While most of the hockey world has been focused on the race to the Stanley Cup, its easy to forget that a champion was crowned in the annual World Ice Hockey Championship. The International Ice Hockey Federation holds the World Championships on a yearly basis and is considered the biggest international hockey event in the world outside the Olympics. This years tournament was held in Finland and Sweden which ended Sunday when Team Russia defeated Team Slovakia 6-2 in the Gold Medal game. Leading the way for Team Russia was tournament MVP Evgeni Malkin, who set a record for points in a tournament with 19 and young netminder Semyon Varlamov. The team was also helped by late additions Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin who combined for 4 goals and 9 points in only 3 games, which includes a 2 goal and 1 assist performance by Semin in the Gold Medal game. Russia was dominate throughout the tournament as they outscored opponents 44-14 and despite an early goal by Zdeno Chara completely controlled the Gold Medal game. The performance also means that Team Russia will enter the Olympics as a number one team in the World Rankings, adding more pressure to the squad which will try to capture Gold as the host nation.
While Russia’s performance in the World Championships was impressive, it is innaccurate to make the jump to calling them the clear favorites when the Olympics kick off in Sochi. While a worldwide event, the World Championships do not come close to featuring the best hockey in the world as it coincides with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many of the top teams in the world were well below full strength as most NHL players who would participate either are still battling for the Cup or are nursing injuries and relaxing after a taxing season. For example, Canada failed to medal, but were missing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, and Roberto Loungo. The same was true for the US, who finished outside the medal round but were missing Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler, and Ryan Suter. In other words, the finalist for the Gold Medal in Vancouver sent B Squads to the World Championships. Most players in the World Championships play professional in Europe, which explains Russia’s dominance as the KHL is the best league outside the NHL. European countries also typically put more of an emphasis on international play than North America does, which explains why the likes of Malkin, Ovechkin, Semin, and Datsyuk chose to play despite just finishing runs in the NHL playoffs. So, while Canada and the US came up short this year, they will still be a force in the Olympics.
Thinking of Olympics, the World Championships always provide a opportunity for experts to make predictions about who will and will not participate when the Olympics do arrive. Any discussion of the Olympics always start with the debate about whether the NHL should suspend their season and allow players to participate. The arguments against participation are valid, such as injury risk and lost revenue, but when push comes to shove, expect the NHL to go to Sochi. The competition is better when the NHL is involved and the relationship between the NHL and KHL would take a hit if the world’s best do not go to Russia. So while it’s obviously very early, lets take a quick break from the NHL and Playoffs to evaluate who might make the US squad for Sochi.
As mentioned before, the United States were missing most of their studs at this year’s tournament. Conn Smythe front-runner Dustin Brown seems to be an early favorite to captain Team USA while Jonathan Quick could unseat Vancouver star Ryan Miller in-goal when the puck drops in Sochi. Joining Brown in the goal scoring department will likely be Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Bobby Ryan, Paul Statsny, David Backes and Ryan Callahan. Of that group of forwards, only Ryan and Statsny played in this years tournament. But, there is still room for some of this year’s squad to make it to Sochi, and Max Pacioretty’s break out year and 10 points in Finland seems a good bet to join the team. Young players J.T. Brown and Craig Smith also played in Finland this year and had solid numbers that could be a spring-board to consideration for Sochi. Tough guys and role players are always needed as well, and Joey Crabb could find himself jumping from the World Championship to the Olympics if this development continues progress in Toronto. Also look for Flyers youngster James Van Rimsdeyk, Ranger’s breakout star Chris Krieder and even Junior Star Emerson Etem to get a look in 2014. On the back line, Team USA will likely see some turnover from 2010 as Ryan Suter and Jack Johnson, who captained Team USA in Finland, would seem to be the only locks to return. This years World Championship provides a look at who might get the call as Justin Faulk scored an impressive 4 goals and Cam Fowler and Alex Goligoski were solid contributors. From non participants, look for John Carlson and possibly London Knight and future Montreal defenseman Jared Tinordi to get consideration. But as before, the Olympics are still 2 years away and a lot can change.
And now, back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs!
Matthew Ragghianti is a writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com