as Canada tries to defend Gold.

Chris Kunitz, Canada

Possibly no selection for these Winter Games has generated as much debate as Chris Kunitz. Despite being 5th in the league in points (48) and 6th in goals (23), his production has been discounted by many as a product of playing with Sidney Crosby. Steve Yzerman summed it up best in his comments when he said, "ultimately we asked ourselves the question, on his own does he belong on this team, and our answer was, yes, he belongs on this team." While he's expected to play on Crosby's wing, Kunitz made the team on the strength of his own game, as he showed through the years that he can be the perfect compliment to star linemates, not only with Sidney Crosby but with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim and with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal in Pittsburgh as well. He won't see much special teams time, but the grit in his game and willingness to go into the tough areas will compliment whoever he plays with.

Jussi Jokinen, Finland

Jussi Jokinen won a silver medal with Team Finland in Torino in 2006, and after being left off the bronze medal team in Vancouver he returns for his second Olympic games. The Finnish team features 16 NHLers, including 9 at forward, and Jokinen's versatility and ability to play both center and wing will allow Team Finland to play him up and down the lineup. Expect to see him lining up at center, getting in on the special teams, and taking key faceoffs. He won't start for the Finns, but he'll play key minutes and will be an important past of Finland winning a medal for a third straight Olympics.

Olli Maatta, Finland

Olli Maatta is easily the most shocking Olympic selection among Pittsburgh Penguins players as he wasn't even expected to make the NHL team coming into training camp, let alone excel enough during the first half of the season to be mentioned in the Olympic conversation. The plan in Pittsburgh was to send him back to the London Knights, give him a final junior season, complete with World Junior Championship experience, and allow him develop before turning pro for the 2014-15 season. Much like with Pittsburgh, Maatta's steady play and beyond his years hockey IQ made it impossible for the Finns to leave him home. He'll have to earn a spot on the active roster and his ice time in Sochi, but as far as he's come already it'll be hard to bet against him.

Evgeni Malkin, Russia

Another selection that left no doubt, Evgeni Malkin will be returning to Team Russia for his third Olympic Games, yet he'll still be looking for his first medal. Like Sidney Crosby in 2010, Malkin will return to his home country trying lead his team back to gold. Malkin will team with Pavel Datsyuk to form arguably the best 1-2 punch in Sochi, and with snipers like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin among others, the Russians should be able to fully take advantage of Malkin's playmaking talents. He'll play big minutes at even strength and on the power play and be an integral part in how well the Russian offense performs at the Games.

Brooks Orpik, USA

Brooks Orpik reutrns to Team USA after nearly winning the gold medal in Vancouver, although the international ice will present a new challenge for a player not exactly known for being fleet of foot. Regardless, Orpik will be counted on to provide a physical presence in his own end, getting some big minutes on the penalty kill and likely pairing with Paul Martin to give Dan Bylsma a second shutdown line in addition to the Ryan Suter pairing.

Paul Martin, USA

While Paul Martin was named to the American team for the 3rd time, he failed to see any action in Torino in 2006 and missed the Olympic Games altogether in 2010 with a broken arm, so this will be his first Olympic action. Even with the lack of Olympic experience, Paul Martin's game is perfectly suited to the international ice, as his smooth skating and passing ability will allow him to take full advantage of the extra space, while his mobility will counter the advantage the international ice presents to the opposing offense. Don't be surprised if Bylsma leans heavily on Martin throughout the games and he logs the second most ice time on the team behind Ryan Suter.

In The Mix

While the Penguins placed 7 players on their respective countries' Olympic teams, they also had several other players in the mix for roster spots. The following players are listed by how close they came to earning a trip to Sochi.

James Neal, Canada

James Neal put up 20 goals in each of his first three seasons in the league with the Dallas Stars, but it was the next two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Evgeni Malkin's wing that Neal started to fully blossom into one of the best pure scorers in the league. Despite an injury and suspension causing him to miss 20 games so far this year, James Neal has taken another big step forward as his 16 goals and 35 points have him sitting 4th in goals/game (0.64) and 2nd in points/game (1.40) in the entire league, putting him on pace for 40 goals and 87 points in just 62 games. However, what likely left Neal off the final roster for Team Canada were concerns about his defensive play, especially considering the international ice. Despite missing out on a roster spot, he remains one of the top options as an injury replacement, and if Steven Stamkos has a set back in his recovery and can't play Neal would be the logical choice to replace his shot and scoring ability.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Canada

Marc-Andre Fleury won a gold medal with Canada in 2010, making the team as the third goalie coming off his success the previous two playoffs as he led the Penguins to two Eastern Conference Championships and a Stanley Cup, but despite putting up career numbers this season he never really was in the mix to make the team. A string of sub-standard playoff performances since the last Olympics, and probably also the memories of his failed clear costing Canada the gold in the 2004 WJC, made it very unlikely that Fleury would be invited back. It's always possible that Roberto Luongo could aggravate his injury and miss the Games, allowing a strong month from Fleury to propel him to Sochi as an injury replacement, but even in that scenario he's unlikely to see any game action and would again serve as the third goaltender.

Kris Letang, Canada

Kris Letang was viewed as a borderline candidate to make Team Canada during the 2013 offseason despite having a skillset that would seem to be perfectly suited for the larger international ice. Heading into the year he had a great shot to make the team with some strong play, but unfortunately a couple injuries and some less than stellar play made him an easy omission for the Team Canada brass. While Letang's strong skating and offensive skills would have flourished with the extra room, questions about his defensive ability loomed large and offset the positives of what he could have added. At this point it remains very unlikely that Letang would get an invitation regardless of what injuries occur along the Canadian blue line.

Beau Bennett, USA

While Beau Bennett was never seriously expected to push for a spot on Team USA, he was invited to the US Orientation Camp and therefore was technically in consideration for a roster spot, even though it appears that his invitation, along with several others, was to familiarize a potential future generation of US Olympians with the process. It's highly unlikely that he would have made the team even with a great first half to the season (see Brandon Saad), but an underwhelming start cut short by injury only confirmed the inevitable.

Tomas Vokoun, Czech Republic

Tomas Vokoun had started in goal for the Czechs at the last two Olympics and led the team to a bronze medal in Torino, yet he had seemed to remove himself from contention for the Sochi roster last spring before the start of the playoffs. However, given his stellar play in the playoffs and the lack of goaltending talent on the Czech roster, it seems likely that they would have asked Vokoun to start in goal for a third straight Games, and it also seems unlikely that he would have been able to turn down his country if they had come asking. Unfortunately in the end the decision was taken out of his hands as he's missed the entire season so far dealing with complications from blood clots, but Vokoun still remains the most talented Czech goalie active today and would have been an easy addition if healthy.

Olympic Thoughts

- The Winter Olympics return to international ice (210' x 98') after being played on an NHL rink (200' x 85') in Vancouver in 2010. Don't be surprised to see the North American teams struggle to get reacquainted with the larger ice surface. It's been 8 years since the Olympics were last held on international ice, and while the World Championships are held every season many players will have limited exposure to the international game as they're participating in the NHL playoffs.

- Expect to see big things out of the Scandinavian countries. Finland has medaled in each of the last two Olympic Games, and Sweden always has one of the more talented teams at the Games. Expect to see both teams playing for a medal, whether it's in the gold medal game or the bronze medal game.

- Russia enters the Sochi Games with similar strengths and weaknesses as the one that was blown out 7-3 by the Canadians in the quarterfinals in Vancouver, with lots of talent on offense but question marks on defense and in goal. While the Russians should get a boost from playing in their home country, the pressure on them will be immense and it looks likely that they will fail to medal yet again.

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