The Canadian and American women’s national teams provided us with a thrilling summer dose of international hockey in August, punctuated with an epic overtime winner from the queen of clutch, Marie-Philip Poulin. The two juggernaut nations will compete again in an October exhibition. Next winter at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, they’ll battle for global supremacy.
And we’ll likely see the world’s top male hockey players competing in best on best next winter, too. According to a report from ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, a deal between the NHL, NHL Players’ Association, IIHF and IOC is imminent and could be finalized this week.
So it appears we’ll get to see the first real best-on-best international men’s hockey since the 2016 World Cup. Coincidentally, the field for the 2022 men’s Olympic tournament was finalized just a few days ago. The groups shape up as follows, with IIHF rankings in brackets:
Group A: (1) Canada, (6) United States, (7) Germany, (32) China
Group B: (2) Russia, (5) Czech Republic, (8) Switzerland, (12) Denmark
Group C: (3) Finland, (4) Sweden, (9) Slovakia, (10) Latvia
Months will pass before we know who makes each team, and we’ll surely have time to project rosters before then. But let's start with an appetizer: right now, if we judge each team based on the players who are virtual locks to make it, who projects to be the favorite? Here’s a brief power-rankings breakdown.
LEGITIMATE GOLD-MEDAL CONTENDERS
Canada’s forward depth – or, more specifically, superstar depth – is peerless. Its options up the middle include Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Sidney Crosby, Brayden Point and Mathew Barzal, with centers such as Patrice Bergeron, Ryan O’Reilly and Sean Couturier strong bets to make the team too, so Canada will deploy several centers on the wing, with Bergeron likely keeping his spot on Crosby's line. The right side of Canada’s defense will be as strong as anyone’s in the tournament, with options to choose from including Alex Pietrangelo, Cale Makar, Aaron Ekblad and Dougie Hamilton. With goaltender Carey Price showing in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs that he can still be as good as anybody in the world in high-stakes games and Marc-Andre Fleury fresh off a Vezina Trophy season, Canada looks safer in net than it did a year ago, with the No. 3 spot up for grabs between Darcy Kuemper, Jordan Binnington and, if he can get his game back on track, Carter Hart.
If we have to nitpick a soft spot for Canada? The left side of the D-corps might be “merely very good.” Shea Theodore has likely played his way into lock status, but it’ll be a mix-and-match choice behind him between options like Darnell Nurse, Jakob Chychrun, Thomas Chabot, Morgan Rielly and Adam Pelech after that. So, uh, yeah, Canada looks as stacked as ever.
2. United States
The Americans should field the deepest, most talented defense corps in the tournament, armed with Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes and Zach Werenski as puck-movers, Charlie McAvoy, John Carlson and Seth Jones as all-around minutes eaters and a wide range of depth options to fill various roles including Jeff Petry, Jaccob Slavin and Torey Krug. Connor Hellebuyck gives the U.S. a top-three netminder in the tournament at worst. The Americans have superstar power up front, too, featuring Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and, if healthy by then, Jack Eichel.
They also should ice the biggest, most physical team in the tournament on the wings, featuring Brady and Matthew Tkachuk, and have tremendous speed from the likes of Kyle Connor, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin and Max Pacioretty. The U.S. squad projects to be extremely well-rounded, capable of winning track meets or tight-checking games.
Even Finnish teams without star power have been consistent overachievers in best-on-best play. The Finns medalled in Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. What’s scary now is that they’re no longer just the “pesky Finns.” They boast legitimate mega-stars in Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen and Sebastian Aho at forward. They can tap into existing chemistry and play Aho with his Carolina Hurricanes linemate Teuvo Teravainen. They have a deadly power-play threat in Patrik Laine and one of the world’s most underrated under-25 players in Roope Hintz. His Dallas Stars teammates Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell lead the D-corps. The Finns aren’t nearly as deep in net as they were in the past, as Pekka Rinne has retired and Tuukka Rask may or may not be recovered from hip surgery in time to compete, though the Winter Games would be a great warmup for an NHL comeback. Still, at worst, they can roll with a rock-solid duo of Juuse Saros and Joonas Korpisalo.
The Finns actually don’t look as deep top to bottom as the Swedes but arguably have a better core of elite players at the moment, so I’ve nudged the Suomi into my top three.
The Swedes project for a deep, disciplined team consisting of intelligent two-way forwards, mobile defensemen and gigantic goaltenders. For pure scoring prowess, they can rely on Elias Pettersson, Mika Zibanejad and William Nylander, backed by a versatile group of forwards who can make an impact at both ends of the ice, from Gabriel Landeskog to Filip Forsberg to Elias Lindholm. Whoever starts in net between Jacob Markstrom, Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark will be a behemoth puck-swallower.
The Swedes look a bit creakier on defense than they might have a few years ago. Victor Hedman is their horse, and Mattias Ekholm, Jonas Brodin and Rasmus Andersson would be excellent shutdown options, but Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson aren’t what they were at their peaks. Even so, the Swedes should be capable of beating anyone on any given day.
5. Olympic Athletes from Russia
Time and again, the Russian roster looks breathtakingly awesome on paper yet underachieves with the pressure on. The Russians took gold in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, in which active NHLers did not participate, but the nation’s most recent finishes in true best-on-best action at the 2010 Olympics, 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup are sixth, fifth and fourth. It makes no sense given the talent Russia can offer.
The depth in goal is cartoonishly amazing: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin, Ilya Samsonov, Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky. The problem: goaltender is the team’s strongest position and the Russians can only play one of them at a time. The star power at forward can rival Canada’s and USA’s: Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, Kirill Kaprizov, Andrei Svechnikov. But will Artemi Panarin get the invite? It’s not a given, as he’s been outspoken against Russian president Vladimir Putin. The OAR squad also isn’t as deep as the other elite nations on defense. Ivan Provorov and Mikhail Sergachev should be the centerpieces, backed by reliable NHLers such as Dmitry Orlov and Nikita Zaitsev. It’ll be a perfectly fine group of NHL-grade talent back there but, if the Russians escape their group and meet the other contenders in elimination rounds, they look a bit vulnerable on defense.
COMPETITIVE PODIUM THREATS
6. Czech Republic
The Czechs haven’t felt like true medal contenders since the prime years of Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek and haven't medalled at the Olympics since 2006. They’re trending in the right direction now, though. Their forward group will have some deadly goal-scorers in David Pastrnak, Jakub Vrana, Dominik Kubalik, with strong two-way centers in Tomas Hertl and Radek Faksa and playmaking from David Krejci, Martin Necas and Jakub Voracek. But if the elite teams get the puck past those forwards, it’ll be tough sledding for the Czech D-corps and goaltending battery. We’re talking guys like Filip Hronek and Radko Gudas manning the point and Pavel Francouz and David Rittich in net.
Roman Josi should play half of every game on the back end, and the Swiss should have decent firepower, counting on Kevin Fiala, Timo Meier, Nico Hischier and Nino Niederreiter. If one of their goaltenders gets hot, they could make a surprise run.
How far can Leon Draisaitl take the Germans? He should enjoy more help than people may realize, including Tim Stutzle and Dominik Kahun at forward, prospect blueliner Moritz Seider and new Seattle Kraken netminder Philipp Grubauer. Don’t bet on the Germans to duplicate their silver medal from 2018, however, as they land in a tough group with Canada and the U.S.
The Slovaks don’t exist on the same plane as they did a decade or two ago, when they were populated with established NHL star forwards such as Ziggy Palffy, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Peter Bondra. That said, the Slovakian squad will boast a sneaky amount of NHL talent. If Zdeno Chara isn’t retired, he’ll wear the ‘C’ and have Erik Cernak and Andrej Sekera to help anchor the blueline. Tomas Tatar will lead the forward group, while Jaroslav Halak would make sense as the starting netminder unless the Slovaks feel Branislav Konrad earned a longer look with this stellar showing in the qualifiers.
Given the Danes feature plenty of NHL talent, from Nikolaj Ehlers to Oliver Bjorkstrand to Lars Eller to Frans Nielsen to Frederik Andersen, it’s mind-boggling that, with last weekend’s qualifying victory over Norway, the nation qualified for its first Olympics in men's hockey…ever. Denmark joined the IIHF in 1946 and, 75 years later, finally gets to sit at the cool kids’ table. Most of the Danes’ top players are past their primes, so, while they won’t be pushovers at all, they likely won’t reach the quarterfinal round unless Ehlers and Bjorkstrand go off.
Presumably led by Elvis Merzlikins in goal, the Latvians will have emotion on their side as they play with the late Matiss Kivlenieks in their hearts. Merzlikins can be as good as anyone when he goes on a heater. Remember Kristers Gudlevskis giving Canada a scare at the Sochi Games?
AVERT YOUR EYES
The 32nd-best team in the world rankings gets to masquerade as a top-12 nation in the host role. As of now, China has not granted permission for heritage players such as Brandon Yip and Spencer Foo to compete in the Winter Games. Without that transplanted support, and with NHLers all but booked for participation, it’s scary to imagine what will happen to the Chinese team when it faces Group A neighbors Canada and USA. Both nations could bench their top forwards, defensemen and goaltenders and still win by double-digit margins in their sleep. For the sake of the host country’s dignity, here’s hoping China grants heritage players permission, as South Korea did for the 2018 Games. A Chinese team of heritage players might still lose games 10-1, but that’s better than 30-0.