A drastically looking different Olympic tournament, without NHL superstars present for the first time in twenty years, will make the Olympic tournament in PyeongChang a historic one, not just for which players will not be there, but to determine who is most likely to capture Gold in light of these NHL players missing.
The heavy favourites leading into the tournament will be the Olympic Athletes From Russia, who have made up their entire roster of KHL superstars, the second-most renowned league in the world, many of whom are ex-NHL stars. As the men’s team was completely unhampered by the Russian doping scandal, due to separate drug testing in place in both the NHL and KHL, stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Mozyakin will lead the Russians after their first Gold since 1992, when they too played under the Olympic flag. They will play in Group B, alongside a heavily depleted Team USA squad (due to the NHL absence), a very young Slovakian squad, and a Slovenian squad likely not to cause too much noise.
Group A will be made up of defending champs Canada, who now fields a roster of journeymen European stars that will be highly unlikely to three-peat as champions. However, they have a good chance of finishing atop their group, and will likely be fighting for first against the Czechs. Czechia, with a roster made up of KHL and Extraliga stars, will look to recapture their Olympic heroics from Nagano 1998 twenty years on. Switzerland, who could act as a potential spoiler, and hosts South Korea, who were only granted a spot due to their host status, make up the rest of the group, and will likely be out of the tournament by the qualification round.
Group C should be the most interesting, as they host two heavy medal contenders, Sweden and Finland, along with two of the three final qualifiers for the Games, Norway and Germany. Sweden, with a top roster from the Swedish League and likely #1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Rasmus Dahlin, will look for their first title since 2006, leveraging their success in the 2017 World Championships to play spoiler to the Russians. Finland, the incumbent IHLC champs, also boasts a talented, balanced roster, mainly from the KHL and Liiga, and is looking to win their first ever Olympic Gold. Germany and Norway, who clinched these final spots on the backs of their handful of NHL stars, will try to make a splash without said star power, but should not pose a threat to Tre Kronor or the Leijonat to finish 1-2 in the group.
From the perspective of the IHLC, a few interesting facts related to this year’s Olympics:
– Finland enters the Olympics as incumbent champions for the third straight Games, where in both cases they won their first two games before losing their third and final group match
– Finland will start the Olympics against Germany, who has not held the IHLC since 2007 and has only beaten Finland once in eight attempts
– despite not having an NHL roster, Canada will look to three-peat as Olympic champions, following their 2010 and 2014 victories; if they do, they will become the first country since the Soviet Union / Unified Team in 1984, 1988 and 1992
– these Games will mark the first IHLC games ever held in South Korea, and first in Asia since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan
Being the first tournament since Lillehammer 1994 to feature non-NHLers, the tournament is truly up for the taking, as while Russia, Sweden and Finland would remain the favourites, teams like Canada or the U.S. could still make a ruckus, while other squads like Czechia or Switzerland too could surprise. It will make for quite an interesting and exciting tournament, with a clean slate for all twelve participating nations to fight for Gold.