Beijing Olympics men's hockey preview: Is gold Russia's to lose?

·5 min read

There's reason to be disappointed.

Despite NHL participation being collectively bargained, the world's best players will not be involved in the sport's premier international tournament for the second consecutive Winter Olympic — this time due to COVID-19 concerns. That means hockey fans will go 12 years, at minimum, without watching a true best-on-best international tournament at the Games. It's essentially an entire generation of hockey wasted for the players whose primes usually don't run much more than a decade.

All that said, the men's division at the Beijing Olympics should provide fantastic theatre. Teams like Canada and the United States have taken lessons from four years ago, including some high-profile and immensely talented prospects on its rosters, while other nations have clear targets on their backs.

There are more medal contenders than there are teams expected to be non-competitive. That means there should be no shortage of intrigue.

Here's what you need to know ahead of the men's Olympic tournament:

Who's the favourite?

It's the defending champion athletes of Russia, or whatever they're called now, and by a fairly wide margin. They are clearly the most established entity, as essentially an All-Star team selected from the second-best hockey league in the world: the KHL. They are chock-full of international experience and boast more in-team familiarity than any other nation. There's a clear advantage here, and it's reflected in the betting odds with Russia listed as +140 to defend it Olympic gold from four seasons ago.

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 25:   Nikita Gusev #97 of Olympic Athlete from Russia celebrates winning the gold medal against Germany during the Men's Gold Medal Game on day sixteen of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre on February 25, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Russia are favourites to repeat, but there's no shortage of medal contenders in the men's hockey event in Beijing. (Getty)

Finland is considered the closest competition to Russia. A medallist at the three Olympics prior to PyeongChang, the Finns boast 11 former NHL players, including Valtteri Filppula, Sami Vatanen, Leo Komarov and Markus Granlund.

Sweden, Canada, the United States, Czechia, Switzerland and defending silver medallists Germany are also each considered realistic medal contenders.

Who has the experience edge?

From a team standpoint, it's the Russians, who have seven players returning from their gold medal triumph in South Korea on a roster with no shortage of international experience.

What's interesting about this competition, though, is that there are pockets of meaningful experience strewn across the list of competing nations. For example, Eric Staal brings incredible pedigree as a former NHL captain and gold medalist 12 years ago in Vancouver for Canada. He'll be supported by three returnees expected to play major roles in Eric O'Dell, Mat Robinson and Maxim Noreau, and recent former NHLers like Jason Demers, Jordan Weal and Mark Barberio. Elsewhere, Finland and Sweden boast plenty of players with international experience, offering a similar dynamic to Russia with many players based out of their domestic leagues.

On the flip side, USA Hockey is working a different strategy, skewing young. The vast majority of the U.S.'s selections are from the collegiate ranks, with high-profile prospects like Matty Beniers, Jake Sanderson, Matthew Knies and Brock Faber expected to lead the way.

Who are some other familiar names?

Pretty much every team can offer a shot of nostalgia with at least one member of their roster — including the host nation. Representing China will be former Colorado Avalanche forward Brandon Yip and the son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios, Jake Chelios, among others blurring the lines between national allegiance.

Elsewhere, Czechia could have one of the tournament's best players in David Krejci, in addition to Michael Frolik among other former NHL players. Nikita Gusev and Mikhail Grigorenko are considered co-favourites for the scoring title as former NHL players now leading the front line for Russia, Denmark is boosted by long-time NHLers Frans Nielsen and Mikkel Boedker, and Germany will lean on familiar names like Korbinian Holzer, Tobias Reider and Tom Kuhnhackl.

Canada has three names that stand out: Owen Power, Mason McTavish and Josh Ho-Sang. Power and McTavish are the No. 1 and No. 4 overall selections, respectively, from last summer's NHL Draft. They were both dominant at the abbreviated World Junior Hockey Championships, which likely helped convince Hockey Canada to include them. Ho-Sang, meanwhile, has been a polarizing figure in the NHL for quite some time now. He's caught on this season inside the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, but had been contributing at the minor-league level without an NHL contract, allowing for this opportunity. It's possible a strong showing in Beijing helps him earn one.

Legacy opportunities

Eric Staal is likely Hall of Fame-bound, but can probably all-but secure future enshrinement by captaining Canada to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing. David Krejci doesn't have the same big-picture opportunity in front of him, but is one of many who can round out standout careers with a moment on the Olympic stage, while a win for Russia will mean tremendous things for the members of that roster, of course.

What's most relevant, though, is the possibility of tremendous careers being born on the Olympic stage. Power, Beniers, McTavish and Sanderson are among potential future NHL stars with a chance to take the opportunity that many of the NHL's best players haven't had yet.

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