In part four of our country-by-country series of Olympic previews, we turn our attention to the reigning Olympic champion, Canada, who for the first time this century will be fighting for gold without their leading players from the National Hockey league. As a result, head coach Willie Desjardins called upon no fewer than 12 players from the KHL (and also Linden Vey, now at Zurich, but who was plying his trade at Barys Astana when he was named in the roster).
The hockey tournament at the 2018 Winter Olympics runs from the 14th to the 25th of February, and the Canadians will face the Czech Republic, Switzerland and hosts South Korea in the group stage.
Ben Scrivens, Salavat Yulaev; 35 games, 19 wins, 91.7 save percentage, 2.29 goals against average, 4 shutouts
Justin Peters, Kolner Hale (DEL);
Kevin Poulin, Medvescak (EBEL);
It is no secret that the last line of defense could be Team Canada's Achilles heel. A big question mark hangs over the form of Ben Scrivens in the light of his less-than-spectacular season at Salavat Yulaev. He attracted the ire of a section of the supporters, and things grew more ominous when the management brought in Admiral netminder Ivan Nalimov just before the deadline. Ben can often come to the rescue, but at the back of everyone's mind is his unfortunate habit of being beaten from distance.
On the plus side, no-one could doubt Scrivens's fighting spirit, as he demonstrated against Lokomotiv in last year's playoffs, in a series where little else went right for his team. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone has Ben's thirst for victory. And would Desjardins deem the Olympics as the ideal place to take a gamble on Peters or Poulin?
Chay Genoway, Lada; 54 games, 20 (5+15) points, -12
Marc-Andre Gragnani, Dinamo Minsk; 53 games, 32 (5+27) points, -10
Chris Lee, Metallurg Magnitogorsk; 24 games, 9 (0+9) points, -5
Mat Robinson, CSKA; 42 games, 22 (6+16) points, +25
Karl Stollery, Dinamo Riga; 52 games 14 (3+11) points, -6
Stefan Elliott, HV71 (SHL), Cody Goloubef, Stockton (AHL), Maxim Noreau, SC Bern (NLA)
Team Canada's defense boasts many names who are a formidable presence roaming the blue line. Moreover, players such as Gragnani, Robinson, Lee and Genoway are also highly dangerous when supporting the offense, while the top three names on our list are all masters of the game at uneven strength. Lee is in fine shape for his advancing years, but can sometimes be beaten for speed around his own goal, so if we have to name the General of the Canadian rearguard, the title is most suitable for Mat Robinson, who is the scourge of his opponents in front of either goal.
Gilbert Brule, Kunlun Red Star; 53 games, 36 (17+19) points, -9
Quinton Howden, Dinamo Minsk; 54 games, 30 (16+14) points, -11
Rob Klinkhammer, Ak Bars; 48 games, 22 (8+14) points, +10
Brandon Kozun, Lokomotiv; 52 games, 32 (13+19) points, +12
Wojtek Wolski, Metallurg Magnitogorsk; 44 games, 39 (12+27) points, +3
Eric O’Dell, HC Sochi; 46 games, 31 (13+18) points, +22
Rene Bourque, Djurgardens IF (SHL); Andrew Ebbett, SC Bern (NLA); Chris Kelly, Belleville (AHL); Maxim Lapierre, HC Lugano (NLA), Mason Raymond, SC Bern (NLA); Derek Roy, Linkoping HC (SHL); Christian Thomas, Wilkes-Barre (AHL); Linden Vey, ZSC Lions (NLA);
No shortage of familiar names on this list, and it will gladden Canadian hearts to note that practically all in the KHL contingent are leaders of their respective teams. The spearhead will be Wojtek Wolski – scoring, assisting, acceleration, stealing the puck, pressing the opponent, and battling by the boards are all part of his armor. Wolski seems to have fully recovered from his serious injury, and is back where he feels at home: the list of the League's top scorers.
Brandon Kozun will also play a key role, as he can be just as crucial a component at uneven strength as the D-men we mentioned above, The Lokomotiv man has shown in powerplay that he has that prized ability to spot the correct choice in a split-second, and his precision passes should be the perfect ammunition for Gilbert Brule and Quinton Howden, who in all likelihood will be the main snipers
The absence of Kozun's team-mate, Stanley Cup-winner Max Talbot, is a loss for the team and fans alike. Talbot has not had the best season, the result of successive injuries dating back to last fall and last summer, and the team will miss having his battling presence in front of goal. He's an inspiring player in the locker room and a dangerous man in powerplay, and it is hard to see who will fill this gap. Chris Lee springs to mind, but we will have to wait and see.
We can safely assume that the Canadians will place the emphasis on offense. They featured in an intriguing match against Russia at the Channel One Cup, when a fine team performance was marred by a lack of accuracy in front of goal, but if they have ironed out that problem then a bet on the men from the home of hockey claiming their tenth Olympic gold may be a wise investment.
Canada's nine Olymic golds have come in two clusters: starting with victory in the first winter games in Antwerp, 1920, the men from the Great White North won six of the first seven Olympiads (punctuated by a solitary and unlikely triumph by Great Britain in 1936), and ominously, the second spell comprises three golds in the last four tournaments, with the latest being when Sidney Crosby spurred them to victory in Sochi four years ago. And this, of course, returns us to our opening statement: how will they perform without the guys from the NHL? They are no longer the favorites, but that title can be a burden as well as an accolade.