Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Olympic Men's Hockey Predictions


In anticipation of the Olympic Men's Hockey tournament beginning on Wednesday, the SportsMatters crew are proud to present their medal predictions. I have also included some other links for those desiring one-stop shopping. Feel free to comment, and enjoy. Go Canada!

General Coverage:
NHL, TSN, CBC, MSNBC

Schedule:
NHL, CBC, MSNBC

Standings:
TSN, CBC, IIHF (with seedings)

Rules:
CBC

Team Rosters:
MSNBC (most-up to date)

Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, USA



Andy Grabia

Gold: Czech Republic
This was a very hard pick for me to make. I want Canada to win, of course, but two things worry me about this Czech team: goaltending and Jaromir Jagr. Jagr is having a Hart Trophy year in the National Hockey League, and both Dominik Hasek and Tomas Vokoun are capable of stealing a gold-medal game. Nagano still haunts my sleep, and I am sure the Canadian players have not forgotten, either. The Czechs have a solid defence with the 4K's (Kaberle, Kaberle, Kubina, Kuba) and a solid mix of youth and experience at the forward position. Other than the Canadians, this team is the deepest in the tourney. I pray to God it doesn't go to a shootout.

Silver: Canada
The odds-on favorite, the Canadian team has been "distracted" by injuries to key defenceman and Operation "Slap Shot." Steve Yzerman is out, as is Mario Lemieux. This looks like a very different team from Salt-Lake City, especially on the back end. The ability of the Canadian forwards to gel is what is key in my mind, as well as the play of the goaltenders. If Brodeur, Turco or Luongo get hot, Canada has a chance to beat the Czechs. One must not forget, either, that the turning point for the Canadian team in 2002 came against the Czechs, following Roman Hamrlik's spearing of Theo Fluery. Following that game, Gretzky went bonkers, and the rest of history. I imagine that Gretz is using the same sort of Glen Sather distraction tactics this time around, too, telling the players that no one expects them to win because of the gambling "scandal." Call it Operation "Against All Odds", I still don't see this team defeating the Czechs in the final. I would love to be wrong, though.

P.S. Hey, Dany Heatley--Score Goals This Time Around!

Bronze: Russia
I am going to go out on a limb and give the bronze to the Russians (it appears I am not the only one). What's not to like about them? Their coach, Vladimir Krikunov, advocates players doing shots of vodka after the game, the Russuan Rocket is GM, and Ilya Kovalchuk is the Terrell Owens of hockey. Can you imagine how much fun a line of Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin will be to watch?

Jokes aside, the Russians are deep at the forward position. What is of importance is how Evgeni "Just like the old man in that book by" Nabokov performs in net (he was benched by the Sharks last week), as well as the Russian player's commitment. Bure was determined to eliminate players who didn't have the heart to go full-throttle, but I still see the names Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalev on the roster sheet. Ultimately, I see the Russians slipping past the Swedes for the Bronze.

4th: Sweden
Thankfully, Tommy Salo is not playing for the Swedes this year. Even better, Belarus isn't in the tourney. The Swedes are solid at goaltending, and the fact that Peter Forsberg expects to play boosts the hopes of the torpedo using Tre Kronor Ikea Men (their actual team name, no lie). Unfortunately, Markus Naslund is out, and Mats Sundin is the Peyton Manning of the NHL (see Maple Leafs recent Stanley Cup victories). Swedish players won't have to worry about seeing their pictures and salaries on the front pages of the homeland newspapers this time around, but they still won't get a medal.

5th: Slovakia
Another sleeper whose only real weakness is goaltending. They have snipers in Svatos, Gaborik, Satan, Hossa and Demitra. I actually wouldn't be surprised if the Slovaks medalled.

6th: USA
No Ryan Miller? My least favorite team, no doubt, mainly due to the presence of Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher, Mathieu Schneider and Alyssa Modano. I am actually surprised that the Americans didn't forge Sean Avery an American passport and put him on the team. Just a bunch of slow thugs on defence and so-so offensive talent up-front. I hope this teams ends up in 12th.

7th: Finland
Does anyone know why Vesa Toskala isn't on this team? What is he, 9-1 in his last 10 NHL starts? I was really hoping Miikka Kiprusoff was going to play in the Olympic tournament, because I'm positive Kevin Lowe would have brought Nick Kypreos out of retirement, put him on the roster, and let him run loose in the Finnish goal-crease. I love watching the Finns play hockey, and seeing GM Jari Kurri snug in his suit and still struggling with English after living in North American for almost 30 years is always a pleasure. Unfortunately, without Esa Tikkanen, this team can't compete.

The Rest: Germany, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Italy



Kevin Kimmis
Chalk me up as someone who could care less about Olympic hockey. Don't get me wrong, I loved it when the kids were playing their hearts out pre-Salt Lake, and it was nice to finally win gold for the first time in forever in 2002, but after that it's just a bunch of NHL players on different teams. With the NHL plugging it as much as they are, the Olympic Games even feel like an extension of the season. So since I don't much care, here are some extremely casual thoughts about the games:

Canada: If we lose, Gretzky was a distraction; if we win, Team Canada morphs into USA Basketball (if women's hockey doesn't beat them to it).

Finland: Out of respect for Janne Niinimaa, the team will listen to nothing but death metal for the entire tournament.

Germany: If losing Jochen Hecht to a knee injury is a potentially big blow to your team, then you never had a chance.

Italy: What, no Fernando Pisani? There goes his chance to ever play in a meaningful game.

Latvia: Arturs Irbe is still playing, so Latvia is my dark horse pick to finish out of the top ten.

USA: Chris Chelios will break his hip, qualify for membership in the AARP and get an endorsement deal for Depends undergarments before the tournament ends.

Gold: Czech Republic
Silver: Russia
Bronze: Sweden
The Rest: Who cares?



Avi Schaumberg

Group A

Czech Republic
With their returns-to-form, Hasek and Jagr can win the round-robin themselves. And on the right day, Hasek can cash-in a shut-out for the gold-medal. The Czechs are awash in talented forwards who are capable of scoring and playmaking. Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky, a remarkable 12th in NHL assists, is now a worthy peer to Straka and Rucinsky. Watch for Hemsky to outshine Ryan Smyth in the tournament, giving Oilers fans a reason to be proud and worried at the same time.

Canada
Sure, Canada could send two squads to the games, but it doesn’t mean the squad they sent is perfect. Consider this: the NHL has 52 players with 50 or more points. Canada’s squad includes six of them. That leaves plenty of talent available to the competition. Spezza and Staal would up Canada’s total 50-pointers to eight, but both are stuck with ‘alternate’ status while Nash and Draper use up space.

Canada doesn’t have the tournament’s best goalie (Hasek), sniper (Jagr) or offensive-defenceman (Visnovsky). What it does have are four lines of top-tier talent, two brilliant centres (Sakic, Thornton), and the game’s best two-way D (Redden). Brodeur has a great record in big-games, but his year so far has not lived up to his reputation, and his 3000+ minutes played put him at risk to tire. Bottom line: the Canadians should be in the gold-medal final, but let’s face it, there’s only one way to go: down.

Finland
Was the team more than Kiprusoff? Yes. Can it survive without him? No.

Switzerland
Will move on to the quarterfinals, then be run over by the Russian kids.

Italy
Your neighbour Mario can’t skate. But his dad’s flooded the back yard and invited everyone over for a game of pick-up. Guess what? Mario’s getting picked last. If the women’s hockey is anything to go by, this team is reason enough to establish a mercy rule. So why write about them? They are a wild-card factor: if GF get used as a tie-breaker for the group standings, how thoroughly you beat up on Italy will matter. And it will matter way too much.

Group B

Sweden
Forsberg is in, as are Modin, Sundin and the Sedins. Listening to Cole & Neale promises to be an adventure. Aside from putting in a plug for Lundqvist (who along with Hasek is automatic right now), I don’t feel a need to say much. Unless they face the Swiss in the quarters, Sweden will have to get through one of Canada, the Czech Republic or Finland in order to move on. I don’t see it happening.

U.S.
Too old (Chelios, Conroy, Guerin, Modana, Hatcher) or too young (Leopold & Liles), the American team is missing the combination of speed and mental crispness needed to succeed on Turin’s out-sized ice surface. They’ve iced an NHL wunderteam of the late 1990s (Dallas, with hints of the Devils and Blues), but eight years too late. Team USA makes it out of the round-robin, but goes nowhere.

Russia
Moving down in the table, this is now the team second-most likely to produce a mob-related gambling scandal. In their favour, the Bure-led Russians have the best youth-movement going. If they don’t live up to the hype this time, they will in 2010.

Slovakia
A very dark horse, they have the potential to be this tournament’s Belarus, but it seems unlikely they can knock out Group A’s leader in the quarterfinal.

Quarterfinal winners:
A1 (Czech)/B4 (Slovakia): Czech
A2 (Canada)/B3 (Sweden): Canada
A3 (Finland)/B2 (USA): Finland
A4 (Switzerland)/B1 (Russia): Russia

Semifinal winners:
A1/B4 v A3/B2: Czech (loser: Finland)
A2/B3 v A4:B1: Canada (loser: Russia)

Gold: Czech Republic

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Russia



Sheamus Murphy*

Gold: Paul Martin
Silver: Nicole Martel
Bronze: Stephane Dion
4th: Michael Ignatieff
5th: Scott Brison
6th: Belinda Stronach
7th: Ken Dyrden
The Rest: Joe Volpe, Bob Rae, Maurizio Bevilacqua, Martin, Cauchon, Frank Mahovlich



Alex Abboud

Gold: Canada
On paper, they're the favorites, having much of the nucleus of the 2002 Olympic Gold Medal Team and the 2004 World Cup Championship Team intact. Injuries have cut into their depth on the blueline, with Scott Niedermayer and Ed Jovanovski out with injuries. Nonetheless, they are still loaded everywhere on the ice, and have plenty of tournament experience. Guys like Sakic, Iggy, and Heatley always rise to the occassion, and I see no reason to think that they'll dissapear in the big games this time around. While being the favorite on paper doesn't often translate into gold on the ice, in this case it does. I was critical of some of the selections to this team (*cough* Draper *cough* Doan) but I still think Canada has the best team on the ice.

Silver: Czech Republic
They're strong in goal with Dominik Hasek and Tomas Vokoun – either of whom would be an excellent starter in the tournament. They also have plenty of scoring, with Jagr and his New York Ranger linemates, as well as snipers like Hejduk and Elias, so they'll be a force to be reckoned with, especially if they go to a shootout in the medal round. This team will be right in the thick of the race for gold, but I think they'll come up just short against Team Canada.

Bronze: Sweden
This team is talented, but on paper doesn't seem as talented as some other squads. If Henrik Lundqvist can continue the stellar level of play he's established in the NHL, they'll be set in goal. On defense, they're skilled and experienced, and on offense they have snipers like Alfredsson, Naslund, Zetterberg and Sundin who will put points on the board. Peter Forsberg is out for at least two games (including a key one against Russia), and maybe longer, which could hurt their chances at a high seed going into the medal round. I think enough talent is in place that they can overcome his absence, and turn in a strong tournament performance.

4th: United States
They're going to have a good team in 2010, and a great one in 2014 if the youngsters coming out of the National program and into the pros develop the way they should. With that being said, they're not there in 2006, but they're better than a lot of people think. Many of the key players from the Silver Medal team of 2002 have retired, or dropped off since then. Of the ones who remain, they're pretty much all past their prime, but still have something in the tank. There are a few players I see stepping up , the two New Jersey Devils up front –Gomez and Gionta – could provide some scoring punch, and Tkachuk,
Modano, Guerin, and Weight will contribute as well. Brian Rolston and Chris Drury are good character players who will be key to this squad. I hate Chris Chelios, and think it's a travesty that he made the club ahead of Brian Leetch, but there's not a lot to dislike about the rest of their defense. The big questions are in goal – next to Slovakia, they have the most suspect goaltending of any of the top 8 teams. Can one of DiPietro, Esche, and Grahame step up quickly and establish themselves as a number 1? I think Ricky does it, and the US rides him all the way to the semi-finals.

5th: Slovakia
They could be a dark horse. They have all the ingredients of a team that could beat anyone on the right day, except for a stellar goaltender. Peter Budaj or Jan Lasak may be able to do it, but I'm not aware of any track record that leads me to believe they will. They have a talented, mobile, defense to go along with a skilled and feisty set of forwards. This Slovak team can hang with anyone, and I think they'll be right in the thick of things until the end of the tournament.

6th: Russia
Oh how the mighty have fallen. The once-fearsome Russians now field a squad that is capable of a Bronze at the very best. Sure they're hurt by injuries and players sitting out, but a true world-class program has the depth to overcome that. They do have lots of firepower, led by Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, The Red Bull, and 20-year old Evgeny Malkin, considered the best player outside the NHL, but I don't trust Nabokov and the defense to shut the door in a close game.

7th: Finland
Can Anterro Nittymakki carry the load in goal? We're about to find out. They have some nice talent up front, but their goaltending and defense is too thin for the Fins to be make it as far as the semi-finals. They'll be a tough opponent, especially with gritty forwards like Ville Niemenin and Jarkko Ruutu to contend with, but ultimately the talent isn't there this time to compete with the best teams in the world.

The Rest:

8th Place - Switzerland
There's nothing neutral about their talent in goal, with NHLers David Aebischer and Martin Gerber suiting up – both of them should keep the Swiss in every game. However, the talent isn't there on the rest of the ice to compete with the top 6 teams in the world. By the way, does someone know if the Paul DiPietro on their squad is the same one who used to play for the Montreal Canadiens?

9th Place - Germany
They have 7 NHLers on the squad, which shows that they're getting closer to being a contender (or at least a dark horse) in the sport. However, unless Olaf Kolzig turns into Vladislav Tretiak, that's not happening in 2006. I just hope they don't play the god-awful 5 man trap that they used last time.

10th Place - Kazakhstan
This former Soviet Republic has one NHLer on its squad, Toronto Maple Leaf Nikolai Antropov. After Belarus' performance in 2002 (where are they in the tournament, btw?), I'm not discounting any of the republics, but I am also not expecting them to beat anyone of significance.

11th Place - Latvia
The only thing I'm wondering is if Arturs Irbe is still playing somewhere, or did he come out of retirement specifically for this
tournament?

12th Place - Italy
What the heck? Did they qualify because they are the host, or what's going on here? This is a clear sign that either the tournament should be shrunk to 8-10 teams, or that if the IOC is set on expanding the field, that they at least follow the rules of the World Baseball Classic, and let players who are of Italian descent suit up for this club? That being said, they'll probably do better than the Italian women, who lost to Canada 16-0, but not by much.

*Sheamus Murphy's picks were chosen by Andy Grabia, based on a highly educated guess about Sheamus' predilections.

4 Comments:

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

So that's 3 predictions that the Czechs get the gold and 1 for Canada. Canadians are so modest.

 
At 12:33 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Or we like hedging our bets.

 
At 8:37 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Andy, you're clearly wrong with Sheamus' picks. Given his political inclinations, he'd clearly favor the socialist countries in the pool. Sweden for Gold he says!

 
At 8:11 AM, Blogger Alex said...

I think Canadians are terrified of having to go to a shootout this year - not because of the matchups, but because of the harrowing experiences of '94 and '98. If they do, they're done; watch an entire nation start acting like Red Sox fans the second that the overtime period ends. Good thing they're not in Whistler this year, the negative karma of an arena full of Canadians at that point would suffocate the entire team.

 

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