RUSSIA, OAR, ROC (AP) – No matter the name, now that the NHL is out of the Beijing Olympics, the Russians will be the favorites to win the gold medal.
After the National Hockey League pulled out of the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday to salvage a league schedule wracked by virus outbreaks on several teams, European-based players are set to dominate the men’s tournament at the Olympics.
This puts the Russians, who are competing in Beijing as the Republic of China on the Russian Olympic Committee, in a strong position to retain the gold medal they won in 2018 under the name Olympic Athletes from Russia. The name changes were required as part of Russian sanctions for various doping-related issues across multiple Olympic sports.
Just as it was four years ago, the Continental Hockey League is still the strongest league outside of the NHL. Russia has used huge spending clubs SKA St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow to keep some talented young Russians at home when they have moved to North America.
The Russian roster will be less familiar to North American fans than the 2018 squad led by Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, who have not officially retired but have not played any hockey this season. Kovalchuk may be in Beijing as director of the Russian Hockey Federation. Some of the 2018 gold medalists are now in the National Hockey League, including Minnesota Wilde Kirill Kaprizov, Ottawa Senator Seaman Artem Zup and two of the three goalkeepers: Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers and Ilya Sorokin of New Yorkers.
Expect center Vadim Shebachev, briefly from Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18, to star in the Republic of China. He has 21 goals and 36 assists in 40 K-League matches this season for Dynamo Moscow. Experienced striker Mikhail Grigorenko is available as he returned to Russia this season after spending 2020-21 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and former New Jersey Devils winger Nikita Gusev is likely to be on the list as well. Former Los Angeles Kings defender Slava Vojnov hasn’t played in the National Hockey League since his 2014 arrest for domestic violence and a subsequent suspension, but he’s also seen as key to Russia’s plans.
With it, the Russians could be defeated. Finland demonstrated Sunday with a 3-2 win overtime in Moscow during the Channel One Cup, a tournament used as a pre-Olympic setting for players outside the NHL.
The match-winning goal was odd, awarded by the referees due to a penalty kick on Finland’s national team facing the empty Russian goal. The disc never entered the network. Finland won all three of their matches in the tournament but needed overtime twice.
Former NHL players nominated for Finland include forwards Marcus Granlund and Leo Komarov and defender Julius Hunka. Komarov played a game for the islanders earlier this season before agreeing to a mutual termination of his contract.
Canada sent a team to the tournament as well, beating Sweden but losing to Finland and Russia with a roster compiled from clubs in six different countries. Two free agents, defender Jason Demers and center Eric Fair, brought much-needed experience with 699 and 652 NHL career games, respectively, both of whom later signed with the same KHL team.
Claude Julien, the former Montreal Canadiens coach, is behind the Canada bench, with former Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan the frontrunner to serve as general manager.
Dressed in the official uniform of the Soviet Union, Russia beat Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
The US hockey team may soon turn to Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations and retired NHL goalkeeper John VanBiesbrook as general manager. Former Rangers coach David Quinn is a leading candidate for the US Olympic job to oversee a roster that includes some college players.
General Germany again?
The absence of the NHL creates chances for a surprise medal. In 2018, that was Germany, who took the silver after losing 4-3 overtime to the Russians in the final.
The cohesion of the German team helped, as most players were drawn almost entirely from the German National League and were familiar with each other’s play. The NHL decision means MVP Leon Draisaitl is still waiting to represent his country at the Olympics. Germany defeated Slovakia, Switzerland and Russia “B” Team in a snowboard setting tournament at home in November.
boost to china
Host nation China has been under pressure to prove that its men’s team meets the competitive standards for Olympic hockey. This is less of a problem now.
China used KHL’s Kunlun Red Star as an agent for the national team, as most of the naturalized players were born in the United States and Canada, many of whom are of Chinese descent. Kunlun ranked last among 24 teams in the KHL and lost two matches that the International Ice Hockey Federation used to gauge her preparedness.
The lottery is placed between China, the United States, Canada and Germany on the billiards stage. Without the NHL, there’s less chance the China Games could become a record-breaking blast.