The 2014 Sochi Olympics could be the deepest collection of talent for a hockey tournament in the sport's history.
Some of this generation's top players, including Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, are at the peak of their powers in the NHL. In addition, some of the previous generation's greats, such as Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne, are getting one last chance at Olympic glory.
For years, international hockey has been led by a group of medal contenders known as the "big seven." But Switzerland continues to progress and could make it a "big eight" sooner rather than later.
So how does each of these eight medal contenders stack up against the competiton at each position? NHL.com ranks the Olympic teams at forward, on defense and in goal, beginning Sunday with the goalies and followed by the defense corps Monday and the forwards Tuesday.
The Finns have a 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist (Antti Niemi) and a goalie who looks like a lock to be a 2014 finalist (Tuukka Rask). Pekka Rinne, a 2012 Vezina finalist, was kept out of the tournament with an injury. Kari Lehtonen could have a case to start for a couple of teams on this list, but he's probably the No. 3 goalie for Finland. All three Finns rank among the top 12 in save percentage among NHL goaltenders participating in the Olympics.
2. United States
Start with the MVP of the Olympic tournament four years ago and add the last goalie to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Ryan Miller, the Olympic hero in Vancouver, and 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick could see time in net for the Americans. Either could carry the team through a couple of tough games against superior opposition and ultimately to a medal. Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff just have to pick the right one.
If this list were about goaltending depth, the Swedes would be near the bottom. It's possible that no one player is more indispensable to his country than Henrik Lundqvist. If he plays well, the Swedes can win the gold medal. If he does not and/or gets injured, they could be an also-ran. Don't be surprised if Lundqvist looks more like the guy who won the Vezina in 2012 than the one who has struggled at times in this season.
Sergei Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina winner and is a big part of the Columbus Blue Jackets' recent surge in the standings. Semyon Varlamov has had a strong year for the Colorado Avalanche and has played well in both the IIHF World Championship for Russia and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while with the Washington Capitals. Both are playing well going into the tournament. It's a tough call, one that could give the Russian coaching staff some sleepless nights.
Carey Price looked like an easy choice as the starter earlier in the season, then yielded four goals or more in seven of his 10 appearances in January. But he has allowed just seven goals in his past six games for the Montreal Canadiens to make the case that he should be the starter. Roberto Luongo played only once between Dec. 22 and Jan. 18 and has been a little shaky of late, but he has the gold-medal experience and has actually been pretty steady this season. Does he end up in the same role as four years ago, waiting for his turn while Price begins the tournament as the starter? It is possible.
Jonas Hiller has been consistent for the League-leading Anaheim Ducks and is the best starting goalie among the three teams remaining on this list. Calgary Flames goaltender Reto Berra has statistically been one of the worst goalies in the NHL to see significant playing time this season, but his team isn't helping him most nights. Hiller could lead the Swiss to a surprise second-place finish in Group C, which could mean an easier path to the quarterfinals.
Jaroslav Halak has proven he can play well in short stretches. He did it in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when he led this team to the semifinals and gave Canada a scare, as well as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, although most of his postseason work also came four years ago. Should Halak falter, Peter Budaj has played pretty well for the Canadiens when spelling Price.
8. Czech Republic
Ondrej Pavelec's defenders have pointed out his lack of support at the defensive end with the Winnipeg Jets for years, but his numbers clearly make him the last guy among projected starters on this list. Of the goalies who have played more than 175 games since the start of the 2010-11 season, he is the only one with a save percentage below .910. Alexander Salak has put up great numbers in Sweden and the Kontinental Hockey League the past two seasons, and might be on the radar of NHL teams looking to Europe for goaltending help.
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