Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Winter Olympic hockey power rankings: Sweden is the best country on Earth

Every Friday we'll be bringing you power rankings for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Which team looks best right now? Let's find out.

We don't yet know the rosters for the 12 men's ice hockey teams that will compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics, but we have a pretty good idea. Looking at each nation's top players, and their performances in the NHL, KHL and other European leagues so far, we can get a pretty solid idea of which teams are trending down, and which ones are trending up.

Each week from now until the Sochi Games begin in February, we'll rank the teams as they prepare for the Olympics. For this first edition, we've only ranked the eight teams with legitimate medal hopes. Sorry about that, Slovenia.

Nation Trend Notes
Sweden_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png After a brutal start, Henrik Lundqvist has found his form, which is excellent news for a Swedish team that boasts an extraordinary defense core of Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Nicklas Kronwall, Jonas Brodin, and Niklas Hjalrmarsson. Sweden's forwards are also in top form, with Alexander Steen leading the NHL in goals, and their older veterans in Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedins, and Daniel Alfredsson off to solid starts. The only real underperformers for Sweden so far are Mikael Backlund and Patrick Berglund.
Canada_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png A major injury to Steven Stamkos, no matter how good he is, probably isn't enough to take Canada out of the top spot. However Matt Duchene also falling victim to the injury bug, and a lot of the top performing Canadians in the NHL being guys who are on the bubble to make the team, is enough to knock them down a peg. The play of Eric Staal and Claude Giroux has been a big time worry, but at least Carey Price seems to have solved the goaltending question. The biggest question with Canada is always whether the people in charge will overthink easy decisions, and with the buzz that Jay Bouwmeester is more likely to make the team than P.K. Subban, that just may happen.
Usa_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png Every international tournament the USA is a deeper team, yet only Patrick Kane and Joe Pavelski are at or above a point per game pace. Team USA boasts a very young, talented forward group, but the weakness remains down the middle, where they're strong, but not elite. On defense America is also much stronger than last Olympics, boasting an elite shutdown pair of Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh, and heavy offensive threats like Dustin Byfuglien, Keith Yandle, and Kevin Shattenkirk. With Jonathan Quick injured the goaltending situation becomes muddled, but Cory Schneider is doing his best to unmuddle it.
Russia_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png Russia hasn't medaled in the Olympics since 2002 in Salt Lake (bronze), and as the hosts of the tournament this time, there are huge expectations. While Russia's top players are off to great starts, with Alex Ovechkin leading the way, their depth forwards are off to bumpy starts. Nail Yakupov has struggled mightily in Edmonton, as has Alexander Semin in Carolina. Russia does boast a stronger blueline than in Vancouver though, with a now healthy Andrei Markov leading the way for the vets, alongside emerging talents like Slava Voynov, Nikita Nikitin, and Dmitry Kulikov. The goaltending for Russia was thought to be a strength, but Sergei Bobrovsky has been poor this year, and Semyon Varlamov's fate is up in the air.
Finland_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png Finland has been the most consistent nation at the Olympics since professionals were allowed to join up, as they've medaled three times in four tries, though they've yet to win the big prize. Finland's major challenge is that they're highest end talents are much older than the average team. Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne led the national team for years, but they're 38 and 43 respectively. Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo are also 38 and 39, and with a full NHL schedule for both of them to deal with, that's tough. Finland's fortunes will rest on their goaltending, where Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen, or Pekka Rinne will be relied upon. Rask is probably their surest bet, but Finland is extraordinarily deep in goal.
Slovakia_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png Slovakia doesn't boast nearly the depth that most of these countries do, but they do have obscenely elite players like Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa. Young players like Tomas Tatar and Richard Panik add to a veteran group that includes Marian Gaborik, Lubomir Visnovsky, and Andrej Meszaros. Not exactly a group of all stars, but the Slovaks do have solid goaltending with Jaroslav Halak as the entrenched starter, and Peter Budaj is off to s great start in the backup role. Slovakia surprised a few teams last Olympics, and nearly beat Canada when facing elimination.
Czech_republic_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png The Czech Republic is far deeper than their Slovakian brothers, led by first ballot Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr. The Czechs have an excellent mix of at forward, with vets like Tomas Plekanec, David Krejci, Patrik Elias, and Ales Hemsky backed up by a youth movement of Tomas Hertl, Martin Hanzal, and Jakub Voracek. Where the Czechs are weak though, is everywhere else. They have some good defensemen, like Jan Hejda and Roman Polak, but they don't have a puck mover that isn't an extreme defensive liability. They also have the weakest goaltending of the top eight teams. With Tomas Vokoun out, they'll be forced to rely on Ondrej Pavelec. Yikes.
Switzerland_medium http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/217757/dash.png Switzerland always looks like they're on the cusp of breaking out of the 8th spot, and they might take that next step in Sochi. Raphael Diaz and Mark Streit will take the lead on defense, while young breakout stars like Nino Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi will be relied on for scoring. The Swiss play a tight checking defensive system that relies heavily on goaltending though, and Jonas Hiller is off to a brutal start in Anaheim.

More from SB Nation NHL:

Ryan Suter’s is playing far too much hockey

Watch: The Penguins power play is so, so good

Minnesota’s 62-game winning streak ends

Doc Emrick takes a dig at Obamacare

This article originally appeared on SBNation.

Click here for the full article »
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected