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Southeast: Evaluating the Olympic hopefuls

Thursday, 12.24.2009 / 10:30 AM / Division Notebooks

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

With the 2010 Winter Olympics right around the corner, it seems like an appropriate time to take a stab at naming a few players headed to Vancouver from each of the five teams within the Southeast Division.

After all, most of the managerial staffs of each country will be reaching out to those chosen few over the next week.

Right off the bat, let's anoint Washington left wing Alex Ovechkin as a surefire starter for Team Russia -- don't think there'd be many opposed to that idea. The one question on everyone's mind, however, is if Russian general manager Vladislav Tretiak will name Ovi the team captain. Tretiak has admitted that the Russian captain will be determined via a secret players' ballot.

"Ovechkin is unbelievable," Tretiak told the media during a recent visit to the United States. "Every time he touches the puck, you wonder, 'What's he going to do with it now?' I'd like to watch him all day. He has too much energy inside."

So now that we've gotten Ovechkin out of the way, let's move on to some other choices within the division. Many will be obvious picks and then there are others who might not be as high on your radar, but are with us.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

Pack your bags --
Ilya Kovalchuk has won two gold medals and two bronze medals at the World Championships, a bronze at the 2002 Winter Olympics and a gold and silver at the World Under-18 Championships. He's an obvious choice here -- the latest out of Russia has Kovalchuk on a line with center Evgeni Malkin and Thrashers teammate Maxim Afinogenov; stay tuned. Kovalchuk has produced 318 goals and 596 points in 575 NHL games.

Awaiting that call -- Tobias Enstrom became the all-time franchise leader in assists by a defenseman last week -- a mark he set in a little over two-plus seasons. He would make a fine quarterback on the power-play for Team Sweden as 10 of his 26 assists this campaign have come with the man-advantage. Enstrom has never participated in the Olympics but did play a part in the 2007 World Championships.

"I've always enjoyed to pass the puck, so that's what I do," Enstrom said. "It feels good to help the goal-scorers out. I don't know why I'm not a big shooter. The coach is picking on me to shoot the puck a bit more."

Still hopeful -- Defenseman Ron Hainsey, United States
 
CAROLINA HURRICANES

Pack your bags --
Tuomo Ruutu, the younger brother of Jarkko, finished with career highs in goals, assists and points last season and is at it again for a struggling Hurricanes squad this campaign. He is tied for the team lead with 10 goals and is second with 23 points. He has a fiery edge about him and would be a perfect fit for the Finnish team headed to Vancouver. He represented his country in the 2006, '07 and '08 World Championships. Ruutu notched his first NHL hat trick on Dec. 16 in Carolina's 5-3 win against Dallas at the RBC Center.

Awaiting that call -- Wing Jussi Jokinen has a wealth of international experience and a propensity to come up big in the clutch. During Carolina's miraculous run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, Jokinen finished with 7 goals and 11 points, both personal postseason highs. He helped Team Finland earn a silver medal in the 2006 Games in Turin and also won bronze medals at the '06 and '08 World Championships. Jokinen ranks third on the team with 20 points and is tied for third with 8 goals. He's notched at least one point in seven of the team's nine wins and has scored goals in six of the team's eight wins in which he has played.

Still hopeful -- Defenseman Joni Pitkanen, Finland

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Pack your bags --
Goalie Tomas Vokoun is not only a given for the Czech Republic, but the likely starter. He performed admirably in Turin in 2006 for the injured Dominik Hasek. He appeared in seven games, going 3-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average. In 29 games with Florida, he's 11-11-7 with a 2.62 GAA and .922 save percentage. Despite the fact Vokoun is always among the top five in shots against each season, he remains a consistent force.

Awaiting that call --
Michael Frolik is heating up at the just the right time and the Czech Republic is watching. The 10th selection of the 2006 Entry Draft has 4 goals and 9 points in his last eight games and is currently on pace to surpass his rookie totals from 2008-09 (21 goals and 24 assists in 79 games). Frolik has 11 goals and 12 assists in 39 games this season.

Just prior to his recent offensive explosion -- a 2-goal showing on Dec. 11 in a 4-2 victory against New Jersey -- NHL.com caught up with Frolik and asked about his chances of making the team.

"I didn't hear anything yet; the assistant coach was (in Florida) a couple of weeks ago," Frolik said. "They keep it secret. We really don't know. I don't think I have big chance, I think the coach like more older guys with experience, but you never know."

At the pace he's currently going, Frolik will certainly be tough to ignore.

Still hopeful --
Left wing Rostislav Olesz, Czech Republic

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Pack your bags -- Martin St. Louis never ceases to amaze the hockey world. No matter the circumstances or the players he's surrounded by, the veteran speedster remains one of the game's most electrifying performers. He can be inserted alongside anyone and while he may not be scoring at the rate he's so accustomed to, his 34 assists and 41 points still lead the team. St. Louis represented Team Canada at the 2006 Games in Turin.

Awaiting that call -- To put it simply, Ryan Malone is a warrior and we all know what Team USA general manager Brian Burke thinks of warriors. The 30-year-old wing is posting impressive numbers this season and has certainly played well enough to be considered a strong invite to his first Olympic Games. It may surprise you to know that no American player has more goals (18) this season than Malone and his career-high 6 game-winners have him tied for the NHL lead with Atlanta's Rich Peverley. For good measure, he also leads the team with 108 hits.

Still hopeful --
Center Steven Stamkos, Canada

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Pack your bags --
Let's cut to the chase here. We've already ordained Ovechkin a bona-fide star and no-brainer on the Russian Olympic roster. Let's do the same for fellow countryman Alexander Semin and Swedish superstar Nicklas Backstrom. All Semin did was finish with 6 goals and 13 points in nine games to help lead his country to a gold medal in the World Championships last year. Backstrom scored his fourth goal in as many games during his 200th career game Saturday night. He has 10 goals and 19 points with a plus-11 rating in his last 12 games. He's currently second in team scoring behind Ovechkin with 42 points.

Awaiting that call -- Tomas Fleischmann is tied for second on the team in goals (14) despite missing the first 11 games of the season while recovering from a blood clot in his leg. He's just five goals shy of the career high he established last season. The Czech Republic native has 7 goals and 11 points in his last 10 games and is second in the NHL with a 25.5 percent shooting efficiency. Four of Fleischmann's six career 2-goal games have come this season. With 23 points on the year, Fleischmann is well on his way to surpassing his career-best point total (37) from last season.

Still hopeful -- Goalie Semyon Varlamov, Russia

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com
Quote of the Day

I've never seen anything like that. The great thing is I don't know how many times guys bailed me out where they had to score to keep it alive and they did every time. It was amazing. It's not the way we draw it up, to go 20 rounds here, but obviously it's a big win.

— Florida goalie Roberto Luongo after the Panthers defeated the Capitals in the longest shootout in NHL history on Tuesday
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