The 2014 Sochi Olympics could feature 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 competition at each position? NHL.com breaks down the top eight sides at forward, on defense and in goal. We began Sunday with the goaltenders and continued Monday with the defense corps. Now we close out with a look at the forwards, with projected lines thrown in for good measure.
The Canadians replaced the top goal-scorer in the world during the past five seasons with last season's NHL scoring champion. Even with Martin St. Louis replacing his injured Tampa Bay Lightning teammate, Steven Stamkos, there are several other players left off this team who could have earned top-line duty for any other Olympic team not named Russia or Sweden. Canada has speed, scoring, playmakers, size, strong two-way players … In other words, Mike Babcock's team has everything. He just has to figure out where everyone fits.
Both the Swedes and the Americans have better depth, which could be a real problem for the home nation. The firepower on the top two lines, though, could be incredible. Just like four years ago, there will be a mix of NHL talent and players from the Kontinental Hockey League. Ilya Kovalchuk, who played 11 NHL seasons before retiring to play in Russia last summer, is among the few KHL players likely to star in Sochi. An injury to KHL veteran Sergei Soin that allowed Alexander Semin to join the team as a late replacement may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin will be one to watch on the big ice with his size, speed and skill … if he can crack the lineup.
Viktor Tikhonov - Alexei Tereshenko - Alexander Popov
Losing Henrik Sedin to injury is a huge blow, even if the team still has two world-class centers in Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Backstrom. Sedin's chemistry with his brother, Daniel, would have been a great asset in the short tournament format. With two healthy Sedins, the Swedes are most likely ahead of the Russians on this list. They will also miss veteran Johan Franzen. A silver lining is that the two replacements, Gustav Nyquist and Marcus Johansson, are blessed with an abundance of speed and could help Carl Hagelin give this team a different look than previous editions.
4. United States
In the months leading up to team selections, pundits pointed to center as a potential problem area for the Americans. Injuries to key centers for Finland and Sweden have helped close the gap, not to mention improved play from Derek Stepan and a star turn by Joe Pavelski, who could also fit on the wing. Pavelski, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Max Pacioretty give the U.S. four of the top 11 goal-scorers in the NHL this season, with James van Riemsdyk and Blake Wheeler not far behind. There are plenty of gritty forwards who don't mind the rough stuff, either, like David Backes, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan.
5. Czech Republic
Even with the peculiar exclusions of Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata and the disappointing absence of NHL rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, who is out with a knee injury, the Czechs have some firepower. There are players like Milan Michalek and Martin Erat who have not performed for their NHL teams this season but could see this as a fresh start and find their previous form. There is a pretty strong top three at center, and plenty of skill on the wings. There's no guaranteed go-to goal-scorer, but the offense could still excel with a by-committee approach.
Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Saku Koivu could have been the top three centers on this team. Instead, two of them are hurt and the elder Koivu declined an invitation, so this becomes something of a patchwork group. There are certain skilled players who could shift to center, but some of them are going to be needed on the wings. The Finns could really use a star turn from Florida Panthers rookie Aleksander Barkov, who looks like a future star, or maybe Mikael Granlund. But how much can they expect from two players whose combined age doesn't match that of 43-year-old Teemu Selanne?
Sakari Saminen, Jarkko Immonen
The Slovaks have always been short on depth up front, and not having Marian Gaborik available could be crippling. Others will have to find ways to score goals. There are a few up-and-coming NHLers who could be breakout stars for the team, like Tomas Tatar, Richard Panik and Tomas Jurco, but this group will rely on KHL players for offense more than the other medal contenders.
While the Swiss can compete with the other countries in goal and on defense, they are lagging behind up front. Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter will be counted on heavily, and Nashville Predators prospect Simon Moser, who has two games of NHL experience, is also on the roster. Sven Baertschi, once an elite prospect whose stock has fallen with the Calgary Flames, is not on the team. Reto Suri, a speedy wing who tied Niederreiter for the team lead with five goals at the 2013 IIHF World Championship, should also play a key role.
Dennis Hollenstein - Martin Pluss - Andreas Ambuhl
Simon Moser - Kevin Romi - Ryan Gardner
Simon Bodenmann, Morris Trachsler
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