In less than a month’s time ten of St. Louis’ finest will make the journey to southern Russia, so we here at Bleedin Blue want to give you a chance to scratch your collective itch and get the answers to some of your burning Olympic questions. I got a chance to meet up with an Olympic hockey aficionado, who has been closely following the Winter Games since the NHLers joined the tournament in Japan in 1998. His name is Matt Jaques, a former hockey player with an analytical mind who understands the importance of locker room chemistry and battling in the corners as well as he understands string theory and the Higgs boson.
So here we go Matt, a handful of questions that will add a little fuel to the Olympic torch:
BB: I feel like I’ve read the word ‘snub’ more in the past week than ever before. So let’s start with the sob n snub stories…Who do you think was the biggest snub on both Team Canada and Team USA?
MJ: There are certainly a few snubs who were sobbing last Tuesday night, but there’s one non-snub that had me a little disappointed, since I didn’t get to use my best snub pun. Had it happened, the headlines in Montreal could have read PK SNUBBAN! At least I did get to use my second favorite, Brent Snubbrook… Ok back to the question. Starting with Canada, naturally, there are a few deserving candidates, but to me the biggest snub was Marty St. Louis. He led the league in scoring last year and has proven himself again this year, leading the Stamkos-less Lightning with 44 points in 47 games and a +14 rating. And Tampa Bay is winning, how does this guy get passed over for a Matt Duchene, Jeff Carter or Jamie Benn?
On the south side of the border the snub situation has some extra sob, thanks to the typically arrogant and tactless comments from Brian Burke, but actually it’s a different snub that I think will have the biggest (negative) impact on the team. Keith Yandle, playing in forgotten Phoenix, is having another great year and could reach 60 points, with 29 points in 46 games so far. Yes, there are questions around his defensive game, but you’re telling me he doesn’t belong on a team planning to start John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh, and a rusty Paul Martin? That decision is going to haunt them.
BB: That was punny, and agreed on Marty. Should be an interesting second half in Tampa, we’ll see how motivated St. Louis is to put the Lightning on his back in April for a GM (Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman) who thought Jamie Benn could do it better for their country. So maybe it’s a size-thing? Speaking of stature, what country will be the toughest physically to play against? And will that matter on the Olympic-sized ice?
MJ: Canada, and not much, to be honest. All of the top teams are built on speed and skill so the games will be won through execution of the system and the ability of these teams to coalesce quickly and play a strong team game. And remember, unlike in 2010, these games return to the international size rinks, which is another reason I think the Americans won’t be as successful this time around.
BB: Interesting. So besides the big four- Canada, US, Russia & Sweden- are there any countries you feel could surprise the aforementioned nations and earn a medal in Sochi?
MJ: Norway! Just kidding, sorry Mats Zuccarello. Finland probably gets mentioned here a lot, their goaltending is tops in the tournament, but I think the team to watch after the big four is Slovakia. Big Z (Zdeno Chara) on defense, hometown Jaroslav Halak in net, who looks like he’s heating up, and some scoring potential up front with the Hossas (Marian and Marcel) and Marian Gaborik. If Gaborik is healthy-ish, they’ve got two snipers who have a habit of scoring in bunches.
BB: Poor Zuccarello. And what about the Czech’s? Krejci, Sobotka, Hemsky, Plekanec, Elias and Jagr do nothing for you? How about Petr Nedved? But you’re probably considering the fact that the Czech’s have no D, seamlessly leading into the next inquiry, what country’s roster boasts the most skilled and deepest defensive core?
MJ: No doubt, it’s Canada. Which is incredible because the same can be said for their offensive group. While I’m not crazy about Dan Hamhuis and Pickle Man (Marc-Edouard Vlasic) at numbers 7 and 8 (I think Brent Seabrook and Kris Letang are upgrades of the same type of player, respectively), I would argue that the top 6 guys for Canada would likely skate in the top pair on any other team.
BB: Switching from defense to Oh-fense, what country has that one line of forwards that would make you lose sleep at night if you were an opposing coach?
MJ: As much as I don’t like to admit it (as a Canadian), the one line that could drive me to Ambien would be Russia’s top line. They have the potential to be the most dynamic and offensively gifted line in the tournament, with Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin. What makes them strongest of all though, is that if one of these guys isn’t playing well or the line isn’t clicking, they can bring in Ilya Kovalchuk, who’s been keeping loose in the KHL leading his team with 35 points in 37 games.
BB: Ah, yes, the magnificent KHL. The same league that Dominik Hasek and Curtis Sanford are amongst the league leaders in netminding categories. So besides Hasek’s ghost from Nagano, what single goaltender in the tournament scares you the most? Why?
MJ: The scariest of the bunch has to be Tuukka Rask. He’s currently leading a first place team, he leads the league with 5 shutouts, he’s 5th in wins and among goalies with 15 or more starts, he’s 3rd in save percentage and 6th in goals against average. While that may not sound like an argument for him being the number one ranked goalie in the tournament, consider that none of the goalies ahead of him in goals against average or save percentage, including Josh Harding, Ben Bishop, Brian Elliot, Ben Scrivens and Corey Schneider, are playing in the games. Even the league leader in wins, Marc-Andre Fluery, will be watching from home. That makes Rask the goalie to beat coming into the tournament.
BB: Alright Matt, put your Miss Cleo hat on, at the closing ceremonies, what will be the biggest hockey headline?
MJ: Hate to say it, but the way the year has gone, injuries! One major injury plus a couple minor ones and that’s all you’ll be hearing about. Then they’ll really push the talk of not playing in 2018 (which has already started).
BB: Well, that’s a scary premonition considering half the Blues will be in Sochi. So considering all the chatter that’s been going on, do you think this will be the last time we see NHL players represent their countries in the Olympics?
MJ: It really could be. Money, Money, Money.
BB: Alright Matt now for the big salami, the one everyone has been waiting for… Who will win the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics?
BB: Well you just made 35 million people north of the border very excited. Thanks for taking the time Matt and we look forward to speaking with you again once the tournament gets underway.
How about you Blues fans, who do you think will take Gold in Sochi? Let us know!