With no NHL, Olympic hockey nations turn to Plan B
The morning after the NHL announced it wasn’t going to the 2018 Olympics, some Americans playing in Europe started wondering if they should keep their schedules open for next February.
“Myself and couple other Americans, Deron Quint and Dave Leggio, were joking around to not make any plans over the Olympic break next year because they might need us to play,” said Keith Aucoin, a 38-year-old former NHL forward who is playing in Germany.
No joking, they might. In the aftermath of the NHL’s decision, USA Hockey and other national federations insisted they have a Plan B - but it’s not clear how to proceed.
Just because the NHL doesn’t stop its season to participate in South Korea doesn’t mean some players won’t try to go anyway, and the league hasn’t decided if it will allow teams to give players permission to leave. The federations can’t just raid the American Hockey League - many players have NHL contracts - and the same is true even in European professional leagues.
The result in coming months may be nations navigating a wild set of complications in putting their Olympic teams together.
If Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews aren’t available, USA Hockey will likely look to Americans playing Europe to fill the bulk of its roster and mix in a handful of college players. Former NHL forward Mark Arcobello leads the top Swiss league in scoring, Aucoin is among the leaders in Germany, and former NHL defenseman Matt Gilroy and Jonathon Blum are piling up points in the Kontintental Hockey League based primarily in Russia.
Goaltending options for the Americans could include Leggio and Jerry Kuhn playing in Germany, Ryan Zapolski from the KHL, Notre Dame’s Cal Peters and Tyler Parsons of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, who just led the U.S. to world junior gold. USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean called the country’s player pool “as deep as it has ever been,” and executive Jim Johannson - who could be tasked with putting the team together - said the U.S. will “have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”
Two-time defending Olympic champion Canada always has gold-medal expectations but is arguably hurt the most of any country by the NHL not going. Canada’s benefit is that it has depth of talent that spills over into the AHL and European professional leagues.
It’s not the elite of the elite, but there are more than 550 Canadians playing in the AHL and more than 200 across Europe, including former NHL goalie Ben Scrivens, defensemen Cam Barker and Brendan Mikkelson and forwards Derek Roy, Daniel Paille and Jonathan Cheechoo.
“We have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said.
In a recent interview, Renney said Hockey Canada has already pursued its Plan B and will be nimble enough to adjust to any changes to rules concerning eligible players.
Two-time Canadian Olympic gold-medal winner Jonathan Toews expects top junior and college and a lot of European players to make up Canada’s roster.
“There are some really good players playing in Europe,” the Chicago Blackhawks’ captain said.. “They’re guys, you look at them, and you’re surprised they’re not playing here and making big money. Canadian hockey, obviously I’m biased, we’ve proven we’re the best over the course of time. The amount of talent and players we’ve produced out of Canada is so great, that we could ice a good team whether we had NHL players or not.”
Although the International Olympic Committee said “players from all the other professional ice hockey leagues will participate” in PyeongChang, there’s even a small amount of uncertainty about that. Assuming European leagues do give players permission or stop their seasons, the player pool for the U.S., Canada and other countries could grow if potential borderline NHL free agents choose to go abroad next season for a chance to play in the Olympics.
Russia is likely to be the gold medal favorite thanks to former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk playing in the KHL and being available. Alex Ovechkin intends to go to the Olympics anyway, and Washington Capitals teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov said they plan to join him.
Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could benefit from the absence of NHL stars because of the players they have in Europe. Big goalie Mikko Koskinen isn’t Tuukka Rask but would give the Finns a chance, and the Czechs could get stable goaltending from KHL stars Dominik Furch and Pavel Francouz - plus maybe Jaromir Jagr goes home at age 45 for one last Olympic chance.
Sweden’s NHL talent base is growing, but that could mean a rough go at the Olympics, leaning on former NHL goalie Viktor Fasth and forward Joakim Lindstrom and maybe young Philadelphia Flyers prospect Oskar Lindblom.
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