COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s kind of hard to believe, but the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi are approximately seven months away.
With the joint announcement from the National Hockey League, the Players’ Association and the International Ice Hockey Federation, the participation of NHL players in the Sochi Games is full-go. That’s good news for fans of hockey, as well, considering the international popularity of the 2010 games in Vancouver and how much buzz was generated for the sport.
The Blue Jackets had five players suit up for their countries in Vancouver: Rick Nash (Canada), Fredrik Modin (Sweden), Milan Jurcina (Slovakia), Jan Hejda (Czech Republic) and Fedor Tyutin (Russia). Nash was part of Canada’s memorable gold medal victory in overtime over the United States, and often played on Sidney Crosby’s wing during the tournament.
This time around, the Blue Jackets could very well have an equally strong representation at the Olympics. They have several players who have strong ties to their respective countries’ national team programs and possess solid international resumes, but of course, we won’t know the final roster decisions until closer to the tournament.
For now, though, let’s speculate and take a long look at which of the current Blue Jackets could end up competing in Sochi.
One of the Blue Jackets’ most internationally-experienced players and a product of the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) in Ann Arbor, Johnson is a strong contender to man the blueline for head coach Dan Bylsma in Sochi. Johnson most recently captained Team USA at the 2012 IIHF World Championships and was a big-minute defenseman for the Americans. The bigger ice surface in Russia should be a benefit to Johnson and his aggressive style; with more room to skate, there’s a good chance Johnson could be turned loose to jump up in the play and be the “second wave” of offense. Johnson is well-known for flying to Vancouver (while a member of the Los Angeles Kings) on an off-day prior to the 2010 Olympics so he could march for the U.S. in the opening ceremonies. In doing so, Johnson became the first American-born NHLer to march in the opening ceremonies. He has represented the United States 11 times in international competition since 2004 and is one of the leading ambassadors for USA Hockey and the NTDP.
The 27-year-old native of Anchorage, Alaska is on our Team USA radar because he embodies many of the characteristics valued by USA Hockey: hard work, good character, and he’s an extremely competitive player. In his first season with the Blue Jackets, Dubinsky didn’t generate the offensive numbers he was looking for but he established himself as one of the team’s most reliable players in all three zones. Possession is a vital component for success on the bigger ice, and with Dubinsky’s face-off prowess (over 58 percent in 2013), he would be a solid addition to Bylsma’s forward group. Dubinsky has represented the United States twice during international competition: the 2008 and 2010 IIHF World Hockey Championships.
Preceded by a stellar 2012-13 season in the NHL that culminated with a Vezina Trophy, Bobrovsky began the lockout-shortened year in the KHL. As the No. 1 goaltender for SKA St. Petersburg, he was statistically the best goalie in Russia before heading back for the start of the NHL season, going 18-3-2 with a sub-2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Coupled with the struggles of Ilya Bryzgalov – who was Russia’s starting netminder for the World Championships before having his contract bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers last month – it would appear that Bobrovsky has the inside track on one of the top goalie jobs in Sochi. Another contender here is Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche, who also represented Russia at this year’s World Championship tournament.
Every team – regardless of skill, depth or both – has a spot on its roster for a proven, durable and productive defenseman who can play both ends of the rink. That’s Fedor Tyutin’s game and it has been since he joined the Blue Jackets in 2008, and it is a big reason why he was part of Russia’s defense corps at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The 29-year-old picked up two assists in four games during the Vancouver games and, most recently, recorded 22 points in 48 games for the Blue Jackets in 2012-13 while playing all situations. Versatility is one of the main things Tyutin brings to the table; he can play up or down in the lineup, both special teams and has proven that he can handle heavy minutes.
The only current Blue Jackets player to hold the honor of being a two-time Olympian is Gaborik, the star winger acquired in a blockbuster deal at the 2013 trade deadline. Gaborik represented his native Slovakia at both the 2006 Olympics in Turin and the 2010 games in Vancouver, and has racked up seven goals in 13 games of the Olympic tournament. A three-time All-Star in the NHL (2003, 2008 and 2012), Gaborik showed flashes of his old goal-scoring form upon joining the Blue Jackets but was slowed due to an abdominal injury that required surgery after the season. Provided he rebounds this upcoming season and returns to his prime goal-scoring form, Gaborik is a leading candidate to be part of the Slovakian roster in Sochi.
Perhaps more of an under-the-radar candidate for the Sochi Olympics, Anisimov may appeal to the Russian management team with his versatility and how he excelled with additional responsibility during his first season with the Blue Jackets in 2012-13. Despite battling injuries during the regular season, Anisimov was a go-to guy at even strength and often centered one of the Blue Jackets’ top two lines when he was healthy. He signed a three-year extension with Columbus this offseason and Jarmo Kekalainen thinks he’s on the cusp of developing into a very good NHL player, and at age 25, there are many strong years ahead for the young Russian. While it’s not likely Anisimov would get the top minutes on this year’s Russian Olympic squad, he would definitely be a reliable player to have on either the third or fourth line, and one who could play up in the lineup in a pinch. Anisimov has represented Russia twice at the World Junior Championship (2007, 2008) and twice at the World Hockey Championship (2010, 2013).
Since having the interim tag removed in May 2012 and being hired as head coach, Richards has been part of a Blue Jackets club that is trending upward. He’s a strong support of USA Hockey’s nationwide initiatives and has ties to Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma, and it makes a lot of sense for Richards to join the American coaching staff at the Sochi Olympics.