By Steve Silverman
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If the NHL season ended today, the New York Rangers would be on the outside looking in.
That’s no surprise to anyone who has followed the team regularly this season. After a miserable start that saw them play their first nine games on the road, they have basically been a win-one, lose-one team through the majority of the season.
Head coach Alain Vigneault may have more offensive know-how and creativity than John Tortorella, but he has not been able to implement his system to the point where the Rangers have played the kind of hockey that would allow them to compete with Pittsburgh and Boston in the Eastern Conference, let alone the big boys in the Western Conference.
Despite their lack of success, the Rangers have seven players who are going to compete in the Olympic game. Rick Nash figures to be one of the mainstays for the Canadian Olympic team, while Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan are going to be key players for Team USA.
Henrik Lundqvist and Carl Hagelin will play for Sweden and never forget that Mats Zuccarello will carry Team Norway on his shoulders.
If it seems that a team on the outside of the playoffs looking in has too many Olympic representatives, that could be a fair conclusion.
But that’s not the main point.
The real point of this exercise is that Olympic hockey in the middle of an NHL season basically defies explanation. The primary issue is injury. It would be bad enough if players like Nash or Lundqvist got hurt in a regular-season game against the Flyers or Canadiens. But they will be placing themselves at great risk in February and any injury could seal the Rangers as a non-playoff team.
While every NHL team will face some kind of risk due to the Olympics, the Rangers will face more than most since they have seven players going to the Olympics. The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings are each sending 10 players to Sochi, while the Montreal Canadiens have eight Olympians.
The Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and the Penguins also have seven players who will be at risk during the Olympic Games. No other team has more than six Olympians
But that’s not the only strange thing about Olympic participation. In addition to having teammates like Callahan and McDonagh competing against Nash, Lundqvist and Hagelin, let’s look at the coaching scenarios.
The Rangers’ Team USA contingent will be playing for Dan Bylsma of the Penguins. Most of the year, Bylsma is figuring out ways to stop players like Callahan, McDonagh and Stepan, and he may have some unfortunate ways of planning his strategy.
But for the three weeks of the Olympics, Bylsma is thinking only of his American players and wants them to succeed. On the other hand, Bylsma will be strategizing against Sidney Crosby of Canada and Evgeni Malkin of Russia, who happen to be his two best players with the Penguins.
How does this really work?
This is not like a baseball all-star game or even a basketball Olympic team. Hard physical contact is not a part of those sports; but it is the lifeblood of hockey.
In the movies, they ask you to suspend disbelief when you are watching science fiction or some other flight of fancy.
Is that what they are asking you to do with Olympic hockey?
The on-ice product was superlative in 2010 when the Canadians beat the Americans in a gold medal game that went to overtime. It was tremendously entertaining hockey and it furthered the sport’s development and popularity.
However, the concept makes no sense in the big picture.
Too many players are at risk and there’s every chance that at least one team’s season could get ruined.
Let’s just hope it’s not the Rangers who suffer in this exercise.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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