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The Olympics - Group C is for Cushy

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This week I've been previewing the Olympics and today the tournament arrives!  I'm excited for the start of the tournament and today seems to be the tournament's official "Day to Run Up the Score."  The most competitive game of the day will feature the Americans and the Swiss.  I expect the Swiss to come out with a rather passive "play for the tie" style which some might compare to Jacques Lemaire's New Jersey Devils but is probably more akin to Jacques Lemaire's expansion Minnesota Wild teams.  Same system, inferior players, fewer wins.  But not no wins.  They'll be waiting to capitalize on any mistakes the Americans make and counting on Jonas Hiller to make any lead stand up.  It's not the easiest opening test for the U.S and any regulation win should be considered acceptable.  Russia takes on Latvia in Group B in their one opportunity to put up a big goal differential and maintain a realistic hope for first overall.  A win today is good, but not true success.  They'll likely be looking for, at minimum, a five-goal victory.  Canada gets the same opportunity in Group A with a game against Norway.  Again, anything less than a five-goal margin should probably be considered a failure as the teams jockey for positions in the next round.  A loss by either club would be nothing less than devastating... and kind of hilarious.

Why do these teams need to score as much as possible?  I've looked at the tournament format earlier this week and discussed the fact that goal differential is the tiebreaker in the very likely event that teams end the Group stage with an equal number of points.  There's no small difference between being seeded first compared to second or third and the team with the best chance to come out on top in goal differential - and therefore the standings - is probably one of the two big names out of Group C, which I'll be previewing today.  While Group A and Group B only have one true minnow each, Group C is comprised of Sweden, Finland, Belarus and Germany: two minnows and two opportunities for the Swedes and Finns to really run up the score and distance themselves from the Canadians and Russians in terms of goal differential.  It's an oddity that the teams seeded third (Sweden) and fourth (Finland) end up with the best schedule for this tournament but one that I'm sure both teams will glady accept.  Now watch them screw it up by having their own game go to overtime.  After the jump we'll take a closer look at each of the teams in the tournament's cushiest (and that doesn't mean "like Africa" in case any of you biblical aficianodos were confused) group: Belarus, Germany, Finland and Sweden.

Team - Belarus
Predicted Finish - 11th after Group stage, eliminated in qualification round.

These guys are just ranked way too high by the IIHF.  They're a nation on the rise!  All the way up to 8th in the IIHF rankings and some appearances in the World Junior tournaments that don't have double-digit scorelines (although they'll be spending another year on the outside of the big tournament next Christmas).  They're improving but my brain, perhaps stuck in 1996, can't fathom that these guys are better than the Germans let alone the Slovaks.  The team is led by its young trio of Mikahil Grabovski and the infamous Kostitsyn brothers.  Or at least they would be if Grabovski and Andrei Kostitsyn weren't injured and unable to play in the tournament.  That leaves Sergei Kostitsyn as the go-to-guy for offence.  To put it into perspective, former NHLer Konstantin Koltsov might be their next best offensive player and he has a total of 39 points in his last 88 KHL games.  The Belarussians are carrying five forwards from Dynamo Minsk of the KHL and the guys that score the most among them are Andrei Mikhalev with 14 points in 53 games and recent trade acquisition, 39-year-old Oleg Antonenko with 11 points in 21 games.  I guess the five of them might have some chemistry but... these guys are in trouble.

The defense is anchored by recent Avalanche healthy scratch Ruslan Salei.  His biggest contribution could be some of that Avalanche mojo.  Just like the Avs, these guys are going to need unfathomably stupid and consistent luck in order to have success.  The defence is likely worse than Latvia's which, let's face it, means your team is in really big trouble.  Whereas the forwards seem to be taken mostly from Dynamo Minsk, the defence is largely made up of guys playing with Shakhter Soligorsk which sounds a lot like another team in the KHL but is actually a team in the Belarussian league that was created to be a farm team for Minsk.  So four of the defenders on this team can't make a KHL team that's currently 17-29-7.  Uh o-oh-Oh wait! apparently they all got replaced at the last second.  It turns out the four worst players are all "injured"?  I don't know how you get away with that but whatever.  The Belarussians must be better off for letting these guys go. 

The three other defenders originally named are second and third pairing guys on KHL teams and none of them looks like a difference-maker in the league.  As for the replacement players, one is a hack AHL defender, another is in-and-out of the aforementioned 17-29-7 KHL squad and the last two play on a different team in the Belarussian league.  So yeah.  Not much of an improvement. The goaltending tandem of Mezin and Koval have put up identical save percentages of .903 for Minsk so far this year but Mezin is the starter.  He's also the guy that beat Sweden eight years ago.  I imagine they start him for mojo's sake.  Latvia was basically an average KHL team joining the tournament.  These guys are a notch below that.


Team - Germany
Predicted Finish - 9th after Group stage, eliminated in qualification round.

Hey, do you remember when the German team was picked as the eighth team for the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.  They were a rising hockey nation at the time and even managed to beat the Czechs 7-1 (Hahahahahaha) to get into  the playoff round and justify their appearance in the tournament.  I was 13 years old at the time and I've kind of always thought of the Germans in that same way ever since.  After a while I could accept that the Swiss had passed them but I can't accept that they've fallen to 12th in the IIHF rankings.  And they're a lot closer to 13th place Denmark than they are to 11th place Norway.  The World Cup was over a decade ago and these guys, apparently, just aren't what they used to be.

Or maybe they're just run by idiots.  Originally both Jochen Hecht and Christoph Schubert were left off the German squad.  Before naming the team Krupp "reasoned" that "if a player over there [in North America] plays a marginal role and gets only a little ice time, it's absolutely possible that we will take a player [to the Olympics] who plays a bigger role in Germany."  My God.  Here's what Lindy Ruff had to say about the omission: "I had a conversation with Uwe and Uwe told me he didn't like the way Jochen played at the World Championships [last spring in Switzerland]," Ruff said. "Uwe may be using that as a motivational tool. Coaches do strange things."  Honestly, that conversation would have been hilarious to listen in on: "Hey Uwe, it's Lindy Ruff here, just wanted to let you know that you are absolutely a fucking moron.  Anyway, call me back if you want to talk more.  Hope you're well.  Lindy."  Whatever Ruff said, it was apparently convincing since Uwe ended up adding Hecht to the team in late January along with Kai Hospelt and Oiler alum Sven Butenschon.  They replaced the trio of Philip Gogulla, Alexander Barta and Jason Holland.  I was pretty sure that you could only add a replacement in case of injury and Gogulla just played for the Portland Pirates last night so I'm not sure how they made these changes but the fact is that they did and now Hopelt, Butenschon and Hecht are in Vancouver.  Christoph Schubert is not.  I guess you can afford to leave NHL players at home when you've got guys like Korbinian Holzer and Jakub Ficenec manning the blueline. 

Krupp's stupidity aside (you know who I want as my bench coach? The guy who didn't think Jochen Hecht should be on the team!  Yeah, that'll turn out just great!) the Germans have some pretty good players on this squad.  The defence will be anchored by Christian Ehrhoff who has been destroying the soft competition in Vancouver this year but has a history of taking on the toughs with reasonable success in San Jose.  In 2007-08 he lead Sharks' defenders in quality of competition and was in the middle of the pack in terms of zone-start ratio.  He finished that season as a plus player at EV and with the second best Corsi rating among Sharks' defenders (+7.82/60).  I imagine he'll probably be asked to take on that kind of role in this tournament (as opposed to killing the young and the infirm taking OZ draws with the Sedins OZ draws... now that's a nice gig).  Joining Ehrhoff on the blueline is Panthers' defender Dennis Seidenberg, the only other defender playing top four minutes in the NHL.  His results look like that of a Panthers defender.  His Corsi is bad (-11.21/60) and he's taken a lot more defensive than offensive zone faceoffs (230 OZ 322 DZ).  This is true of literally every Panthers defender.  No one is playing soft minutes on D in terms of zone-starts (the best faceoff ratio is 140 OZ and 168 DZ for 18-year-old rookie Dmitri Kulikov) and no one is moving the puck the right way consistently (the best Corsi is Bryan McCabe's -8.95/60; remember when that guy was on the Canadian Olympic team!  I bet the Canadians won that year!).  The Panthers suck and they're not substantially better with Seidenberg out there than they are with anybody else.  On the bright side, playing with Germany in this tournament won't feel too abnormal for Seidenberg.  He'll be playing better teams, always starting in his own zone and he'll stay there for the majority of his shifts. 

Next on the depth chart is Alexander Sulzer who has played 19 games for the Predators this season and will likely join former Oiler Sven Butenschon to make up the team's second pairing.  Beyond that you have four guys that haven't played anywhere but German leagues for the last five years.  Chris Schmidt is a Candian-born player with 10 NHL games to his name in 2001-02 with the Kings.  Korbinian Holzer was a fourth round pick of the Leafs in 2006 but still hasn't come over from Germany.  Michael Bakos and Jakub Ficenec are veterans of the German national squad.  These four guys are in way, way over their heads.

Like the defenders, the forwards actually have some nice things.  In addition to Hecht, who plays a very effective game on the Sabres shut-down line (also known as "a marginal role"), the Germans have Marco Sturm and Marcel Goc.  Goc has been given the "Kyle Brodziak" role this year in Nashville, taking on the easier competition but always starting in the defensive zone (119 OZ draws 288 DZ draws).  Like Seidenberg, he should feel right at home, you know, except for the easier competition part.  Sturm, meanwhile, was injured for most of 2008-09 but has come back strong in 2009-10 with the Bruins.  He'll probably be put on a line with Jochen Hecht so that Uwe Krupp can decide to bench them for the entire third period of every game due to "lack of effort" or "failure to shave sideburns."  That way he can rely more heavily on the rest of the team, guys who really want to be there and play out their careers in the German league.  That should end well.

Finally, the goaltending.  I would assume they're going to start Thomas Greiss who has a stellar .920 save percentage so far this season (want an argument that Nabokov's numbers are more impressive than they seem, there you go) and a Jeff-Delauriers-like career in every other season (AHL seasons of .907, .892 and .912).  I expect Thomas Greiss to use these Olympics to shove it up the backsides of his critics once and for all as to his ability to be an NHL starter.


Team - Finland
Predicted Finish - 4th after Group stage, loss in Bronze medal game.

The Finns are a legitimately good club but I expect them to lose to the Swedes in the opening round.  I acyually have them losing to the Swedes twice, once in the Group stage and then again in the semifinals.  If that should happen - especially with the 2006 loss to Sweden in the gold medal game top of mind - there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth both in Finland and here at the Copper and Blue.  Derek will not be happy.  Is it a good bet that the Swedes beat them twice?  I'd say it's the most likely outcome, but not by a wide margin.  Even if the Swedes are a 60% chance to win each game, they've only got a 36% chance at winning both games.  When we get the tournament down to the good teams, a bounce here or there can decide the outcome because there's just not enough separation on skill alone.

One guy that can help make the bounces happen is Miikka Kiprusoff who's having a tremendous bounce-back season after two years in the wilderness.  His EV save percentage is tied for fourth overall at .933 this season and he's been pretty consistently good on the PK over the last several years (.888 so far this season); Kiprusoff could well steal a game or two.  Unfortunately for the Finns, all of the good teams have fantastic goaltending and what's true of Kiprusoff (at least the part about the ability to steal games) is also true of Brodeur, Miller, Vokoun, Halak, Hiller, Nabokov, Lundqvist and Greiss (Backsides!).  If the tournament had some sort of rule where you had to start a different goalie for every game the Finns would have a huge advantage over the field, but goaltending is one position where really good depth really isn't important.

Unlike most of the other European teams, the Finns are only carrying seven defenders.  The top two guys are Joni Pitkanen and Kimmo Timonen.  With the arrival of Chris Pronger in Philadelphia Timonen has been relegated to a second pairing role but he's still playing huge minutes.  In 2008-09 he was the clear go-to-guy in Phily and performed admirably, earning a +9 at 5-on-5 while lining up against the best the opposition had to offer.  Pitkanen, meanwhile, has led the Hurricanes in EV TOI for the last two seasons.  This season he leads the entire NHL in EV TOI and still finds time to contribute on both special teams.  He's playing reasonably tough minutes (how can they be avoided when you play that much) but isn't being consistently run at the opposition's best.  It's good that those two are accustomed to big minutes because they're going to be asked to provide them here.  Pitkanen and Timonen are also two of the three defenders that are used a lot on the PK in the NHL.  Despite these two being the class of the Finnish defence, there's some chance that they end up on different pairings.  Both shoot left so it's not ideal to pair them together and pulling them apart would also serve to  balance out the defence which starts to get thin pretty quick.  The other player that can be relied on is Sami Salo who has played in a shut-down role for the Canucks this year and is the only other defender used for significant minutes on the PK.  He's a righty (the only one of the team's defenders who is) and knows what to expect when playing the best.  His regular partner, Willie Mitchell, doesn't have much in the way of offence so it might be refreshing for him to have a chance with one of Timonen or Pitkanen. 

Unfortunately, with Salo, the really solid players on the back end have all been covered. Toni Lydman has played a shut-down role in the past but his responsibilities have decreased in Buffalo this season after he was ineffective in a shut-down role a year ago.  He's done well in the more sheltered role but will be asked to step into more responsibility with this Finnish squad here.  And it might be much more.  Lasse Kukkonen is having a fine season with Avangard of the KHL, playing over 18 minutes per game and chipping in some offence to go with a +11 rating.  On the other hand, his last two years with the Flyers were very disappointing.  He played in a sheltered role and got outshot consistently so unless he's taken a big step in Russia, he's probably going to get exposed.  Sami Lepisto has been a bottom pairing guy in Phoenix this year with plenty of offensive zone starts.  It's a sheltered role, but at least he's outshooting (+7.38 per game) so it's at least possible that he doesn't drown.  And that brings us to Janne Niskala who has played in Sweden, Switzerland, the AHL and the NHL over the last four years.  In 2008-09 he put up 44 points in 80 games for Milwaukee of the AHL, so he's got some offence but he's pretty small and has only played six NHL games so far in his career.  Usually, if you have that kind of offence but don't make the NHL, there are some defensive kinks.  So that's what you get with Finland on D.  Like Russia, they have three big defenders but unlike Russia the drop-off to the next set is huge.  I'd take any one of those bottom five Russians as my #4 on this club.

At forward the Finns have a solid group.  Mikko Koivu will lead the charge on a "power-v-power" line that can take all comers, likely with Jere Lehtinen and Antti Miettinen who are sometimes used in that manner with Dallas and Minnesota respectively.  That would leave Olli Jokinen to play against the "second" group which on most of the good clubs (Sweden, Canada, Russia) is a lot better than Olli Jokinen.  The best help left likely comes in the form of Tuomo Ruutu, who takes second toughs for Carolina and leads the team in Corsi (+10.86/60) despite more DZ than OZ starts.  Valtteri Filppula could end up on the other flank to form a decent second line that will likely be second best on most nights but not to the point of being scary for Finnish supporters.  That should provide some shelter for the remaining combo of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu who will need to do a better job of taking advantage for Finland than they've done so far this year in Anaheim.  Selanne in particular has struggled with injury and ineffectiveness.  When the two are healthy they've played together quite a lot, yet Koivu is a +9 with a +2.07/60 Corsi while Selanne is a -5 with a -9.05 Corsi.  That doesn't say very nice things about Selanne.  He'll need to be better for Finland to have a chance.

After that you've get Immonen, Peltonen, Jarkko Ruutu and Niko Kapanen.  Not a quality "Olympic level" player to be found in that group which likely means the Finns will be playing a three-line game when they can.  If they can take top spot in Group C and get the extra day of rest it will go a long way in helping them get through to the medal round.  On talent, I have this team at sixth but I think their placement in Group C gives them a better chance than the Czechs or Americans at an extra day off and a shot in the semifinal.


Team - Sweden
Predicted Finish - 1st after Group stage, Silver medal.

The Swedes are good.  Better than Finland by a large enough margin that they should be able to take this group and the number one seed going into the playoff round.  Anything less should be considered a disappointment.  The team is filled with elite talent up front.  The Red Wings have had their problems this season but Henrik Zetterberg is not one of them.  He is once again the Wings leader among forwards in quality of competition and he is once again outshooting (Corsi of +17.01/60) and outscoring (5v5 +3) all comers. Last year those results were even better and part of that was due to lining up with Johan Franzen every game.  With Franzen taking the place of the injured (and less effective) Tomas Holmstrom those two will likely be reunited and form the nucleus of one of Sweden's top lines.  The second top line belongs to the Sedin twins who will be playing in the very familiar Vancouver setting with a very familiar role: piss-cutting.  The Sedins have "broken out" this season largely because of Alain Vigneault's genius bush-sitting where he protects them as though they're rookies.  And then they kill people.  The three most favourable zone starts among forwards on the Canucks belong to the Sedins and Alex Burrows and they're not facing top competition either.  The Olympics will see a large increase in the level of their opponents but they've showed in the past that they can handle that just fine.  The next Swedish pairing (their third top line) could be made up of Backstrom (you know, the NHL's 4th leading scorer) and Daniel Alfredsson, two more guys used to taking on the best in the world on a nightly basis and coming out ahead.  That leaves Sammy Pahlsson to anchor a fourth "checking" unit that will be responsible only to not get scored on.  It seems logical to play him alongside fellow tough-minutes stalwart Loui Eriksson (that might be an exaggeration, but he's been paired with Richards in Dallas and he's definitely in the top six Stars' forwards).  With those four pairs in place the Swedes are then free to sprinkle in Mattias Weinhandl (Sedins? he's the KHL's fourth leading scorer), Fredrik Modin (Pahlsson? they play together in Columbus), Patric Hornqvist (Backstrom? someone needs to take Hornqvist) and Peter Forsberg (Zetterberg? Forsberg has 20 points in 17 SEL games and the dude basically took two years off) where they fit best.  That is just a very deep group of forwards.  They stack up well against the Canadians and Russians, especially if they go with the "pairs" system and don't leave one line particularly exposed.

The defence is anchored by none other than Nicklas Lidstrom.  The six-time, six-time, six-time, six-time, six-time, six-time WCW cham... Norris trophy winner is dominating yet again this year.  With Detroit on the outside of the playoff picture there has been some talk of Lidstrom's decline but I just don't see it.  He's again the far and away leader in quality of competition on the Wings defence and leads the defence in both outshooting (+16.07/60) and outscoring (+16 at 5v5 or +0.90/60).  There are 13 defenders in the NHL outscoring at a better rate (only two are playing in the Olympics, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo) and there are only two outshooting at a better rate (Duncan Keith and Blackhawk Jordan Hendry who has played 22 games worth of sheltered minutes for the Blackhawks).  If this is a decline it's not very steep.

After Lidstrom there are seven more guys that all shoot left.  They took eight defenders to the games and they all have a left-handed shot.  Not the end of the world, but a bit odd.  There's also a significant drop-off in play, but only because Lidstrom is so good. Douglas Murray is playing the tough minutes in San Jose with great success, as is Matthias Ohlund in Tampa Bay.  Those two could be put together to form a great shut-down pairing behind Lidstrom and teammate Niklas KronwallTobias Enstrom has been getting second pairing duty so far this season in Atlanta and has done well.  He provides a good amount of offence and would form a nice third pairing with new teammate Johnny Oduya.  That leaves Buffalo second-pair man Henrik Tallinder and Swedish veteran Magnus Johansson for the fourth pairing which is still decent but shouldn't see too much ice-time.  Johansson hasn't made it in the NHL but so far this year has 44 points in 45 games in the SEL and last year had 33 points in 53 KHL games.  He's on the smaller side, but a pairing with Tallinder should hopefully help to overcome some of his deficiencies.  If these two struggle against some of the better teams in the tournament, the Swedes could always get down to three pairs and perhaps move Tallinder up if someone else is having trouble.  The defence is not as strong as Canada's but compares well to everyone else and should be able to hang with any group of forwards in the tournament. 

The team is backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist, and the Swedes really have no second option.  If there was one guy the Swedes were hoping would stay healthy, it's him.   While the Finns lack depth everywhere but in goal, the Swedes only depth issue is between the pipes.  Somehow, it seems that the Swedes have the better chance.  People talk about how much goaltending matters in this tournament but honestly, on skill alone, all the top guys are pretty even.  The battle for goaltending supremacy is a hotness contest.

The Swedes have a formidable roster and I would put their chances on par with those of Canada and Russia.  They might even have better odds than either of those two since it's likely the Swedes will only need to play one of them in the final so long as they take care of business by crushing the Germans and Belarussians while merely defeating the Finns.  The Canadians and Russians will instead likely need to play one another in the semis with the winner getting the Swedes in the final.  I'd take either the Canadians or Russians in a one-game playoff with Sweden but if you asked me to pick one team to make the gold medal game it would be the Swedes.  And being in the game is the only way to win it.