Takeaways from the Sochi Olympics for the NHL stretch drive and beyond
Some closing thoughts as the world's best hockey players return from Sochi for the closing stretch of the NHL season:
Is anyone due for a bigger shock upon returning to the NHL than Canadiens goalie Carey Price? After two weeks of playing behind Team Canada defensemen Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, he now has to deliver with Josh Gorges, Alexei Emelin and Douglas Murray butchering the puck in front of him. Still, he might be the one player who benefits the most from his Olympic experience and, by extension, so might Montreal. Price wasn't the reason Canada won gold, but he was a reason. He was sensational in Sochi, where he literally made every single stop he was supposed to make and weathered early challenges in both medal round games on the way to shutting out the U.S. and Finland. Price left the tournament with a GAA of 0.59, a save percentage of .972 and the confidence that comes from measuring yourself against the best in the world and finding out that you belong in that club. He'll be a beast down the stretch.
Everyone was happy to see 43-year-old Teemu Selanne named the MVP of the Olympic hockey tournament, but he's not in the mix for that honor without the playmaking skills of the breakout star of the Sochi Games: Mikael Granlund. "This is his business card for the world to show that he is hungry and can't wait to get out there," Selanne said after Granlund ladled out the sauce twice while leading the Finns to their bronze-medal clinching 5-0 win over Team USA. The Wild's young star stepped up to fill a void on Finland's top line and powered the team's offense (3 goals, 4 assists) with his quick reads and creativity. One NHL team exec told SI.com that a younger Selanne would have scored 10 goals thanks to the way Granlund was feeding him the puck. The same exec also said that Granlund might benefit from "calling his own number more often," but Minnesota will likely be happy if he keeps working the same magic that he did with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville in the weeks leading up to the break.
C ya later, Zach Parise
Parise will be a part of America's international program for the next decade, but he'll never again wear the C for the U.S. It wasn't just his zero-shot/zero-effort performance in the bronze-medal loss to Finland that made that fact a certainty. It was his criticism of coach Dan Bylsma's game plan against Canada. Fair or not, you need your captain circling the wagons after a tough loss, not lighting the flaming arrows. You want a leader? Look at Ryan Callahan sacrificing his body with his team down 4-0 to the Finns late in the bronze-medal game. That's a player that USA Hockey can line up behind.
Bye bye Bylsma
Sochi will certainly be the last time we'll see Dan Bylsma behind Team USA's bench. He played not to lose against Canada, using a passive 1-2-2 system that occasionally devolved into a 1-4, while choosing to wait for the Canadians to make a mistake rather than using an aggressive forecheck to force them into turning over the puck. Bylsma failed to react and make in-game adjustments when they would have mattered and his matchups were puzzling. (Brooks Orpik against Sidney Crosby? Really?) The U.S. doesn't have a lot of coaching depth, but it's time to go back to the well after this debacle.
I spoke with two NHL executives this weekend about Thomas Vanek and whether his blown curfew scandal with Team Austria would impact the Islanders' plans to move him before the trade deadline. Both said that the episode wouldn't sour them on the player, but that they would try to use the incident to lighten the pot a bit. New York GM Garth Snow is said to be looking for a first rounder and a second rounder/high-profile prospect in return for the pending UFA winger. If he gets less than that, Vanek's curfew shenanigans will be one of the reasons why.
Benn coming up big
I'll admit that I was less than supportive of the decision to include Jamie Benn on the Canadian roster. As someone who sees him play 40-plus times per year for the Stars, I'm all too familiar with his defensive warts, in particular his propensity for turning the puck over in the neutral zone with blind passes. (For the record, his winning goal against the Americans began with a no-look dish through the middle of the ice that Jay Bouwmeester corralled just ahead of streaking U.S. forward David Backes.) So I'm eating a sizable bite of crow here when I say that Benn was Canada's most pleasant surprise in Sochi. His work on the penalty kill -- something for which he's not known in the NHL -- and his effort away from the puck hinted at someone who is making the critical transformation from scorer to complete player.
The Coyotes were one of three NHL teams (the Bruins and the Ducks were the others) to have players bring back a complete set of medals from Sochi, but it's hard to imagine that Phoenix will get much of a boost. Goalie Mike Smith (gold) didn't see the ice during the Games, and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (silver) was all but stapled to Sweden's bench for his team's two medal-round games. He might be one of the top young blueliners in the NHL, but he lost the trust of Swedish coach Par Marts with a series of turnovers early in the tournament. It would have been interesting to see what Ekman-Larsson could have done in the gold medal game in place of the hamfisted Johnny Oduya against Canada's forecheck, but by the time Marts was desperate enough to give him a chance, the game was already out of hand. I'm curious to see if the experience has an impact on Ekman-Larsson's confidence when he returns to the Coyotes. At least Finland's Lauri Korpikoski (bronze) had a successful tournament. When injuries struck, he stepped up, ate a lot of key minutes, and played some of the best hockey of his career.
American pipe dreams
I love Team USA's depth between the pipes (paging John Gibson) and, as a Canadian, envy the young defensive talent on the way. (Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, in particular.) But until the U.S. starts growing centers that can match up against Crosby, Getzlaf, Toews and Tavares, USA Hockey will have to settle for the occasional goalie-inspired upset when these best-on-best tournaments are played on the big ice.
There's already talk of a compromise plan for the 2018 Winter Games that would see the tournament change to an under-23 format that allows the NHL to send representatives to South Korea without having to close its arena doors for three weeks. Interesting ... but any plan that sees players go overseas while games go on is a nonstarter. Imagine a team that's in the playoff chase -- the Avalanche, for example -- being asked to battle veteran-heavy squads like the Blackhawks or the Sharks without Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon in the lineup ... and then imagine Colorado trying to sell tickets without those top gate attractions. It won't work.