One of my favourite parts of an Olympic year the past five occasions has been discussing and debating the composition of each country’s roster. The NHL isn’t going to South Korea in February, which we all have different opinions on. In saying that, though, I count at least four Flames players who would have gotten the call to suit up, with a few more very much in the conversation.
SWEDEN: MIKAEL BACKLUND
Backlund was a late addition to Sweden’s World Cup team last fall, replacing the injured Henrik Zetterberg. Knowing how he performed in that tournament, and how well he’s played since, it would have been a shocker to see Backlund left off a potential Olympic roster.
The Swedes took six centres with them to the World Cup: Backlund, Nicklas Backstrom, Patrik Berglund, Marcus Kruger, Henrik Sedin, and Carl Soderberg. Not all of them played down the middle, of course, but when projecting an Olympic roster, I can’t see how Backlund could be left off.
The interesting part would have been Sweden’s mindset when putting their roster together. How many of the “old guard” would have made the cut? Both Sedin and Zetterberg are 37 years old, and yet still productive. On the other hand, where would names like William Karlsson and Rickard Rakell factor in? Currently, Sweden’s top scoring centres look like this:
Again, it would have been a stunner to see Backlund left off. Of Sweden’s top centres, Backlund shoulders the most defensive responsibility at this stage, which would have been more than enough if I were in charge. Narrowing down the rest of group would certainly have involved some tough decisions, but we’re not here to do that.
CANADA: MARK GIORDANO
Giordano is having another stellar season and that alone would have put him in the Olympic conversation for Canada. His left shot likely would have tilted the scales even further in his favour, mainly because there aren’t a lot of other high end options. Here’s how things might have looked on Canada’s blueline:
Duncan Keith-Shea Weber
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Drew Doughty
Mark Giordano-Alex Pietrangelo
Brent Burns-PK Subban
Because they’ve been on prior Olympic rosters, and because they shoot left, I can’t see how Canada could have left either of Keith or Vlasic off their roster. But, knowing how important left-right combos were on both the 2014 Sochi and 2016 World Cup rosters, there likely would have been at least one opening for Gio. Heck, even the theoretical grouping above has five right shots.
Jay Bouwmeester and Jake Muzzin made the World Cup squad thanks in part to their left shots, and I’m comfortable saying Giordano is on par with those two at this point, if not superior. I think Bouwmeester, Muzzin, and Toronto’s Morgan Rielly would also have garnered heavy consideration here, further adding to the mix and match possibilities.
Would Giordano have been a sure thing? Probably not, and Hockey Canada might have given preference to players who have suited up in recent World Championships. He’d be on my roster, though, especially when you start thinking about left-right duos.
UNITED STATES: JOHNNY GAUDREAU
This one seems like the biggest slam dunk of them all, because I can’t see any scenario where Gaudreau wouldn’t suit up for his country at the Olympics. Even factoring in Team USA’s glaring omission of Phil Kessel at the 2016 World Cup, it would have been an unfathomable blunder to overlook Gaudreau.
Because this is such a no-brainer, we won’t spend as much time on it, but all you have to do is consider where Gaudreau sits among U.S.-born skaters right now. At 54 points, he not only leads all American wingers, but all forwards period, and would have looked pretty good on a line centred by, say, Jack Eichel or Vincent Trocheck.
CZECH REPUBLIC: MICHAEL FROLIK
Obviously Frolik’s current injury would have played into a hypothetical Olympic nod, but because this is all make believe anyway, let’s pretend he isn’t recovering from a broken jaw right now. After suiting up for the Czech Republic at the last two major best-on-best competitions, it would stand to reason Frolik would be an automatic selection on a 2018 Olympic roster.
While certainly not as prolific as fellow Czech shoo-ins like Jakub Voracek, Ondrej Palat, and David Pastrnak, Frolik would have still filled a vital role for his country. He’s played on the right side of one of the league’s best shutdown lines for more than a year and is coming off a career high 44 points last season. Sure, the Czech Republic left Jiri Hudler off their 2014 roster, but I can’t see any scenario where Frolik would have been snubbed here.
Just for sake of argument, though, Frolik leads the Flames with a 57.5% possession rate to go along with a 43.6% offensive zone start ratio, one of the lowest on the team. Now almost 30 years old, Frolik is established as one of the NHL’s best two-way wingers, and that would have been more than enough for him to get the Olympic call a second consecutive time.
UP FOR DISCUSSION
Matthew Tkachuk. This is an interesting one, because even in just his second NHL season, Tkachuk is still one of the better all-around American wingers. Knowing how much value is put on experience when naming Olympic rosters, though, I’m guessing Tkachuk would have been a long shot for Team USA, but you can bet his name would have at least come up in discussions.
Sean Monahan. Monahan is having a great season and is one of the highest scoring Canadian-born players this season (21 goals, fourth; 42 points, T-15th), but he would have run into two main issues. 1. Canada is stacked down the middle (Crosby, McDavid, Tavares, Stamkos, Bergeron, Scheifele, Toews, Giroux, etc). 2. He’s younger than every player I just named save McDavid, and that’s just not usually Hockey Canada’s jam.
Dougie Hamilton. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston put Hamilton on his Canadian roster last week and had some very simple reasoning. Hamilton and Giordano have formed one of the league’s top pairings since the start of last season, and that familiarity can be important in short tournaments like the Olympics. Canada did it in 2010 with Keith and Brent Seabrook, so the possibility of Hamilton and Giordano would have been really intriguing.
Marek Hrivik. It may shock you to know this, but there are only six Slovakian forwards on NHL rosters right now. The rest of their roster would have been filled with players in the KHL and other European leagues, but there’s a pretty solid chance all six NHLers would have gotten the call, and that includes Hrivik.
David Rittich. It may also shock you to know there are only four Czech goaltenders on NHL rosters right now. While Rittich’s NHL resume is still small, I feel like he would have at least gotten consideration along with Ondrej Pavelec, Michal Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek. Of the four, Rittich’s 0.932 SV% is the best of the bunch.
Mike Smith. My guess is Canada would have gone with the same three goaltenders on this hypothetical Olympic team as they went with at the World Cup: Carey Price, Corey Crawford, and Braden Holtby. In saying that, though, Smith is having a spectacular season and was the number three goalie in 2014, so he very well could have been in the mix.