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The Olympics - Group B is for Brutal

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Earlier this week I looked at the tournament format for these Olympics and yesterday commented on the teams in Group A.  Today, I'll take a look at Group B which, in my opinion, is the toughest road to the gold medal.  Why? Because each team needs to accumulate as many standings points and as strong a goal differential as possible against the three other teams in their group to determine their overall seeding for the playoffs.  With Russia, the Czechs and Slovakia grouped together there's a better chance that the team winning the pool sees a game go to overtime or that the three teams split their games against one another.  Even if one team does manage to go 3-0 (all in regulation) there's a very good chance they won't be able to rack up the goal differential like the top teams in Groups A and C.  After the jump we'll take a closer look at each of the teams in this "Group of Death" (thanks soccer!): Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia.

Team - Latvia
Predicted Finish - 12th after Group stage, eliminated in qualification round.

Latvia is, in truth, probably not bringing the worst roster to the Olympics in the tournament.  They'd be in much better shape if they swtiched groups with, say, Germany.  But they're not.  Instead they're in a group with three legitimate teams that all need to not only win but win and ratchet up the score.  With 14 players on the same club team in the KHL (Riga Dinamo) they'll likely be a lot more cohesive than the other teams to start the tournament.  It's unfortunate for them that even if they do manage an upset in the first game, one in the fourth game is a lot more important.  Even with an upset in the Group stage they would likely still be finishing in the bottom 8 and would need to play another "big" country to advance to the quarterfinals.  Last year's world championships showed should give them some hope.  They picked up a 3-2 shoot-out victory over Sweden in the round robin and a 2-1 shoot-out victory over Switzerland, so they're no push-overs.  But... that was Switzerland minus Jonas Hiller and Sweden minus their Red Wings contingent.  This tournament promises to be a lot more difficult.

Where's Arturs Irbe when you need him?  Edgars Maskalkis, the starter for Riga, is also the likely starter for Latvia in these Olympics.  His .910 save percentage in the KHL bests that of his crease-mate Martin Prusek's (Hey! Senators fans!) .903 but is only 17th in the league overall behind former Oiler draft pick Alex Fomitchev, former Canadian World Junior goalie Jeff Glass and former U.S. Olympian Robert Esche.  He's not a bad goaltender but he's one of the few starting goalies in this tournament that isn't an elite goalie in the NHL.

On defence the Latvians bring a pair of NHLers in Karlis Skrastins and Oskars Bartulis.  Skrastins in particular is a help as he's been a second pairing guy for the Dallas Stars this year and leads their defence in ice-time on the PK with good results.  I expect him to play huge minutes for the Latvians in defensive situations and even though he'll be overmatched he won't be OVERMATCHED like the rest of his teammates. 

The Latvians chose to go with 8 defenders on the club and four of the rest come from Riga and yet none of them are named Sandis Ozolinsh who actually plays for Riga and leads the defence in both points and ice-time per game.  It seems an odd choice to leave the veteran at home, especially for a team as offensively challenged as Latvia.  Especially since he's familiar with the North American game and the smaller ice surface.  Especially because eh'e the face of Latvian hockey!  Where is the Wizard of Oz?!  At any rate, they've replaced him with a bunch of other guys who also play for Riga.

Martins Karsums is the only forward with any recent NHL experience and has managed a couple of near-PPG seasons with the Providence Bruins before being shipped off to the Tampa Bay organization where his performance crashed.  He recently returned to the KHL (Riga... Shocking!) though I'm unsure if he did it to prepare for the Olympics or because he's soured on his chances of making it in North America.  Beyond Karsums - and if you're talking about your team's offensive threats for the Olympics and use the phrase "beyond Karsums" you're in trouble - the team's next best weapons are likely Aleksandrs Nizivijs (34 points in 47 games) and Janis Sprukts (31 points in 50 games) who are the top two Latvian scorers on Riga (the team's leading scorer is Marcel Hossa who's in the Olympics, but not playing for Latvia).  It will surely be a tough slog for this group and I certainly don't have any reservations about choosing them to finish at the bottom of the totem pole.  It's basically the 13th best club in the KHL without their leading scorer coming to play in the Olympics.  That, my friends, is B-R-U-T-A-L.


Team - Czech Republic
Predicted Finish - 7th after Group stage, eliminated in quarterfinals.

The Edmonton Oilers are a much better team with Ales Hemsky than they are without him.  That's true of the Czechs too and I'm sure Michal Handzus will get a rougher greeting from the Czechs than he did from the Oilers when the Czechs and Slovaks meet later this week.  And while the Czechs will miss Hemsky, the replacement isn't J.F. Jacques either.  In addition to a very solid NHL contingent the Czechs have brought some KHL men with them to Vancouver.  Josef Vasicek is currently 14th in KHL scoring with 44 points in 53 games and his last stint in the NHL with the New York Islanders (2007-08) saw him lead the team in Corsi (+8.8/60) despite taking on decent opposition and starting a lot in the defensive zone.  He should probably anchor a defensive line on this club, perhaps with Tomas Plekanec, who has had a pretty rough road this year in Montreal.  Milan Michalek, Martin Erat and Martin Havlat have all been used in a power-v-power set with their NHL teams at times over the last two years and could be counted on to do more of the same in this tournament.

If the Czechs can successfully create two lines that can check a bit they'll be able to use Jaromir Jagr in a pure scoring role where he's likely good enough to still have some substantial success.  It will be a lot of fun to see him play and  I hope he looks fantastic so that any rumours of him signing with the Oilers can be met with joy instead of dread.  Joining him in offensive situations might be Patrik Elias and Thomas Fleichmann who have generally been sheltered a little bit at times this season (but not like you'd shelter a rookie, they can certainly play) and possess definite offensive skills.  The forward group sounds good but they could definitely use one more power-v-power stalwart in Hemsky, especially against the teams really deep at forward like Canada and Russia.

The defense is solid but not dynamic.  Zbynek Michalek and Jan Hejda should form an excellent top defensive group.  Both players have been used in that role over the last few seasons and both have been playing on poor (or worse) teams for most of that time (Michalek's Coyotes are quality this year) which has given them ample opportunity to play in the most difficult situations against some of the best players in the world.  The fact that both guys are in the Western Conference adds to their credentials as legit shut-down guys in this tournament.  Roman Polak is being faced with the same situation this year in St. Louis.  His Corsi is a seemingly unimpressive -2.2/60  but when you take into consideration the fact that he's doing it against top opposition and with the second worst ratio of offensive to defensive zone draws in the entire NHL for a defender (197 OZ draws and 358 DZ draws; the only player with a worse ratio is Taylor Chorney... Pat Quinn is so, so, so dumb) then suddenly that number looks pretty darn good.  This dude is moving the puck the right way more often than not against the league's best; put him with Tomas Kaberle and all of a sudden the team has two pairs that can match up well against anybody in any situation.  The D is filled out by Pavel Kubina, Marek Zidlicky and Filip Kuba who will surely be used when the time is right (i.e. with the puck moving the right way adn on the power play) and they have enough skill that they can take advantage.  These guys might only see 15 or some minutes per game and there's really no reason for it to be any more.  Backing them up is Tomas Vokoun who has been an elite starter in the NHL since the lockout.  Among goalies with at least 100 games played in that time the guy with the best save percentage is Tomas Vokoun (.923).  Save percentage may not be everything, but it is something, and that's a mighty fine number.  These guys probably aren't going to give up a lot of goals. 

I have this club finishing in 7th after the Group stage and playing Canada in the quarterfinals.  I think Canada's team is better but not so much better that it's anywhere close to a sure thing.  Yesterday I picked Canada to win the gold medal but, honestly, they're a favourite with a 20% chance of winning the tournament.  There are a lot of good teams in Vancouver.


Team - Slovakia
Predicted Finish - 6th after Group stage, eliminated in quarterfinals.

They finally have a goalie.  Jaroslav Halak has done enough to show me that he's the real deal.  Halak has been very good for the last couple of years in the NHL and he's been very good for a couple of years in the AHL before that.  What was once a true weakness on this squad is now a strength.  Unfortunately, it's a few years too late. Players like Miroslav Satan, Jozef Stumpel and Ziggy Palffy are still holding on to roster spots after what seems like decades on the national team.  This isn't the same club that lost in the World Championships last Spring (there was no Hossa and no Chara) but there's also a reason that they're now ranked 9th in the world behind Switzerland and Belarus: they just don't have the depth of the best teams in the world and are more prone to upsets from the minnows.

On defence the team is relying on Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky.  Andrei Meszaros is a strong second pairing option for the Tampa Bay Lightning but in this tournament he could easily get exposed.  Milan Jurcina is a bottom pairing man with the Blue Jackets and Andrej Sekera has trouble staying in the line-up in Buffalo.  When he does get in, he's the most sheltered defender they have.  The two other names - Richard Lintnar and Martin Strbak - are familiar to long-time NHL fans as guys that couldn't keep a job in the league.  They have two legit players on the back-end which, in this tournament, just isn't going to be enough.  The bottom end of the defence could get exposed in the NHL and the top teams in this tournament are much better than what we see in the NHL.

The situation with the forwards is really quite similar.  Marian Gaborik will be relied upon to carry the team offensively, Marian Hossa should likely be separated from him to anchor a "Shawn-Horcoff-line" and Michal Handzus will be getting all the dirty assignments in the defensive zone against the "lesser" matchups, just like he does in L.A.  The problem, of course is a) the "lesser" matchups in this tournament are really good and b) the help on each of these three imaginary lines is less than stellar.  Branko Radivojevic played some very tough minutes for the Wild in 2007-08 (and then was run out of the league for only scoring 17 points and finishing -14... but he was top three in terms of qualcomp, had 156 OZ draws v. 283 DZ draws and finished with a positive Corsi... hmmm, I wonder if I know of a team that could use a guy like that...).  He is a suitable option to join Handzus on the checking unit.  Gaborik's group can be filled out by old (very OLD!) buddies Ziggy Palffy and Pavol Demitra.  Marian Hossa, meanwhile, can perhaps carry his brother Marcel who's having a fine season in the KHL and... Tomas Kopecky(?) in the "Shawn Horcoff power-v-notsomuchpower role.  These guys just need more real players.

But I picked them to finish sixth and get a win over one of the Czechs or Russians.  It's just one of those "feeling" things.  For most of these players, it's their last chance and they know it.  The emergence of Jaroslav Halak is almost tragic.  Finally this group of great players has a goalie they can count on and now they're too old to take advantage.


Team - Russia
Predicted Finish - 3rd after Group stage, Bronze medal.

This team is the class of the group and, in my opinion, neck-and-neck with Canada for best club on paper.  So why pick them for bronze?  I don't think the Russians will generate the kind of goal differential against the Czechs and Slovaks that they'll need to overcome the Swedes/Finns who are going to have two also-rans to beat up on in Group C (Germany and Belarus).  The Russians are going to be need to be absolutely merciless in their opener with Latvia to have a chance (merciless with Latvia... never...).  And if the Swedes or Finns do finish on top after the Group stage, as I expect, it means that Canada and Russia are on a collision course to meet in the semi-finals if they finish 2nd and 3rd.  I've picked Canada to win that one which leaves Russia in the bronze medal game, but the shoe could end up on the other foot.

The Russian team is overflowing with talented forwards.  Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals and points.  Evgeni Malkin won the scoring race last season.  Ilya Kovalchuk has scored more goals since the lockout than anyone except for Ovechkin.  Three more players are averaging a point-per-game or more in the KHL (Morozov, Radulov, Zinoviev).  Ovechkin's teammate, Alex Semin, is a three-time thirty goal scorer who's nearing a point-per game average for his career.  Then there's Pavel Datsyuk, the two-time defending Selke trophy winner and finalist for the Hart trophy last season.  Does your team have three pairs that can play shut-down defence?  No?  You're screwed.  The elite forward talent is three lines deep.

In terms of line composition I expect Pavel Datsyuk to lead an outscoring power-v-power line, taking Backstom's place between Ovechkin and Semin.  Frightening line.  All three are used to taking on the best players in the world and coming out on top and that's not likely to change in the next two weeks.  Ilya Kovalchuk, who always seems at his best playing for the national team, will take an offensive role on the club, perhaps with Malkin as the center and either Alex Radulov or old Thrashers' linemate Maxim Afinogenov.  If that's the offensive zone "soft(ish)" minutes line that is, once again,  frightening.  The Ak-Bars Kazan trio of Morozov-Zaripov-Zinoviev will likely be re-united for these Olympics (the three played together for a few years before Zinoviev moved on to a new team).  I don't know exactly what kind of minutes to expect from them but it probably won't be the toughest available as opposing coaches will surely be keying on the five (or six) guys mentioned above.  The "what's left" fourth line of Fedorov-Kozlov-Radulov/Afinogenov is still a very good group and they won't be seeing a tonne of ice unless one of the above lines is struggling.

The defence has been branded a weakness by comparison to the amazing offence but it's also strong.  Sergei Gonchar is a phenomenal all-around defender.  He was considered an offense-only guy when he came over but after his performance with the Penguins in the playoffs last Spring I think most fans know he's now a guy you can trust in all situations.  Another guy used to the most difficult minutes and plenty of PK is Anton Volchenkov.  His Corsi number is in the black despite the best opposition and a somewhat difficult zone-start ratio, which is likely what he'll be seeing in these Olympics, except with consistently amazing forwards (Jonathan Cheechoo on waivers!).  Andrei Markov is a difference-maker for the Canadiens and is the last of the big three defenders for the Russian squad.  Three legitimate #1 defenders in the NHL.  The Russian defense goes down a notch from here but if this your "weakness" you've clearly got a very good team.

With eight defenders it's possible that the Russians go with four four-man units, in which case two of these remaining players will be seeing limited ice-time along with (what I assume would be) Fedorov's group of forwards.  For that job I nominate Dmitri Kalinin (who sucked for Buffalo and likely sucks in Russia) and Konstantin Korneyev (who skipped the part where he sucks for Buffalo).  Actually, I just wanted to make that joke.  Korneyev looks pretty good, so we'll leave Kalinin with Edmonton Oilers defender Denis Grebeshkov instead.  Given Grebeshkov's penchant for... unusual... decisions, it might be wise to have Fedorov there to play third defenceman in case a mess needs cleaning up.   Next up is Blue Jackets defender Fedor Tyutin, a second pairing man for the Blue Jackets who will likely be put on the third pairing here in an effort to shield him from the Crosbies and Ovechkins Zetterbergs of the world.  Should they go with the five man units I think they should put Tyutin with Ilya Nikulin and the Malkin-Kovalchuk line to handle the offensive zone draws.  Nikulin plays in the KHL much to the chagrin of Don Waddell's Atlanta Thrashers.  Nikulin is second in the KHL in TOI per game and has 32 points in 47 games so he's got some pop in his bat.  The -3 on an Ak Bars team that's +30 on the season implies that he's either terrible defensively (not likely given the other numbers) or that he's taking the tough minutes on his club team.  My bet is that he doesn't look at all out of place on the biggest stage of them all.  And that leaves Konstantin Korneyev to move up and play with the big three.  Korneyev leads CSKA Moscow in ice-time (over 23:00 per game) and +/- which is generally a very good combination.  He can also score some with 28 points in his 53 KHL games.  None of these bottom five are as good as the top three but they're a lot better than what they're being given credit for as far as I'm concerned.

The Russian goalies are all good.  Nabokov, Bryzgalov and Varlamov have all put up good numbers but my bet is that we see Nabokov in goal and, if he falters, that Bryzgalov is the next choice.  Varlamov is coming off an injury and with the two other goalies there's really no need to rely on the young guy with a wonky groin.  The Russians are a fantastic club and may be the best team in the tournament.  I have the Russians and Canadians pretty far out in front but I think the tournament's structure sees them meet in the semis.  If it happens, it could be the most epic semi-final in quite sometime.