The NHL has been allowing its players to represent their countries at the Winter Olympics since 1998. But since the new, post-lockout, clutching-and-grabbing-be-damned, wide-open era of hockey, there has only been one Olympics -- the 2006 Games in Torino.
When it comes time to make educated guesses as to what the 2010 Games will mean for the rest of the NHL season, it doesn't hurt to look at what happened in 2006. Sure, some knowledge can be gained from what happened in 1998 and 2002, but really, it's not as much of a help.
Think about it. In 2002, if you were exhausted from all your extra work in Salt Lake City, you could always hook your stick into the mid-section of a forward and water ski your way around the ice without any repercussions. It was a different time. Nowadays, that just can't happen.
What follows is a look at what some teams and players did four years ago pre- and post-Olympics, and who could be heading down the same path today. Of course, history isn't a predictor of what will happen in the future, but it doesn't hurt to look at it.
Staal was with Team Canada but never played in a game, while Gerber played just three games for Team Switzerland. And as you might recall, a rookie by the name of Cam Ward took over for Gerber in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and won a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup.
None of the Oilers' representatives -- Chris Pronger, Ryan Smyth, Jaroslav Spacek and Ales Hemsky -- played more than five games. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who anchored the Oilers' Cup run, was nowhere near the Olympics. Shawn Horcoff and Fernando Pisani, also non-Olympians, combined for 21 goals and 16 assists in 24 playoff games.
The lack of Olympians doesn't solely explain how the eighth-seeded Oilers came within one game of a Stanley Cup, but it couldn't have hurt.
Another argument for a rested team? The Buffalo Sabres, who lost to the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, also sent just four players to the Olympics. The Anaheim Ducks, who lost to the Oilers in the Western Conference Finals, sent six Olympians, but only five played. Scott Niedermayer was injured and decided to sit out.
The 2010 incarnation? How about the Washington Capitals and the Calgary Flames?
The Caps sent five to Vancouver, but only four of them saw significant action. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov was behind Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov on the depth chart of Team Russia. And just like with the Hurricanes in 2006, the Capitals are at the top of the Eastern Conference at the break.
The Flames are in eighth place at the break, just like the Oilers in 2006. And Calgary sent three to this year's Games, one less than the Oilers. If the Flames can hang on to the final spot in the Western Conference, they could be poised to go on a similar run if the matchups fall in their favor come April.
2. The Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings, the No. 1 seeds in 2006, sent a combined 18 players to Torino and neither team made it past the second round -- It's the only time in the brave new world of the NHL that the top seeds lost more games than they won in the playoffs. The Senators were bounced in the second round by the Buffalo Sabres in five games. The Red Wings lost in six to the well-rested Oilers. The Sens and Wings went a combined 7-9 in the playoffs.
The 2006 Olympics were devastating for the Senators before they were over. Dominik Hasek, who entered the break with a 28-10-4 record, 2.09 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, was injured in the Czech Republic's first game. His Olympics and his NHL season were over.
The Sens' seven other Olympians combined to play 39 games in Torino. Jason Spezza, much like Carolina's Staal, was there just to watch and gain experience.
The player who appeared most affected by the Olympics was Daniel Alfredsson. He scored 34 goals in 52 games before the break, then just 11 goals in his final 35 games, including just 2 goals in 10 postseason contests.
The Red Wings' ouster in the first round was by far the most perplexing, because they had the best record of any NHL team after the Olympics. They finished 19-3-3 and stormed their way to a Presidents' Trophy.
Yet they crumbled against the Oilers. Did everyone hit the metaphorical wall all at once, or was it all coincidence?
Well, not only did the Wings send 10 players to the Olympics, but all of them played meaningful minutes. They combined to play in 74 games, and five of them were part of Sweden's gold-medal-winning team that went the distance. The average of age of those 10 players was 32.
Henrik Zetterberg was the only Red Wing who didn't miss a beat. He scored 6 goals in the six-game loss to the Oilers. Detroit's other nine Olympians combined for 6 goals in that series.
The 2010 incarnation? How about the San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils?
No team this time around sent as many players as the Wings did in 2006, but the Sharks sent eight, tied with the Ducks for the most. And just like the Wings, the Sharks went into the break with the lead in the Western Conference and all of their Olympians are important players on their respective teams.
The Devils have a lot of similarities to the Sens. Both hit their respective breaks second in the Eastern Conference. The Devils sent six to Vancouver; the Senators did send eight, but Spezza didn't play and Hasek was lost for the season right away.
Luckily for the Devils, goaltender Martin Brodeur avoided a major injury in Vancouver, although his benching did end his Olympics almost as quickly as Hasek had his ended. Maybe Brodeur's pride was hurt, but that's about it. Still, the 2006 Senators and 2010 Devils have a lot in common even if Brodeur avoided physical injury in Vancouver.
3. After sending just four players to Torino, the San Jose Sharks went from 11th to fifth in the Western Conference, and Joe Thornton won the Hart Trophy -- And it was about as flimsy as a four as you can find.
Thornton and Team Canada played only six games. Evgeni Nabokov played only three games for Team Russia. Germany didn't advance very far, meaning Marcel Goc and Christian Ehrhoff played in five games apiece.
The well-rested Sharks closed the 2005-06 season with a 17-6-3 record, and Thornton's 8 goals and 36 assists over the final 26 games pushed him to the front of the MVP line. The Sharks bounced the Nashville Predators in the first round before falling to the Oilers in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The 2010 incarnation? How about the Dallas Stars?
Marc Crawford's club sent just four players to Vancouver. The Stars possess a brilliant playmaker of their own in Brad Richards, who is more than capable of going on a tear over his team's final 20-plus games and lifting the ninth-place Stars into the playoffs. He'd probably need to average three points a game over that stretch to win the Hart Trophy, but hey, not every team can match up so perfectly.
A lot of the collapse could be pinned on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped Sweden to the gold medal. He left for Italy among the League leaders in GAA (2.09) and save percentage (.927), but injuries and perhaps fatigue contributed to his 2.71 GAA and .907 save percentage after the break.
And just like with the Red Wings, the Rangers sent their share of veterans to the Olympics in 2006 in the form of Darius Kasparaitis (34), Jaromir Jagr (34), Martin Straka (34) and Martin Rucinksy (35). Jagr, Straka and Rucinksy were three of the Rangers' top four scorers that season, while Kasparaitis logged a lot of minutes on the blue line.
Two of those forwards -- Jagr and Straka -- saw their scoring drop off after the break, while Rucinsky only played nine more games due to a knee injury and a broken finger.
In terms of points per game, Jagr went from 1.52 to 1.46 and Straka went from 1.04 to 0.67. Sure, every team in the NHL would love to have a guy who "falls" to 1.46 points per game, but Straka's dip was drastic.
As for Kasparaitis, he missed 14 games (including two playoff games) with a groin injury he suffered after the Olympics.
It all added up to a team that was four points out of first place in the East before the break making one of the most unceremonious exits in playoff history less than two months later.
The 2010 incarnation? How about the Buffalo Sabres?
Defensemen Andrej Sekera (Slovakia) is just 23, but fellow blueliners Tony Lydman (Finland) and Henrik Tallinder (Sweden) are 32 and 31, respectively. Team Germany forward Jochen Hecht is 32.
The Sabres have 75 points, three less than what the Rangers had at the break in 2006. The extra work in Vancouver this year could be the difference between a division title and a deep run and an early exit from the playoffs.
5. The Vancouver Canucks sent seven players to Torino, then went from fifth place in the West to ninth place after the break to miss the playoffs -- The Canucks entered the break with a six-point lead on ninth-place Anaheim and a nine-point lead on 11th-place San Jose. Yet when the dust settled, it was the Canucks who were home watching the playoffs.
And when you look at Vancouver's seven Olympians -- Mattias Ohlund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Todd Bertuzzi, Ed Jovanovski, Sami Salo and Jarkko Ruutu -- there isn't a below-average player in that group. That's nearly one-third of the Canucks' roster -- all key players -- logging extra minutes during the Olympics.
The Canucks went 9-11-3 over their final 23 games to finish three points behind the eighth-place Oilers.
The 2010 incarnation? How about the Los Angeles Kings?
The Kings have five representatives in Vancouver -- Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Michal Handzus and Jack Johnson -- and they have a far bigger margin for error than the Canucks had four years ago. They have a 10-point lead on the Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings, who are tied for ninth in the West.
It would take a lot for the Kings to crumble the way the Canucks did, but it's well within the realm of possibility. Quick won't see a lot of action in Vancouver, but he's played in 55 games this season, so a genuine two-week rest might've been in his best interest.
Handzus, at 32, is the oldest King at the Olympics, but when you consider all five of Los Angeles' Olympians reached the semifinals and were involved in the maximum number of games, the extra wear and tear could be the difference in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Special thanks to NHL.com's Neil Pierson and his super computer, which compiled and sorted all of the pre- and post-Olympic break numbers.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL