Friedman: Sochi Rosters Set; Islanders Boast 6 Olympic Hopefuls
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By Daniel Friedman
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Six nations (USA, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Russia) released their Olympic preliminary rosters this past week, fueling the usual conversations about depth, goaltending and national pride.
Often times, it’s not the names on those lists that get people talking, but rather the ones that aren’t. Everyone wants to know why Jason Pominville wasn’t on Team USA’s invite list, or, why Patrick Marleau, Jason Spezza, Jarome Iginla, Cam Ward or Matt Moulson (I’ll get to him later) weren’t on Canada’s.
Those are valid concerns, but the New York Islanders are fortunate to have six hopeful Olympians, five of which will probably make the final cut to represent their respective countries. What impact does that have and what are their odds? Let’s find out.
JOHN TAVARES — TEAM CANADA
If there is an Olympic “lock” on this Islanders team, there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s Tavares. He proved himself right from the start and he has blossomed into a full-blown superstar.
That ascension has, in turn, put the Isles back on the map. Most recently, he was awarded for his efforts with an MVP nomination, along with this Russian winger playing for the Washington Capitals (Alexander Ovechkin) and some other guy from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (Sidney Crosby).
Tavares has plenty of international experience at both amateur and professional levels. He played for Team Canada at the World Juniors in 2008 and 2009, amassing 20 points in 13 games in those two tournaments. In 2009, he scored 12 goals, tying Jeff Carter and Eric Lindros for the Canadian WJC-record.
Since moving on to the NHL, Tavares has participated in three World Championships (2010, 2011 and 2012), and, in those tourneys, he has scored 25 points in 22 games.
I’d be completely stunned if he wasn’t on Team Canada for the Sochi Games.
KYLE OKPOSO – TEAM USA
Okposo was invited to USA Hockey’s Olympic orientation camp, which should hopefully do wonders for his confidence level.
Okposo represented the United States at the IIHF World Championships in 2009, 2010 and 2012. He also played in the World Junior Championships in 2007 and 2008. Okposo recored 11 points in 23 World Championship games and seven points in 13 WJC skirmishes.
Consistency has been an issue for Okposo, but for what it’s worth, he’s collected or been on pace for 40-50 points every year since his rookie campaign. He notched 24 points in 48 games in 2013, then scored three times and added an assist for four points in six playoff games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At age 25, Okposo’s certainly not a kid anymore, but he still has plenty of untapped potential. The Minnesota- native is a longshot to make Team USA, just because of the sheer amount of depth on the American team, particularly in the power-forward department.
Can he outplay the likes of Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens) and James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs)? We’ll know soon enough, that’s for doggone sure. The way I see it, Okposo must unseat one of those two in order to have a shot at making the roster.
If Okposo can continue trending upwards, it’s not a reach to suggest that he could be wearing red, white and blue in February. Jack Capuano and the Isles’ staff can only hope that’ll be enough to get him going when the puck drops in October.
TRAVIS HAMONIC – TEAM CANADA
Considering the vast amount of young defensive talent in the NHL right now, whether you’re talking about Drew Doughty (Los Angeles Kings), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Justin Schultz (Edmonton Oilers), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens) or Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix Coyotes), someone like Hamonic often gets lost in the shuffle.
Don’t accuse Hockey Canada of losing sight, though, because they’ve clearly been paying attention.
While Hamonic is unlikely to make the roster, the mere fact that he’s at Canada’s Orientation Camp is a big deal. It’s worth noting that there are only three players who received invites who are younger than him: Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche), Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers) and Tavares.
Hamonic skated for Canada during the 2010 World Juniors and was arguably their best shutdown rearguard in that tournament.
MICHAEL GRABNER – TEAM AUSTRIA
There are two ways of looking at Grabner’s situation: Either you can determine that he’ll be on the Austrian squad, simply because he’s playing in the NHL and there are few natives of the county who are, or you can appreciate the scoring threat he has become and the talent he has.
Grabner is a scorer, a speedster and a defenseman’s nightmare. He and Thomas Vanek could be one of the more lethal combinations in the Olympic tournament.
On the amateur stage, Grabner played for Austria in the 2005 Division I WJC’s (one level below the top tier), recording three points in four games.
As a pro, he rejoined Team Austria for the Division I World Championships in 2012 and racked up four points in five games.
While the Sochi Olympics will be Grabner’s first, they will not be his last. The 2014 Games will be the first international competition he’ll ever have played against top-tier talent. This is an experience he’ll greatly benefit from, in terms of his continued development and maturation.
LUBOMIR VISNOVSKY – TEAM SLOVAKIA
As far as international resumes go, Visnovsky is the most decorated of any Islanders player.
He’s a four-time Olympian (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010) and has eight points in 19 Olympic games. Visnovsky has also participated in nine World Championship tournaments. He has gathered 52 points in 78 games at the Senior international level.
Visnovsky’s last taste came during the 2011 WC’s, in which he contributed two points in three contests.
It’s expected that he’ll compete for Slovakia once again, co-quarterbacking the power play alongside someone we all know and wish we had — Zdeno Chara.
Visnovsky is what he is; a puck-mover who can skate well and find open teammates. Neither the Slovakians, nor the Isles should be counting on him to be Nick Lidstrom. He is, however, very good at his job.
EVGENI NABOKOV – TEAM RUSSIA
Nabokov has become the subject of harsh and heavy criticism over the last few months, but he’s a better net-minder than his reputation currently projects, and that will become more obvious once hockey season reboots.
Because he originated from Kazakhstan, Nabokov was unable to play for Team Russia for much of his early career, until he finally sorted out his citizenship issues in 2006. He went on to participate in that year’s Games (Torino), and then at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
In 2008, Nabokov helped Russia win gold at the IIHF World Championships, posting back-to-back shutouts, then beating Canada, 5-4, in the gold-medal game. He also represented Russia at the 2011 World Championships.
“Nabby” is surely hoping that 2014 will be his third, and considering they’ll be held in Russia, he’s undoubtedly even hungrier for a roster spot on the national team.
In all likelihood, Nabokov will be part of a goaltending trio that includes reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Colorado Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov.
MATT MOULSON – TEAM UNAPPRECIATED
It’s simply unfathomable that Moulson has never been invited to an international tournament to play for Canada, let alone any orientation camps. He’s never never participated in the the Under-18‘s, the World Juniors or even the World Championships.
Moulson was snubbed by Team Canada once again, something which has unfortunately become a trend and an unexplainable one at that. Every time it happens, it becomes more and more astonishing.
Both Moulson and Tavares have scored 112 goals in the last four seasons. I suppose that, in Moulson’s case, that type of consistency and production simply doesn’t cut it.
Of the players at Canada’s orientation camp, only Jeff Carter (Los Angeles Kings), Rick Nash (New York Rangers), Corey Perry (Anaheim Ducks) and Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning) have lit the lamp more times during that span.
There are those who attribute the vast majority of Moulson’s success to Tavares. Does it help to have a phenomenal playmaker like JT as a line-mate? Of course it does. That said, you do not score 30-plus goals on a regular basis by accident.
When people tell me about how Moulson is a complete byproduct of Tavares, I often use the example of Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Thornton to illustrate the difference between legitimate talent and a “side-effect.”
During the 2005-06 season, Cheechoo was a Rocket Richard Trophy winner and, along with Thornton, was a poster boy for team chemistry. Yet, from that point forward, his goal totals took a nosedive; from 56 to 37 to 23 to 12, and that occurred despite the fact that he was still playing alongside Thornton.
Moulson, on the other hand, found the back of the net 30 times in his rookie year, then 31 and 36 in the next two. He scored 15 goals in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
The difference between the two is that one is consistently productive, and the other had chemistry with a teammate who faded relatively quick; not an unusual occurrence in hockey.
When you watch Moulson play, you can see the talent oozing out of him, you can see his nose for the net and his knack for doing whatever it takes to put himself into a position to score.
Granted, Moulson would’ve had a tough time breaking the Canadian lineup even had he been invited to Orientation Camp, but so will many of the players who were. And, as they say, it’s the thought that counts.
Let Hockey Canada be the ones to sell Moulson short. The Islanders know just what they have in him and how important he is to this team’s success.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.
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