While nothing is 100 percent yet, we're on the path to see NHL players participate in the Olympics again. This is undoubtedly great news for hockey fans (and the IOC's wallets), as we will truly get best-on-best hockey in 2022 and 2026. Let's face it: the 2018 Games in Korea will always have an asterisk next to them because the NHL skipped the proceedings and the results in no way reflected the state of the international game at the time.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that there are winners and losers in the NHL's return to the Olympics. Let's break it down.
I mean, no kidding, right? Canada is going to roll into 2022 with an absolute murderers' row of talent, particularly up front. Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon on the same team. A reuniting of Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand's World Cup of Hockey line. Ryan O'Reilly, Mitch Marner and too many other options to count. A blueline that starts with Alex Pietrangelo, Thomas Chabot, Dougie Hamilton and Cale Makar. Your choice of Carey Price or Jordan Binnington as your starter, with Carter Hart as the kid soaking up the experience. Fast-forward to 2026 and you add phenoms such as Alexis Lafreniere and Shane Wright to the mix.
Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. The Tkachuk brothers. A defense that will likely be the best in the tournament with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, Jaccob Slavin and Quinn Hughes. Three elite netminders in Connor Hellebuyck, Ben Bishop and John Gibson. Like Canada, Team USA really lost out with the NHL skipping the 2018 Games because the Americans would have been serious contenders. But the future continues to look bright for a national team that is still on the ascent and will likely be at its peak in 2022 and continue to be on that high in 2026.
Didn't think I was going in that direction, did you? I'm very optimistic about the German program right now and obviously the silver medal at the 2018 Games was a huge positive for them. But Germany with NHLers will be competitive in 2022 and possibly surprising in 2026. Leon Draisaitl is clearly the superstar of the program, but you're also going to have solid goaltending from Philipp Grubauer and a potential star on defense in Moritz Seider (especially in 2026). Speaking of the future, Germany has three excellent draft prospects this year in Tim Stutzle, J.J. Peterka and Lukas Reichel. As they continue to grow together (they made up a very fun line at the world juniors this year), they have the chance to establish themselves as a force on the international stage. I firmly predict that Germany will pass Slovakia in the international hockey scene quite soon and the Olympics will be a great stage to prove that theory.
Russia has that 2018 gold and they better cherish it, because best-on-best, I don't think they'll be able to hang in the near future. As long as the KHL holds political sway over the national team, you're going to see a few guys on the team that don't deserve to be there. Call me a snob, but Vadim Shipachyov is the perfect case study of the disconnect: a star in the KHL, but a complete washout in the NHL. Yes, Russia will have top players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andrei Vasilevskiy still in their primes in 2022, but the superstars that came before them (Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin) will be headed towards the twilights of their careers and the defense in particular doesn't look too impressive.
Having NHLers at the Olympics is awesome for the Games; not so much for the host nation's hockey team. While China has already been trying to get its national program in gear, so far it's been a huge disappointment (they were even taken to task for their lack of progress by Russian kingpin Roman Rotenberg at a recent international symposium). We have yet to see any good prospects come out of China and if the hosts don't want to be blown out of the water completely, they will most likely have to rely on imports who are given passports, as South Korea did for 2018. Without NHLers in the tournament, maybe the Chinese don't lose by tremendous margins. With NHLers, they will basically be relying on the goodwill of their opponents to keep things within a touchdown or two. The same can be said for Italy, the hosts for 2026.
As I alluded to earlier, Slovakia is having a tough time on the international stage and it's only going to get worse. Zdeno Chara is 43. Marian Gaborik is 38. Marian Hossa was just inducted into the Hall of Fame (I mean, good for him, but you get my point). Their replacements simply do not exist. Can the nation turn things around in the coming years? The prospect depth isn't there and Slovakia will be in tough to survive the world juniors next season, so an Olympics with NHL talent just makes the climb steeper.