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The Olympics - Group A is for Awesome

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As I discussed yesterday the Olympic tournament begins with the twelve teams split into three groups of four teams each.  Each team plays each team in their group once and needs to gain as many points as possible and have as impressive a goal differential as possible in order to achieve a high seed for the playoff round.  If two teams go 3-0 in the round robin the #1 seed is determined by goal differential - the tournament is not minnow friendly.  After the jump I'll take a closer look at all of the teams in Group A: Norway, Switzerland, the United States and Canada.

Team - Norway
Predicted Finish - 10th after Group stage, eliminated in qualification round.

The Norwegians are the lowlight that I'll be cheering for in this tournament, mainly because of former Oiler Patrick Thoresen.  Magni's superhuman strength and reflexes have been on display so far this season in the KHL where he's seventh in league scoring (21-31-52 in 53 GP) and leads the whole damn league in +/- with a +39. (Memo to the Oilers: what the hell is wrong with you.  You guys have a tonne of small forwards none of whom can actually play and yet this guy ends up on waivers.  Screw you guys.)  Right now Thoresen has scored more points in the KHL than guys like Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Morozov and Jiri Hudler.  The electric Norseman is awesome and that's that.

The problem for Norway is that the rest of the team is just a tiny bit less awesome.  With defender Ole-Kristian Tollefsen clearing waivers earlier this week the Norwegians now have exactly zero players currently in the NHL, Tollefsen as the lone AHL representative and Thoresen is the only one playing in the KHL.  The rest of their team is made up of players in the Swedish elite league, the German league and the Norwegian league.  So basically, uh oh.

But there are some players to watch.  One such player is undrafted 22-year-old forward Mats Zuccarello-Aasen who has now put up two very impressive seasons in the SEL.  At 21 he put up 40 points in 35 games and so far this season he has 51 in 48 games to go along with 56 penalty minutes which implies he's not afraid to mix things up.  The point total is currently third in the SEL The problem?  He's listed at 5'7'' and just under 160 pounds. But if he shows well in this tournament, he could well be earning himself a look from some NHL clubs this summer.  A few other forwards of interest are Marius Holtet, a second round draft bust of the Dallas Stars now playing in Sweden, the older Per-Age Skroder who led the SEL in scoring last season and has been a consistent offensive threat in Sweden the last several years.  And Tore Vikingstad.  His last name starts with Viking. 

On defence the team will be lead by the aforementioned Tollefsen who will be able to explain to his teammates just how good the players they'll be up against are.  I'm not sure how much helpful advice he'll have on stopping them.  Other defenders of note are 2008 Avalanche sixth round draft pick Jonas Holos who's playing in the SEL right now and 39-year-old defender Tommy Jakobsen who played for Norway the last time they played in the Olympics... in 1994. 

Even if these Norwegians tear the house down, there's still another problem.  The goalies are awful.  Two of their goalies, including their likely starter, Pal Grotnes play in the Norwegian league and are a clear step down from the tenders being iced by every other team in the group and quite possibly every other team in the tournament.   Given the format of the tournament, they're going to be getting everyone's "A" game as well.  On the other hand, the Norwegians held their own at the last World Championships in 2009 with a very similar club.  They ended up losing 5-0 to Finland, 5-2 to the Czechs, 5-1 to Canada and 3-2 to Slovakia.  They even picked up a 3-2 OT win against Belarus.  So there's hope.  They just need to have their best game be their fourth.


Team - Switzerland
Predicted Finish - 8th after Group stage, eliminated in quarterfinals.

The Swiss have a legitimate goalie and thus have a legitimate chance.  Jonas Hiller is good.  Really good.  If he has three good games in a row, they could win a medal.  That good.  His EV save percentage this year is tied for 9th in the NHL (min. 20 starts) at .931.  Last season he was alone in 4th with .934.  In 23 of his 43 starts this season he's allowed two or fewer goals.  In 17 of those 23 games he made thirty saves or more.  It was just last week that he allowed a total of 4 goals over a 4 game stretch, saving 141 of the 145 shots he faced.  If he gives a repeat performance in the last four games of this tournament there's some chance this team wins the gold medal.

In addition to the goalie, the Swiss have a few legit players on defence.  Mark Streit and Yannick Weber have played roles on NHL teams in the past and Luca Sbisa, who's been playing with the WHL's Lethbridge Hurricanes for the last several months, has NHL experience.  None of these guys would ever be used in an NHL game to shut down the opponents top forwards but at least they have some idea of what they're getting into.  But they're young.  Both Sbisa and Roman Josi - a second round pick of the Nashville Predators - played in the World Junior Championships over Christmas (NHL experience!) and even Weber is only 21 years old.  In addition to those three, the Swiss are carrying Rafael Diaz who just turned 24. 

Goran Bezina, one of the veterans of the group, was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in 1999 and even played in 3 NHL games.  Severin Blindenbacher was also drafted by the Coyotes (in 2001) but didn't get the same cup of coffee.  He's the only player on the team playing in the SEL but that comes after nine consecutive years in Switzerland and several appearances with the national team.  Those two, Mathias Seger and NHLer Mark Streit will be counted on to provide leadership to a pretty young group on the back end.

Up front the Swiss don't have a lot of options.  All of the forwards play in the Swiss league with the exception of Andreas Ambuhl who's having a decidedly unimpressive season in the AHL.  They're going to be counting on the ever-nebulous "chemistry" to help them through.  Their biggest scorer may well be Hnat Domenichelli who once played internationally for Canada in the World Junior Championships in 1996 and in the Spengler Cup tournament in 2006.  And now, following in the footsteps of the awesome Paul DiPietro (a hearty Boo! to the Swiss for leaving him off the roster, even if he is injured and/or retired) he's going to play for Switzerland in the Olympics.

The Swiss have a real chance to make some noise in this tournament and have actually passed Slovakia in the official IIHF rankings and sit in 7th spot overall.  They'll need the goalie to stand on his head to win some games, but they have a goalie who can do just that.


Team - United States
Predicted Finish - 5th after Group stage, eliminated in quarterfinals.

The Americans have a lot of really good young players on this squad.  In the past the US has gone with the old "World Cup of Hockey" crew but there is now not one player left from that team on this year's version of the team.  Up front the Americans are loaded.  Almost all of the players are accustomed to playing good players, finishing somewhere in the top six on their team in quality of competition.  The Americans didn't take anyone who's eating up the soft minutes which is good because against the good teams in this tournament waiting for soft minutes would result in starvation. 

There are also several players on the team that are accustomed to taking more defensive than offensive zone faceoffs.  Chris Drury leads the pack with 195 OZ starts compared to 291 DZ starts (the anti-Drury is Patrick Kane who takes on tough competition but gets a hugely favourable zone-start ratio with the Blackhawks: 289 OZ starts and 132 DZ starts).  In addition to Drury, Ryan Callahan, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler and David Backes have taken more defensive zone than offensive zone faceoffs.  The good news is that despite those more difficult circumstances, the last three players on that list have all been able to post positive Corsi numbers suggesting that they are adept at getting the puck moving in the right direction.  I'm not sure if the Americans have Pavelski, Kesler and Backes slated to do the heavy lifting but that's certainly who I would be counting on to take the most difficult circumstances.  Overall, there are a lot of forwards that drive possession on this club.  Only Ryan Malone, Paul Stastny, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury have put up a negative Corsi number so far this year and some of those in pretty challenging circumstances.  The player of biggest concern here is Dustin Brown.  He has a positive zone-start number but negative Corsi number on a team that is otherwise very good at driving possession.  His ability to draw penalties should keep in the lineup but is should probably be in a more sheltered role.  He is probably not well-suited to a checking line. Drury and Callahan seem like a good fit for a defensive fourth line on this club (a lot of defensive zone starts when the checking group isn't available).  With those two lines ready to go, you could use a group featuring Patrick Kane for offensive zone starts and some of the tougher minutes.

In goal the Americans are solid with Ryan Miller.  There isn't much to choose between the goaltending in this tournament.  I emphasized how good Hiller has been when I profiled the Swiss because they desperately need him to be good just to compete.  But there's every chance that Ryan Miller shuts down the opposition as well.  All of the top countries have a goalie who is capable of a hot streak for the ages and they all have a goalie that has provided good goaltending in the NHL over at least the last two seasons.  As someone that's followed the Colorado Avalanche it seems ludicrous to me that Jonathan Quick is on this team instead of Craig Anderson but since neither of those players would have actually played in any games (assuming Miller isn't injured and they go with the starter every game; I think Anderson is at least the second best American goalie) it likely won't make much difference.

It's on defence where the Americans may run into some problems.  Ryan Whitney is a second pairing defender on the Ducks.  He has a negative Corsi despite easy starting positions and the second best comp.  Jack Johnson has been taking third pairing minutes for most of the season in L.A. when all the D are healthy with a lot more offensive than defensive zone draws and a negative Corsi number.  Erik Johnson has been a second or third pairing guy in St. Louis in terms of Qual Comp.  The only guys accustomed to carrying the mail are Tim Gleason (a late addition, this team is much better with him than they were with Komisarek), Ryan Suter, Brian Rafalski and Brooks Orpik.  Among those four only Gleason and Suter get the tough starts for their club teams.  It seems like the obvious shut-down pair to have playing every game except that both guys shoot left; the only righties on the team are E. Johnson and Rafalski.  If they don't want to go with the two lefties, then the shut-down pair should likely be Rafalski with one of Gleason and Suter.  The second pair will be the left-over between Gleason and Suter, likely with Brooks Orpik which leaves a third pairing that should probably be sheltered.  With all seven guys dressing every game they can probably just rotate these last three through the bottom pair.  On the PK, only Gleason, Whitney and Orpik average at least 2:00 of ice per game and Whitney isn't one of the Ducks' top two options.  Gleason and Orpik will be leaned on hard in that role but it could end up being a pretty big weakness for the U.S.

The Americans have a good young club but, in my opinion, have some weaknesses on defense that are likely to be exposed in a tournament that involves the best players in the world.  It's absolutely essential to get through the Group stage with at least two wins so that they can avoid playing (probably) Canada, Russia or Sweden until the semifinals.  Of course, any of those three big nations could throw a wrench in the plans by losing a game in the round robin.


Team - Canada
Predicted Finish - 2nd after Group stage, Gold medalist.

The Swedes and Finns have a big advantage in the Group stage of the tournament because their pool has two teams without legitimate NHL goaltenders.  As such, so long as they don't take one another to overtime, one of those two teams will probably have the best goal differential and leave the Canadians finishing in second place even if they manage to collect three wins over the Norwegians, the Swiss and the Americans. 

I don't want to talk too much about the goaltenders.  Both Luongo and Brodeur are fine choices and I wouldn't mind to see both play at times.  But we must never ever see Marc-Andre Fleury take the ice.  If I see him sitting on the bench as a backup I will not be pleased.  He is number three with a bullet and unless the other two guys are somehow incapacitated he should never, never, never see the ice.

The Canadian team is not likeable but should be effective.  Cheering for Corey Perry will be a pretty new thing for me if it ends up happening.  If there's some way the team could get rid of that guy and add Ryan Smyth, I'd be one very happy guy (And no Derek, I won't get over it.  I'm consciously choosing not to). Maybe they'll boot Perry if Getlaf can't go.  Unlikely.

Up front, the team went with guys who are familiar with one another and the top line of Heatley-Thornton-Marleau is pretty much set in stone, which is fine by me.  They take on the toughs with a pretty even distribution of zone starts and they kill them.  Sounds good!  The next few lines might be tough.  There are a tonne of offensive players on this club.  They all take on the toughs (ranked somewhere in the top 6 forwards in all three QC measures) but the majority are used in offensive situations.  The only guys on the club  with a negative zone-start ratio are Richards, Getzlaf, Perry and Bergeron.  Bergeron's results are fantastic, as are Richards'.  If Getzlaf ends up out injured I think Perry could actually be a good fit on that line which would be charged with the yeoman's work of getting the puck moving back the right way.  With that job out of the way you can game plan around getting Crosby into good scoring situations, probably with Rick Nash on his flank.  It's not often that those two aren't needed at all for defensive zone work and can be used together in offensive situations.  The forward position is likely the weakest for the Canadian side, and yet, it's still incredibly strong.  I'd prefer if if they had a few more guys that are accustomed to taking on the defensive situations (I'd especially like it if some of them were from the superior Western Conference; Ryan Getzlaf is basically the ideal candidate in that respect, hopefully the dude can play) and it would be nice for Canada to have more than one guy in the top 10 in terms of pts/60 at EV this season (Crosby; the Russians have 3, the Swedes have 3, the Slovaks have Gaborik, Ales Hemsky (I almost couldn't believe it) is injured and Mike Knuble didn't make the team; his appearance on the list is another tick in favour of the Russians) but the guys they have are good and it won't be easily outclassed.

On the back end the Canadians have four righties and three lefties and a couple of pairings that are accustomed to one another.  Keith and Seabrook get the tough minutes in Chicago and will likely form one of the pairings on this club.  The temptation to use Pronger and Niedermayer together will be pretty strong and I wouldn't mind them being used at all.  Both guys face the toughest competition the other team has to offer night in and night out and they're used to playing with one another.  I wouldn't count on them for an inordinate amount of DZ draws, but they should be able to hold their own.  Shea Weber gets the tough minutes in Nashville with Ryan Suter and Drew Doughty has been on the top pair in L.A. though he does not get the steady diet of own-zone draws thrown at some of the other top defenders on the team. Those two would look very good together on a pairing.  Which leaves Dan Boyle.  He's been getting second toughs in San Jose this year but he has phenomenal even-strength scoring rate.  I would float him around on each of the pairings, especially for Seabrook when that pair starts in the offensive zone and use him extensively on the PP.  Seabrook, Keith, Pronger and Niedermayer are all averaging over three minutes per game on the PK this year and since they're likely to be pairings at EV, it makes very good sense to use them here.  If one of them (Pronger!!!) is in the box, I'd like to see Dan Boyle take his place.  Boyle is a mainstay on the Sharks very good PK.  In fact, I wouldn't be at all heartbroken to see Boyle take the place of Niedermayer and get a regular shift on the PK, both to limit Niedermayer's total minutes and because Niedermayer has the worst PK results of those five guys in terms of goal differential.  The defense is just incredibly solid and is the big reason that I think this team is going to win the tournament.