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2014 Sochi Olympic Preview: Fantasy Hockey



Swedish National Team win Gold in Turino 2006
Swedish National Team win Gold in Turino 2006

A two week break from NHL hockey can seem like an eternity for fantasy hockey fanatics.  The only thing that will get us through it is the memory of the great hockey we saw during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the perspective of another such spectacle coming up in a few hours.  In terms of quality of play, nothing beats a best-on-best international competition and the Sochi tournament will undoubtedly deliver.

The hype is peaking and everyone is speculating on the medal favorites.  In an effort to provide my own analysis, I will start by presenting a general overview of the tournament as I see it unfolding.  Then the projected quarter-final match-ups will be laid out, along with a short breakdown of each top-8 ranked team.  The preview will conclude with some bold medal predictions, complete with my own brand of logical justifications...  Even though we all know sport often defies logic.  But isn’t that why we watch so passionately?


Vancouver 2010 gives us a reference to draw upon when trying to figure out how the Sochi event will shape up.  There is however one huge factor that will contribute to making these Olympics a different nut to crack, namely the international ice dimensions.

Let’s first debunk what I believe to be one of hockey’s biggest myths: the larger ice surface creates more offense.  This may have been true back in the 70’s and 80’s when the game featured much slower skaters.  The speed of the modern players will actually help teams defend better on the international ice. 

Think about it: 1-players always skate faster without the puck than with it, giving the defensive team an edge in speed; 2-the extra time and space that must be covered by the attacking team gives their opponent more time to set-up their forechecking and neutral zone schemes; 3-it also makes it more difficult to create scoring opportunities off the cycle because the corner boards are further away from the net and slot area; 4-even in special teams situations, the PK will stretch out the box in an effort to lengthen cross-seam passing options, giving the goalies more time to read plays and move laterally to easily make what are usually tougher saves on the smaller ice. 

You need only watch a few KHL or Swedish Elite League games, or even read some accounts of NHL coaches that have worked overseas.  They almost all agree that bigger ice does NOT mean more offense.

The first important lesson we can draw from Vancouver 2010 is that the preliminary round results do not matter.  The overwhelming lack of elite talent among the bottom-4 teams (Norway, Latvia, Austria and Slovenia) will make it virtually impossible for any of them to engineer an upset in the qualifying round.  The extra rest advantage the top-4 teams enjoy was also a wash four years ago, as two of the four direct quarter-finalists lost their elimination game.  In fact, many may have forgotten that gold medalist Canada actually had to beat Germany as the 6th seeded team out of the preliminary round.

All but one of the quarter-final match-ups were very competitive in Vancouver.  Only Russia’s lack of discipline and overall structure in the second half of their game made it a 7-3 Canada rout.  This brings us to the burning question: what important factors will come into play when determining medal contenders in Sochi?

I believe the teams that will advance to the medal rounds will be: 1-the most disciplined, as special teams can often be the deciding factor in tight games; 2-the most relentless with back-pressure, making forwards’ defensive acumen a key to contending; 3-the ones that can find the best chemistry, because that is what kept Russia from advancing and helped Slovakia to a Bronze medal match-up with Finland last time around.  That is the one thing the preliminary round can be used for.

As for goaltending, it will be an important factor as usual, but past experience has taught us that trying to predict which tender will get on a miraculous roll is a futile exercise.


(1)CANADA VS (8)SLOVAKIA: On paper, the Canadians have it all.  Their overall depth can’t be matched by any country.  The only possible sore spots could be an inability to play the typical Canadian way while avoiding a parade to the penalty box or Mike Babcock’s failure to find line combos that click on all cylinders.  Watch for Patrice Bergeron (great defensively) and Martin St-Louis (tireless worker both ways) to play bigger roles than expected.  Slovakia saw any hopes of advancing past this round disappear when both Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky were confirmed no-shows.  Only a stand-on-his-head performance from goalie Jaroslav Halak can make this a close game.  CANADA WINS.

(4)USA VS (5)FINLAND: The Americans may have the fastest skating team in the tournament.  What their defense lacks in experience is more than compensated by their impressive mix of skill (Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk), smarts (Paul Martin and Ryan McDonagh), mobility (Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk) and physicality (Brooks Orpik).  What may cost them a return trip to the Gold medal final is their lack of elite playmaking skill down the middle.  Joe Pavelski will be their best centerman, but he’s more of a shooter than a passer.  The Finns are always a pesky, competitive group, but losing their top two centermen (Mikko Koivu and Valteri Filppula) to injury is a fatal blow that just won’t allow them to push past any of the traditional medal contenders.  They have the deepest crease of any team, but only one of them can get the net on a given day.  Their defense is a “too old/too young” mix that just can’t match-up to opposing world-class forwards.  USA WINS.

(2)SWEDEN VS (7)SWITZERLAND: Henrik Sedin’s last minute pull-out will mean a less effective Daniel for sure.  While it is a blow, I don’t believe that it eliminates any chance they have to win the tournament.  Even Johan Franzen’s injury may have been a blessing in disguise as he will be replaced by one of the hottest goal scorers in the NHL in teammate Gustav Nyqvist.  The Swedes present a deep line-up full of savvy, NHL built-in chemistry and veteran leaders who will have a chip on their shoulders after their hiccup versus Slovakia in Vancouver’s quarters.  They will be the best puck-hounders in Sochi and have the skill to play a puck-possession game once they do get the pill back.  Their stars (Henriks Zetterberg and Lundqvist) are at the top of their games.  We know the Swiss will use every big ice defensive tactic in the book, but they simply fall way short in NHL-caliber talent, making a run for a medal an impossible task.  Jonas Hiller can only do so much.   SWEDEN WINS.

(3)RUSSIA VS (6)CZECH REPUBLIC: No other country can match the Russians’ level of skill among their top-6 forwards, not even Canada: Evgeny Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov can generate scoring chances in their sleep.  But there is a significant drop-off after that and most of the group lacks the two-way work ethic it will take to win gold.  Another gaping hole is the absence of elite skill on their blue-line, past veteran Andrei Markov.  Semyon Varlamov has been very good for Colorado, but he is young and has no Olympic experience.  What the Czechs possess in veteran leadership (Patrick Elias, Jaromir Jagr, Marek Zidlicky), they effectively threw away by omitting quality players in their prime who could have made them a much more dangerous foe, namely Radim Vrbata and Jiri Hudler.  Their selections of Petr Nedved and Martin Erat (as injury-replacement for Vladimir Sobotka) just don’t pass the smell test.  RUSSIA WINS.


GOLD TO SWEDEN: Their team structure and defensive savvy helps them defeat Russia in the semis.  Their superior discipline and familiarity on international ice gives them the edge over Canada in the final.  Lundqvist’s international experience also gives him the edge over Carey Price, which just may end up being the deciding factor in the end.

SILVER TO CANADA: They get all they can handle from a speedy Team USA in the semis, but have too much scoring depth and hand the Americans yet another heartbreaking loss.  No home advantage this time around though to help push them past the powerhouse Swedes.

BRONZE TO USA: Once again, the individualistic nature of the Russian game is their downfall.  The dream already gone, they offer a lack-luster performance in the Bronze medal game and are no match for the swarming Yanks.