2022 Men’s Olympic Hockey Primer: Players and storylines to watch

Team Canada defender Owen Power skates during a practice at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Saturday, February 5, 2022. (CP)

With the women’s Olympic hockey tournament already off and running, the men’s event begins early on Wednesday morning Eastern Time and will run through the rest of the Olympics.

The Russians – labelled the Russian Olympic Committee this time – return to defend their 2018 gold, but do so with a much less star-studded lineup than last time. Can any of the other traditional hockey powers rise up to challenge them, or perhaps another surprise team, as the Germans were in South Korea?

In the second consecutive men’s Olympic hockey tournament without NHLers, there are still a number of things to watch for as the games unfold. Here is a high-level look at men’s hockey:

TOURNAMENT FORMAT AND SCHEDULE

The 2022 men’s Olympic hockey tournament involves 12 teams spread across three groups. Each team will play three games in the group stage, facing others in their group once. When the preliminary round is finished, every team will be re-ranked from 1-12 for the medal round. The top finishers in each group and the second-ranked team with the best record will get a bye to the quarterfinals, while the other eight teams will play a qualification-round game.

These rankings will be based on where each team finished in its group, and the number of points tallied in the prelims. Further tiebreakers are (in order) goal differential, higher number of goals scored and, finally, their IIHF ranking.

In the qualification playoff round, team No. 5 will face team No. 12, team No. 6 will face team No. 11, team No. 7 will face team No. 10, and team No. 8 will face team No. 9. This is a single-elimination playoff right through to the gold-medal game.

Lose in the qualification playoff round or the quarterfinal, and you’re out. Lose in the semifinal, and you move to the bronze-medal game.

Group A: Canada, USA, Germany, China
Group B: ROC, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark
Group C: Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Latvia

Canada’s preliminary-round schedule:

Thursday, Feb. 10, at 8:10 am ET vs. Germany
Friday, Feb. 11, at 11:10 pm ET vs. USA
Sunday, Feb. 13, at 8:10 am ET vs. China

Medal-round schedule:

Quarterfinals: Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 11:10 pm ET, and Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 1 am ET, 3:40 am ET, 8:30 am ET.
Semifinals: Thursday, Feb. 17, at 11:10 pm ET and Friday, Feb. 18, at 8:10 am ET

Bronze medal game: Saturday, Feb. 19, at 8:10 am ET

Gold medal game: Saturday, Feb. 19, at 11:10 pm ET

PLAYERS OF INTEREST

Eric Staal, Team Canada: He had two goals and eight points in 21 Stanley Cup playoff games last spring with the Montreal Canadiens but, at 37 years old, didn’t find another NHL team to join in 2021-22. After a four-game conditioning stint with AHL Iowa before the Olympics (scoring five points), Staal looks to centre Canada’s top line, where he’ll make a case to join an NHL team’s playoff push back in North America afterward.

Josh Ho-Sang, Team Canada:. A highly talented 26-year-old forward with 53 games of NHL experience, Ho-Sang arrives in Beijing after playing 27 games with the Toronto Marlies on an AHL-only deal. He scored 11 goals and 20 points in those games and, with a strong Olympic showing, there’s the possibility he could play his way on to the Leafs’ radar as a playoff option.

“I think we’ve got a few guys down there that are pushing Josh,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said. “Obviously, he has a much longer pedigree and has been in the public eye for a long time, so he gets a lot of conversation and he’ll be in that mix as we head towards the deadline (March 21). We have to have players on NHL contracts by then to have them eligible to play in the playoffs. So that’ll sort of be the way we dictate it there. There’s a few guys on AHL-only deals that have played very well. Josh, Joseph Blandisi, he’s on a tryout, Antti Suomela, Curtis Douglas … they’re all different players. Josh is the most individually talented of the group, as we all know, but the others have different elements that I think can help the team as well.”

Ho-Sang appears to be starting the Olympics on the top line with Staal and Ducks prospect Mason McTavish, so the opportunity is there.

Jake Sanderson, Team USA: The fifth overall pick of the 2020 draft, Sanderson entered COVID protocol just before leaving for Beijing, leaving his status up in the air. Indications seem to be that he will eventually be able to join Team USA, though he may yet need to miss a couple games. The Americans brought a rather young team to the Games, so Sanderson could play a big role. After the Olympics, he’ll return to North Dakota and will be in the running for the Hobey Baker Award. Could he join the Senators this spring after his college season finishes?

David Krejci, Team Czechia: The Boston Bruins sure could use his presence on the second line, but though Krejci isn’t coming back to the NHL, we can still see him play at the Olympic level and try to lead a Czechia team looking for its first men’s Olympic hockey medal since 2006.

Vadim Shipachyov, OAR: Not likely to be an NHL candidate given he came to Vegas in 2017-18, played three games and then returned to Russia again, but Shipachyov is the KHL’s leading scorer with 67 points in 48 games. We really were looking forward to seeing Andrei Kuzmenko in these Games, the KHL’s No. 2 scorer who could be an NHL target, but an injury has removed him from competition.

WHO ARE THE FAVOURITES IN THESE NON-NHL OLYMPICS?

Just like the 2018 tournament, the Olympic athletes from Russia arrive as the team to beat in Beijing and looking to defend their gold medal. But given how players from all teams are being taken from a wide range of leagues and have a wide range of ages and NHL potential, it really is a wild-card event.

Here is how Cool Bet had laid out its gold medal odds, as of Feb. 7:

TEAM GOLD MEDAL ODDS
Russian Olympic Committee +175
Finland +275
Canada +700
Sweden +800
Czechia +1000
Switzerland +1500
USA +2000
Germay +2500
Slovakia +5000
Latvia +15000
Denmark +15000
China +100000

STORYLINES TO WATCH

How does China do?

As usual, the host country got an automatic bid into the hockey tournament, but in the months leading up to this one there was some question if Team China might have to be replaced.

China enters the 2022 tournament as the lowest-ranked host to play in this event. Ranked 32nd in the world, China is just ahead of Iceland and Israel, and just behind Spain and Serbia. When NHLers were going to be part of this tournament, there was real concern about extremely lopsided games against China. The fact NHLers will not be part of the tournament softened some of those concerns, and the roster the Chinese were able to put together does include experienced players. Spencer Foo, a Canadian-born forward who’s played for the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star for the past three years and has three games of NHL experience, is on the team. His Kunlun teammate and Canadian-born Ethan Werek (a second-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2009) is also on the team. Brandon Yip, born in Vancouver and another member of the Kunlun team, has the most NHL experience on the roster, with 174 games.

In 2018, the host South Koreans went winless and were outscored 14-1 in the preliminary round before Finland eliminated them in the playoff round by a 5-2 score. Can the Chinese do any better?

Can Russia repeat?

There is no Ilya Kovalchuk or Pavel Datsyuk or Kirill Kaprizov on this year’s Russian team, but they remain the favourites for gold. You’ll see other familiar names such as Artem Anisimov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Vyacheslav Voynov on the roster. The Russians have the most to choose from within their own professional league, but don’t have the same star power as before, so can they find a way to gold again?

In 2018, the big breakout star with an NHL trajectory was Kaprizov, and he hasn’t disappointed in Minnesota. Kaprizov scored the gold-medal winner for the Russians last time. There is no obvious breakout potential star with NHL upside this time – 26-year-old Andrei Kuzmenko could have been that guy, although instead of being a highly regarded early draft pick like Kaprizov, Kuzmenko is more of an undrafted late bloomer who would arrive in the NHL as a free agent. An injury has forced him out of the tournament, though.

Shipachyov, highlighted above, will be counted on for a lot of offence, as will Nikita Gusev, who returned to the KHL this season after two years in the NHL. He had 10 points in 31 NHL games last season with New Jersey and Florida, and has 35 points in 31 KHL games this season.

Which young NHL prospects will shine?

Team USA has a few to watch, including Seattle’s Matty Beniers (second overall, 2021), Ottawa’s Jake Sanderson (fifth overall in 2020) and Toronto’s Matthew Knies (57th overall, 2021). Team Canada has Buffalo’s Owen Power (first overall, 2021) and Anaheim’s Mason McTavish (third overall, 2021). All of them are likely to be in the NHL before long (and McTavish has already played nine NHL games), so how they fare on this stage will be worth watching.

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