1. NHL players in or out of the next Olympics?
There is no reason the NHL should not send players to the 2014 Olympics. The amount of attention the tournament gets worldwide is nothing but a positive thing for the NHL. Even for teams like Germany Latvia (among others) who were unlikely to win a medal at the games it gives them exposure and a gateway to getting more people interested in the game which results in better teams as the years go on. That is also true for countries that were unable to qualify for the Olympics this time around. The more countries that participate in hockey the better the talent pool, as a result the level of play in the NHL will continue to go up making a better product to market.
Secondly, the amount of people who watched the Gold Medal game in the United States was reportedly close to 30 million. The NHL (and NBC for that matter) is always looking for ways to better market the game in the U.S. and to gain greater viewership across the country. The Olympics (the Gold Medal game in particular) provided that to the NHL as everyone on the ice is currently playing for an NHL team. Not only that but it got people who ordinarily would not care about hockey to tune in; of that group of people—let’s say 5 million don’t care about hockey generally—if even 200,000 people (that’s only 4%) grew an interest in the game that makes it completely worth it for the NHL to participate in the Olympics. That is 200,000 more people to buy tickets and merchandise or possibly compete in hockey tournaments of their own and perhaps expose the game to other people.
Granted, the U.S. team will not always make it to the Gold Medal game, nor will that game consist of all NHL players and there is also the time zone issues when the games are not held in North America. There is also the issue of the NHL gaining no money from these games directly while also having to halt their season for two weeks, sacrifice its own all-star game, and subject NHL players to injury that could cause them to miss regular season time. But in the end the exposure they get is priceless and they do not have to invest a dime to get that. Players are not being paid for their participation in the Olympics –at least not by the NHL—so there is no salary issue for NHL owners. Not to mention the fact that it is only two-weeks once every four years for something that most agree ultimately helps the NHL much more than it hurts if it hurts the league at all. Some have suggested it’s just a bargaining tool by the NHL to use when negotiating the next CBA, no matter the case the NHL players should be in the Olympics so enough nonsense already and let them go.
2. Touch Icing:
For whatever reason there has been a debate for many years about whether to institute automatic icing in the NHL like they do in international and NCAA hockey. It should be a no brainer, END TOUCH ICING. I have given my piece on this before so I won’t say a whole lot. This past week on Coach’s Corner on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada Don Cherry did a great segment on getting rid of touch icing, go to the following link to see the piece (http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/Sports/CBC%27s_Hockey_Night_in_Canada) , then click on Coach’s Corner (on the left side of the screen) then watch the March 6th video, it is one of the last things Cherry talks about toward the end of the video and I could not agree with him more.
3. Shootouts, why do home teams always choose to shoot first?:
I will never understand why the home team always decides to shoot first giving the road team the last chance to score. Some say it’s because they want to put pressure on the other team by scoring first. Quite frankly that logic is garbage and inherently flawed. Ask any athlete in any sport and when it comes down to it they want to have the ball in their hands/at their feet, or the puck on their stick with the game on the line witch a chance to win. Consider baseball, the oldest game in America for years and years has always given the home team a marked ADVANTAGE by giving them the last chance to score in the game (i.e. the bottom of the ninth). If any manager went up to the umpire before a game and said “I know we’re the home team but today I’d like to bat first instead and give them the final at-bat in the ninth. Yeah this way we can put pressure on them from the get-go.” he would be fired almost immediately. The only time I can see this logic being reasonable is if your goaltender is your best player, then of course you went to give your greatest asset in the best position possible to win the game for you but 99% of the time that is not the case. I do not profess to know more about hockey than coaches or professional players generally but in this case the decision to shoot first is asinine.
The Winter Olympics were officially opened on Friday and starting Monday the NHL takes a backseat to the biggest hockey tournament in the world. With that in mind we’ll preview that tournament and let you know who the medal contenders are and of course give a prediction.
The tournament consists of 12 teams split into three groups of four as follows:
Group A – Canada; United States; Switzerland; Norway
Group B – Russia; Czech Republic; Slovakia; Latvia
Group C – Sweden; Finland; Belarus; Germany
Each team in a given group plays the other teams once in a round-robin after which the top team from each group plus the fourth best team remaining are given byes into the quarter-finals while the remainder of the teams play a preliminary playoff round to determine who will play those four top teams. Conventional wisdom says that only six of these teams has any real shot at the podium namely Canada, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Russia, and the United States (perhaps Finland can slip in their too but it’s unlikely). In a tournament like this where every team qualifies for the elimination round it only takes one good game from a “lesser” team to upset the balance which is part of what makes this such an exciting event. With that said we’ll focus on the six, possibly seven, teams who are likely to be in serious medal contention starting with the hosting Canadians.
Considered by many to be the favorites to win the gold in Vancouver the Canadians have an incredibly talented roster (see http://proicehockey.about.com/od/olympichockey/a/2010-canada-roster.htm for full roster) and will be sound in every facet of the game. With a team this strong there is really no meaningful technical analysis that can be done to assess how they will finish. For Canada their biggest issues will be staying healthy and more importantly handling the pressure from the home crowd and media because they will be fully expected to win the gold medal with anything less being considered a failure. I think Canada’s greatest advantage will be their biggest downfall in that the crowd will be with them and that’s always helpful but if things do not go exactly as planned the pressure is going to mount big time and likely lead to Canada cracking under the pressure. It’s not so much because the players can’t handle the expectations as much as the pressure will cause them to play cautiously at times and the Russians (who I think will win the gold) will not have the same pressure on them so they can play loosely and seize the moments Canada plays tight resulting in disappointment for the whole country as they take the silver medal.
As for Russia they too have such a great roster together that technically there is little to speak of but there are some weaknesses for Russia. First off the biggest head-scratcher for them is that they have so many KHL players on their roster who were chosen over some NHL guys who could have (and perhaps should have) been on the team. Not only will these guys have a tough time adjusting to the North American ice size and style of play but in the opinion of most simply are not as talented as their NHL counterparts. Despite possibly diluting their talent pool the Russians still have a ton of fire power on their s squad (see http://www.2010tracker.com/2009/12/25/russia-announces-olympic-mens-hockey-team-roster/ for full roster) which can certainly outscore anyone at even strength but also results in them having an incredibly good power play unit. Teams will have to be concerned with every penalty they take because the Russians are likely to make you pay for almost any power play opportunity given to them. Their goal scoring prowess along with some great play in net will likely lead Russia to the Gold medal in this tournament. (It also doesn’t hurt that they have won two World Championships in a row).
The remainder of the top six are likely only going to be in contention for the Bronze medal (as long as the match-ups work out so that Russia and Canada end up meeting in the final).
Starting with team Sweden; although the Swedes are the defending Olympic champions their team looks good on paper but is an aged group of players and it is unlikely they will be able to keep pace with Canada or Russia but those teams aside the Swedes can make some hey against everyone else and that is why they are my favorite to take the Bronze.
Perhaps on the opposite end of the spectrum is team USA who has a very talented team but are very young (see http://proicehockey.about.com/od/olympichockey/a/2010-usa-roster.htm for full roster). It is unlikely that a team so lacking in experience can make a serious challenge for Silver or Gold but the strength of the rest of the field puts them squarely in the middle of the race for the Bronze medal. All team USA needs is to have their guys play reasonably well and have Ryan Miller steal a couple of games for them in the medal round to have a legitimate shot at the Bronze medal. Although the Bronze medal would be great for the Americans a fourth or fifth place finish would be quite an accomplishment for this upstart squad.
The Czech Republic has a very formidable roster assembled with a number of NHL players led by former NHLer and current KHL all-star Jaromir Jagr (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/123948-2010-olympic-hockey-outlook-team-czech-republic for full roster). With the nice mix of young and veteran players the Czech Republic have to be considered co-favorites along with Sweden to grab the Bronze medal. The reason they are unlikely to make a push for the Gold is because they have a solid roster but no one really stands out on their team. Tomas Vokoun is probably their biggest star and while a goaltender can steal a game or two for you it would take that along with a star or two to carry the team any further than that and the Czechs simply do not have that.
The Slovakian team also has a fairly solid line-up just a step below the Czechs (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/126346-2010-olympic-hockey-outlook-team-slovakia for full roster). And much like the Czechs the Slovakian squad lacks in big stars which hurts their chances to even compete for the Bronze medal. Their roster top to bottom is very solid but it’s pretty underwhelming with Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa being their best players but Chara is a defensemen and Hossa is certainly not the player today he was even three years ago. So while a Bronze medal is a reasonable goal for this team they will likely not even be able to get that far and should probably be ready to accept a preliminary round win and that’s about it.
Those are my predictions but in such a short tournament just about anything can happen so it will be very exciting no matter what. Enjoy the games everybody, we’ll see you next time.