New Stars In Sochi

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New Stars In Sochi? November 19, 2012 7:38 AM  

It’s never easy for a first-time Olympian to shine in the men’s hockey tournament. Yet every four years, rookies find a way to capture the spotlight.

Most recently, Sidney Crosby immortalized himself at age 22 by scoring Canada’s 3-2 overtime winner against the United States in the final of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Another Canadian superstar, Jarome Iginla, helped his nation break a 50-year gold medal drought in his first Olympics, potting two goals in a 5-2 victory over the Americans in Salt Lake City 2002.

In 2006, goalie Henrik Lundqvist shone as an Olympic rookie, backstopping Sweden to gold with a 2.33 GAA in six games. He famously stoned Finland’s Olli Jokinen on the doorstep with under a minute to play, later calling it the “biggest save of my career”.

Before the new millennium, there were many other stellar first-timers. Take the legendary Valeri Kharlamov, who debuted at the 1972 Olympics with nine goals and seven assists for the Soviet Union. In the early era of international hockey history, Harry Watson pulled off a feat that’ll never be equalled, notching a ludicrous 36 goals in five games for Canada’s triumphant Toronto Granites at the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France.

But let’s turn our eyes to the future. As things stand, who are the most likely candidates to light up the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia as rookies?

Particularly at forward, defending champion Canada is loaded with young stars that have never competed under the five Olympic rings.

The most obvious candidate is sniper Steven Stamkos, a 2008 World Junior gold medallist and 2009 World Championship silver medallist who is coming off his first 60-goal NHL season last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, John Tavares, who perennially scores a point per game or better for Canada at the Worlds, is also likely to shine in Sochi. And while Claude Giroux hasn’t appeared internationally for Canada since the 2008 World Juniors, you can’t disregard a superb playmaking centre whom Jaromir Jagr said could become the world’s best player when they were teammates with Philadelphia.

The list of Canadian rookie options up front goes on. How about Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, who are eager to demonstrate their clutch scoring ability at the highest international level after showing great promise with the Edmonton Oilers? Youngsters like Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture , and Tyler Seguin will also receive serious consideration from Hockey Canada.

While Canada’s blueline will presumably rely on Olympic veterans, the likes of Alex Pietrangelo and PK Subban could be impact performers.

For the United States, 2010’s silver medallists, goaltending and defence are key areas where Sochi newcomers could excel. Cory Schneider, who has posted superb statistics while backing up Roberto Luongo with the Vancouver Canucks, could battle Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings for the starting job. (Quick wouldn’t be an Olympic rookie since he was the third goalie in 2010, even though he didn’t play a minute.)

High-scoring veteran American defencemen like Dustin Byfuglien, Keith Yandle, and Alex Goligoski could be making their Olympic debuts in Sochi. And under-25 stars like Kevin Shattenkirk and John Carlson, who scored the USA’s 6-5 overtime winner on Canada at the 2010 World Juniors, are also faces to watch.

Max Pacioretty, sometimes touted as the next John LeClair, and T.J. Oshie are possibilities for fresh American blood up front. Don’t overlook emerging stars like Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider, both of whom impressed last season as the New York Rangers marched to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1997.

Host Russia will likely use some 2014 Olympic rookies from the NHL, but more from the KHL. Semyon Varlamov, currently shining with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl after a good run with Colorado last year, is a strong candidate to play in goal after helping the Russians capture Worlds gold (2012) and silver (2010).

Traktor Chelyabinsk ace Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who won gold with Russia at the 2012 Worlds and was named tournament MVP at the World Juniors with 13 points in six games, could be well-positioned to tear it up in his Winter Games debut.

Could someone like veteran Avangard Omsk Alexander Popov build on his excellent World Championship this year, which saw him earn 12 points and finish second in scoring behind Yevgeni Malkin? Popov is currently vying for a spot among the KHL scoring leaders.

How about the Finns? If they go anywhere in Sochi, it’ll have to be on the strength of their goaltending. And while it’s possible that former Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff and Niklas Bäckström will give Finland the same veteran tandem as in 2010, it’ll probably be a new look. Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask are prime candidates who’ve never played at the Games before.

Despite looking mediocre at times with Dynamo Minsk this season, Rinne is a two-time Vezina nominee with the Nashville Predators, famed for dominating with his 195-cm height and lightning glove. He also posted a GAA under 2.00 in both his previous Worlds stints (2009, 2010). Rask, who is poised to take over the number one job from Tim Thomas in Boston when the NHL returns, almost singlehandedly won Finland a bronze medal at the 2006 World Juniors. The 25-year-old has the pure talent to start in Sochi if called upon.

Finland’s top potential new forward is 20-year-old Mikael Granlund. The savvy pivot racked up 51 points for HIFK Helsinki last year. He’ll always be remembered for his lacrosse-style goal in the 2011 World Championship semi-final against Russia en route to gold.

Sweden’s 2014 Olympic rookies will undoubtedly include two players with game-changing potential, both of whom claimed NHL trophies this year.

Gabriel Landeskog, who took home the Calder, was recently named captain of the Colorado Avalanche, the youngest player in NHL history to receive a captaincy (19 years, 286 days). His physical, two-way style and mental toughness could help lead Sweden to the gold, and Tre Kronor will be seeking leadership after the retirement of veteran superstars like Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, and Nicklas Lidström.

At the moment, Erik Karlsson is the NHL’s finest offensive defenceman, having earned the Norris Trophy with 78 points for the Ottawa Senators last season at age 22. Watching him skate like the wind on the big ice in Sochi could be a real treat.

The Czechs and Slovaks, whose production of new talent has slowed in recent years, could potentially get a boost in Sochi from an older player who simply hasn’t appeared in an Olympics before.

For instance, 31-year-old Radim Vrbata tallied a career-high 35 goals for Phoenix last season, which has undoubtedly put him on Czech coach Alois Hadamczik’s radar.

While goaltender Jaroslav Halak should wind up as Slovakia’s starter in 2014, you never know what’ll happen in a short tournament. At age 30, Jan Laco came out of nowhere, internationally speaking, to backstop Slovakia to silver at this year’s World Championship. Could he find himself reprising that role in Sochi?

There are plenty of other names we could mention. But if at least one of the aforementioned names doesn’t crack a tournament all-star team or win a Directorate Award in 2014, it’ll be quite a surprise.

LUCAS AYKROYD – IIHF

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