One of the comforting aspects of being an NHL fan is the almost ritualistic sequence of events that mark the progression from season to vacation, from regular season to playoffs, from “regular” years to Olympic years. Sure, labor stoppages are insinuating themselves into the regular rotation, but enough time has been spent wringing hands over those events.
With the Stanley Cup in the hands of the Blackhawks, the stars of tomorrow plucked from the draft pool, and the feeding frenzy of free agency past its peak, the off-season enters a period of relative quiescence. Sure, some deals will get done, but for the most part the Canadian hockey scribes and pundits have departed for their cottages, and their American counterparts are on the golf course. Fortunately, with 2014 being an Olympic year, there is some intrigue remaining, as the dominant hockey countries extend their invitations to Olympic Orientation Camp. By all accounts, the Blue Jackets will be more than adequately represented. Let’s take a look at those who have invitations in hand, and those likely to be joining the quest for Olympic gold in Sochi:
While the club’s recent transaction history has many referring to the New York Rangers as “Columbus East”, the Blue Shirts might be surpassed by the Russian Olympic squad, which could include four members of the Blue Jackets roster. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, and forward Artem Anisimov all were tabbed to attend the tryout camp for Sochi, and stand better than average chances of making the final roster. Bobrovsky’s main challengers are Semyon Varlamov and Evgeni Nabokov. Voinov, Volchenkov, Markov and Gonchar are among the favorites to join the two Blue Jackets on the blue line, while Anisimov is looking to join Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin, Datsyuk, Yakupov & Semin, among others. Recent Russian teams have suffered from apparent lack of motivation and the inability to function as a team, which kept them off the podium in both Vancouver and Turin. As the hosts for this Olympic tournament, motivation should not be an issue, and neither will scoring. This is a scary roster.
Defenseman Jack Johnson was an obvious choice for the squad, and is joined by head coach Todd Richards, who was tabbed to join the coaching staff for the Games. Brandon Dubinsky was inexplicably left off the roster, but these things have a way of changing, so time will tell.
Team USA is difficult to handicap entering the 2014 Olympics. Though boasting a number of NHL names, it lacks the superstar presence of Team Russia, Team Canada, and even the likely rosters of Sweden and the Czech Republic. The best camp battle may be in goal, where Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson all will vie for time in the blue ice. The squad earned a silver medal in Vancouver, was blanked in Turin, and had another silver in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the memorable Lake Placid Games in 1980, and the Herb Brooks “Miracle” team to find the last USA medal. While that roster was all amateurs, the US team in Sochi just might be an assemblage of “the right players”, if not the best ones, to paraphrase Coach Brooks.
Although Slovakia has not officially announced their camp invitees, everyone projects Marian Gaborik will be prominent among the forwards, and most projections have Columbus 2013 first round pick Marko Dano joining him on the roster. If so, it will culminate a terrific year for the youngster, earning an NHL slot and an Olympic post.
While Slovakia has been a threat in each Olympic tournament, they have not earned a medal since becoming an independent country. They are in that nether world as an Olympic team — just not quite talented enough to compete in the medal round. Jaroslav Halak is the likely goaltender, with Gaborik and Hossa leading the offensive charge and Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line. The problem is that there is not much to back those guys up. It promises to be another year as an also-ran.
Unfortunately, not all rosters will have the benefit of Blue Jackets representation. Team Canada will have to struggle along with the likes of Toews, Nash, Crosby, Stamkos, St. Louis, etc. Sweden must make do with Lundqvist, Zetterberg and the Evil Sedin Twins. Similar struggles lie ahead for Team Finland and Team Czech Republic. Poor guys — they don’t know what they are missing.
In all seriousness, having seven players and a coach named to Olympic camps from a team in the midst of a “brick by brick” reconstruction is not a shabby result. It shows both the caliber of player that Columbus is beginning to attract, and the respect that the club is getting in hockey circles. Considering how young the Columbus roster is, it seems quite likely that the national teams for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will sport more Union Blue.
Stay tuned — just 50 days or so until training camp opens.