Wednesday January 13th, 2010

As yet a stark reminder of the powerhouse (regular-season model) that general manager Doug Wilson has painstakingly built and rebuilt in San Jose, the Sharks will be the NHL's most heavily-represented team at the Winter Olympics next month when eight players join their respective national squads.

Eight players. Like Lincoln said of the man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, if it weren't for the honor of the thing...

Of course, the Sharks don't rival Dynamo Riga for sheer Olympic distinction -- 15 of the 23 Latvian players, including all three goalies, are from the same club -- but then Dynamo isn't charged with winning a long-overdue Stanley Cup in the most competitive league in the world. As much as having a passel of Olympians reflects positively on an NHL team and further engages the fan base, the emotional surcharge of the Olympics and the physical and mental tolls can drain that team's battery dry for the playoffs.

So what might happen to the Sharks after the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver is extinguished?

The short answer is: that's why they play the damn games. But if you peruse the accompanying chart, compiled by SI hockey reporter Sarah Kwak, that lists Olympians by clubs since NHL players started taking part in 1998, you might form a theory about the teams whose leading players have booked tickets for Vancouver and not St. Bart's for the last two weeks of February.

The 1998 Colorado Avalanche established the benchmark for Olympic burnout. That fine team remains a cautionary tale, one that still spooks some NHL clubs. Coach Marc Crawford and nine of his players, including star goalie Patrick Roy, flew across the Pacific Ocean for the glory of their countries. After the Czech Republic's stunning victories over Canada in the semis and then Russia in the gold medal game -- the Czechs had only 11 NHL players on their roster -- the Avalanche returned to the states to complete a routine 95-point season, winning the Pacific Division handily. (The NHL had four divisions -- Northeast, Atlantic, Central and Pacific in 1997-98.)

But facing the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs -- Edmonton had a sub-.500 record and a minus-nine goal differential during the season -- Colorado took a three-to-one series lead before capitulating, waving the white flag while getting shut out at home in Game 7. This was its no-mas moment. The Oilers had eight Olympians, just one fewer than the conspicuously spent Avs. The difference? This is merely a guess, but Edmonton's Olympians, including Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Janne Niinimaa, generally did not face the same burden in Nagano as Colorado players such as Roy, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.

The Red Wings sent a record 11 players to Salt Lake City 2002, including stalwarts such as Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan of Canada and Chris Chelios and Brett Hull of the United States, nations that played in the final. If defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was distraught about Sweden's shocking quarterfinal loss to Belarus -- the Swedes had opened the tournament by thumping Canada while playing their "Torpedo System" -- he recovered quite nicely, thank you. Detroit handily won the 2002 Stanley Cup over upstart Carolina, which, for what it's worth, had only three Olympians.

If you had to theorize, I suppose, the overriding factor in projecting playoff success is as much how many players participated as where the Games were staged. An Olympics in North America, as opposed to the travel and time zone changes necessitated by Nagano or Turin 2006, seems to have a lesser impact. Four years ago, Detroit and Colorado each sent 10 players while the New York Rangers contributed nine to the five-ringed circus in Italy. Those teams won one postseason series (Avalanche) among them and a total of six playoff games. The Hurricanes, with four Olympians, won the Stanley Cup after a 112-point season.

Because no time-zone change is required of the Sharks -- "A quick flight for our guys," the GM says -- Wilson does not think the intensity of the 12-day tournament in Vancouver will hurt his team when the NHL season resumes. Indeed, he suggests the Olympics probably will help.

"I'm excited to get (so many of) our players in it," Wilson said. "The opportunity to play best-on-best, that really adds something to a player's résumé. I played in Canada Cups (the forerunner to the World Cup) and certainly benefitted from doing it. And certainly all our guys deserve a tremendous amount of credit. Nothing was certain. They all arrived in training camp knowing they would all have to make their (Olympic) teams. And Team Canada might be the hardest team in the world to make."

Maybe the goalies, Evgeni Nabokov (Russia) and Thomas Greiss (Germany) were locks, but other Sharks did face stiff competition. Defenseman Dan Boyle, who was paired with Chris Pronger at the Canadian orientation camp last August, seemed like a solid bet, but there were questions about the three forwards who wound up being chosen as a line by Team Canada.

Hockey Canada would not have been wary of winger Dany Heatley's goal-scoring ability, but his make-up after weaseling his way out of Ottawa prior to the season was cause for concern. At the orientation camp, coach Mike Babcock privately mused that there might not be room for both Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier, a spot-on assessment validated by Lecavalier's mediocre season in Tampa Bay. (Since Yzerman named Team Canada on Dec. 30, Thornton has one goal and four assists in seven games.) And Patrick Marleau, famously, has never been considered a big-game player. Meanwhile, Joe Pavelski had to beat out Scott Gomez for essentially the No. 2 center slot on Team USA while Team Sweden had to be convinced that rock-solid defenseman Douglas Murray would fit its flowing style.

As for the heightened risk of injury -- Czech goalie Dominik Hasek tweaked his groin in Turin, essentially derailing any chance the Ottawa Senators had for a deep Stanley Cup run in 2006 -- Wilson shrugs.

"They can get injured in practice," he says.

(Yes, and they might poke their eye out with a tiny parasol in one of those fruity drinks served poolside in the Caribbean.)

"The other thing (in our favor) is our coaching staff, which has a terrific understanding of work-to-rest ratio," Wilson says. "I don't see (exhaustion) being an issue considering the Olympics are in our time zone. And I see the benefits from playing in this kind of event. I'm looking forward to it."

Other NHL team executives are more circumspect, even with a modest presence at the Games. St. Louis Blues president John Davidson marvels at how the league seems to rest in a state of suspended animation during Olympic years. At his weekly Monday staff meeting, Davidson, whose team will be represented by USA forward David Backes and defenseman Erik Johnson and Czech defenseman Roman Polak, reminded everyone that although Olympic participation compliments the Blues, focus on the NHL should never waver.

"We don't make a nickel out of the Olympics," Davidson says. "Unless it's being geared towards eventual expansion to Europe, a huge TV market, you wonder what good it's doing for the league. There's no money in it, and it does disrupt our schedule. I understand the absolute specialness of the Olympics, but you wonder if the cost and benefits to us make sense."

Commissioner Gary Bettman, lukewarm to continued participation in Sochi 2014 and beyond -- the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL are not exactly BFF at the moment -- will have to hash this out with the NHLPA in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Before that, the Olympians on the Sharks, a team that is currently second in the league with 65 points, have to make sure they don't make a hash of the experience and leave their A games at the Games.

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