The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver mark Latvia's third-consecutive appearance at the Olympics as an independent country. Latvia easily earned a spot in Vancouver after sweeping through a qualification tournament it hosted in Riga. In front of large, partisan crowds, Latvia dispatched Italy, Ukraine and Hungary.
For many years the Latvian national team relied heavily on a veteran core that trained under the old Soviet system. Most notably, goaltender Arturs Irbe and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh were the team's marquee talents. But the passage of time and the end of these players' careers have thrust Latvia into a transitional phase. National team coach Olegs Znaroks successfully navigated the challenge to guide Latvia to yet another Olympic appearance.
There are just a few Latvian players in the NHL, among whom only veteran defenseman Karlis Skrastins and rookie Oskars Bartulis are on the Olympic roster. Veteran Los Angeles Kings enforcer Raitis Ivanans (0 points, 115 penalty minutes in 52 games) in not on the squad. Forwards Janis Sprukts and Martins Karsums and veteran leader Herbert Vasiljevs will play key roles up front for the Latvians. Ottawa Senators prospect Kaspars Daugavins, 21, who made his NHL debut this season but has spent most of the season in the AHL, will gain valuable experience in Vancouver.
Latvia is in a tough preliminary round pool (they're all tough, but Latvia got an exceptionally unfavorable draw) that features Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. While the Latvians have pulled off past upsets at the World Championships, it seems unlikely at the Olympics. Keeping the goal differential down and avoiding another 12th-place finish would be a solid accomplishment for the Latvians.
Forty-year-old goaltender Sergei Naumov (Sergejs Naumovs in Latvian) extended his career with Dinamo Riga for the purpose of participating in his third Olympics for Latvia. Naumov, who played in various North American minor leagues from 1994-2001, is small compared to many of the other starting goalies in the tournament. It often looks like there's plenty of net to shoot at when he's on goal, but he's acrobatic and quick. Naumov is no miracle worker, though. His team is going to have to help him out by limiting its turnovers and minimizing unnecessary penalties.
Team Latvia is likely to be significantly out-chanced and outshot in all three of its preliminary round games. Shot differentials of around 50-12 or 60-18 are not uncommon when Latvia plays elite opposition. Naumov knows the drill and is not intimidated, having been through it all before. He will be backed up by 29-year-old Edgars Masalskis and 25-year-old Ervins Mustukovs.
Karlis Skrastins has been a hard-working, reliable and durable performer throughout his NHL career. The 35-year-old Dallas Stars defenseman blocks shots willingly and does not often throw away pucks blindly. He will be relied on to play heavy minutes in Vancouver, as he is the closest thing Latvia has to a shutdown defenseman. He will also see power-play duties, which is not something he's done regularly in the NHL, but he is capable of threading the occasional shot into the net.
Philadelphia Flyers rookie Oskars Bartulis has come a long way in the last year. Originally a forward until being converted to defense in Canadian junior hockey, Bartulis took a few years in the minor leagues to get ready for the NHL. He finally cracked the big team in November of this season and has remained up since. Bartulis has had his share of growing pains with missed coverage and turnovers in his first NHL season, but has also demonstrated promise. He skates well and can make crisp breakout passes that catch forwards in stride. It remains to be seen how major a role he will play in Vancouver for the Latvians.
Former AHL defenseman Arvids Reikis, 31, will pull down big minutes for his team. Reikis, who now plays in the DEL for Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg, led all Team Latvia players in ice time at the 2009 World Championships. Meanwhile, Dinamo Riga defenseman Krisjanis Redlihs can match size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) with some of the bigger forwards Latvia will face. He had 2 assists in the Olympic qualifiers and averaged over 17 minutes of ice time at the 2009 World Championships.
Any way you slice it, Team Latvia is going to struggle to put the puck in the net. Even so, the club has some opportunistic offensive players. Janis Sprukts and Martins Karsums paced Latvia through the qualifiers in Riga; Sprukts led the squad with 7 points in three games, while Karsums had 4 goals and 2 assists. Veteran Herbert Vasiljevs, a former NHLer who currently plays in Germany's DEL for the Krefeld Penguins, remains one of Latvia's key leaders. Vasiljevs, 33, frequently played with Sprukts and Karsums in the qualification tournament.
Latvia also hopes to get some offensive contributions from former Nashville Predators prospect Lauris Darzins. Now with Dinamo Riga, Darzins scored 2 goals at the 2009 World Championships and scored 3 goals in three games during the Olympic qualification tourney.
Skrastins is not the type of defenseman who plays in All-Star Games and certainly has never been in the elite class that gets mentioned in Norris Trophy debates. Nevertheless, he is a quality NHL defenseman who is capable of expanding his role when he plays for his national team. He's going to be on the ice a lot, and he'll make opposing players earn their scoring chances on his side of the ice.
Striking it rich
For a country like Latvia -- which has one of the hockey world's most passionate and loyal fan bases -- participation in the Olympic hockey tournament is a success in and of itself. Znaroks, his players and the hockey savvy fans are well aware that the team stands to be overmatched against all three of its preliminary round opponents. The team will give its all, regardless of the outcomes, but some of the scores could be ugly against the likes of Team Russia. Meanwhile, the extremely vocal contingent of Latvian fans will have a good time singing, stomping, chanting 'Saruj Latvija!' and whistling derisively at any call that goes against their beloved team.