This past week, the NHL confirmed its participation in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. As news like this naturally does, this sparked some fantastic conversation on Twitter about which players from the Ottawa Senators would be likely to represent their respective countries in the battle for gold. There are some players who are absolute locks, while others who could play at the level necessary to compete for gold yet may not make the roster of their respective countries.
For argument’s sake, we’re, of course, assuming all of the following players will be healthy and didn’t take massive steps back in their performance as we head into the upcoming season.
We’re going to talk about the players in three categories: Locks, Likely and Dark Horse. It’s in no particular order, so we’ll just go with alphabetical by country.
Thomas Chabot - Ottawa’s top pairing defender is easily their most likely candidate for Team Canada. Unfortunately for Chabot, this is also understandably the toughest roster to crack. Luckily, some of the best Canadian rear guards out there - Cale Makar, Dougie Hamilton, Alex Pietrangelo, etc. - are right handed. On the left side, there are some interesting discussion to have.
I think the only true lock on the left side for Canada is Shea Theodore. Theodore is a complete defender with excellent skating who transitions well and puts up points. He’d be an ideal candidate to play with someone like Hamilton or Pietrangelo on the top pair. After that, things get messy for Chabot’s chances. You’ve got some veteran workhorse picks in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jake Muzzin, players similar to Chabot’s style in Jakob Chychrun, Morgan Reilly and Josh Morrissey, then some big bruisers who can also play with players like Darnell Nurse. This doesn’t even mention Samuel Girard, Travis Sanheim or TJ Brodie.
I know you’ll look at a number of the names I listed above and say you feel that Chabot is the better player but, at the end of the day, would you blame Team Canada for running Shea Theodore and Jakob Chychrun down the left side on the top two pairs? After that, do you want another puck moving defender or are you going to opt for someone more physical like Vlasic, Nurse or Muzzin?
It’s not to say Canada wouldn’t be in a great spot if they brought Chabot to Beijing, it’s just that there are a lot of options and it’s going to come down to some combination of scouting, personal preference and roster construction. Chabot would log a ton of minutes with a Team Canada jersey on but, at the end of the day, you can say that about a number of left shot defenders here.
Therefore, it breaks my heart to say Chabot is not a lock for the Games. But the Sens fan in me feels he’s likely at best.
Candidate Status: Likely
Mads Søgaard - Last month, Team Denmark punched their ticket to the big dance in historic fashion. Since Denmark joined the IIHF in 1946, they’d never reached the Olympic Games. During the qualifiers, Sens goaltending prospects Mads Søgaard served as backup to veteran Danish netminder Sebastian Dahm. Dahm, 34, suited up for 129 games in the OHL from 2006 to 2008, had a quick stint in the AHL with Syracuse, and has spent the rest of his career in Europe. While his numbers don’t necessarily leap off the page, it’s clear he’s the trusted guy for Denmark and will almost certainly be a member of the squad in Beijing.
A player Denmark didn’t have for these qualifiers, however, is Frederik Andersen. Andersen, provided he’s healthy, is the undisputed starter for Denmark from now until either he retires or someone, like Søgaard, can take his spot.
Søgaard joined Belleville at the end of last season, after an impressive campaign as the starter for Esbjerg Energy of the top Danish league. Coming to the AHL, the Great Dane™ posted a 7-0-0 record, using his big frame and athleticism to post a 0.917 SV%.
At the Olympics, every team carries three goaltenders and, quite frankly, Denmark only appears to have three options. For me, Søgaard is a lock for the roster. The only question is how much, if at all, he plays.
Candidate Status: Lock
Tim Stützle - It’s expected that we’ll see at least a few Ottawa Senators suit up for the Olympics but I would argue there is nobody who is more guaranteed than Ottawa’s 2020 third overall selection. Germany is a country whose hockey program has been picking up speed over the last five or ten years, going from a country who occasionally developed high end NHL talent to one who appears to be regularly churning out quality players.
For Stützle, he is a lock for this squad partially because he’s fantastic but primarily because of numbers; I think there’s an argument to be made that the young Senator is the second best German hockey player on the planet, behind Leon Draisatl. While he only has one shortened NHL season to his name, his 29 points in 53 games would have had him on pace for 45 in his rookie season - just six points shy of Draisatl’s rookie scoring pace.
Other players who will be competing for minutes on Team Germany include Tobias Rieder, Dominik Kahun, Nico Sturm, John-Jason Peterka, Lukas Reichel and Stützle Adler Mannheim teammate David Wolf.
When all is said and done, there’s no reality that exists where a healthy Stützle isn’t skating either on Draisatl’s wing or right behind him at centre in Beijing.
Candidate Status: Lock
Nikita Zaitsev - At the moment, Nikita Zaitsev is the fifth-most experienced Russian born active NHL defender with 336 games under his belt between Toronto and Ottawa. In games played, the defenders ahead of him are Dmitri Kulikov, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zadorov and Ivan Provorov. Of those four defenders, none of them are right handed. Essentially, there’s an argument to be made that Nikita Zaitsev is one of the best right shot Russian defenders out there. This is likely more of a statement about Russia’s ability to churn out high quality defenders than it is an indication of how good Zaitsev truly is.
That being said, he’s a player who is regularly trusted by DJ Smith to play tough minutes on the right side for the Sens. Couple that with the fact he doesn’t have much competition and it’s safe to say we’ll see Zaitsev suit up for the Olympic Athletes from Russia - or whatever they’ll be calling themselves this year.
Candidate Status: Lock
Artem Zub - This is a player who, through the power of Twitter, I have changed my mind on. At first, I had him as a bubble player for Russia primarily because of his lack of NHL experience combined with my lack of knowledge of the candidate pool coming out of the KHL. Russia does tend to put a few KHL players on their roster every Olympics, even at the expense of NHLers, so I wasn’t sure where Zub would land.
Upon further reflection, I think Zub makes this team. After the players listed above, other candidates for the blueline include Mikhail Sergachev, Nikita Nestorov, and Alexander Romanov - all of whom, once again, shoot left. So, right now, for right handed defenders, Zub might be joining Zaitsev in the category of best available.
We can’t discount the idea that many of the defenders listed here will likely be forced to play their offside out of necessity, but it surely gives a player like Zub a leg up.
The only wild card with Zub, at this point, is the lesser known (to us) group of KHL defenders who may give the player a run for his money. Out of Russia, there are three or four right shot defenders who will be in the mix. Andrei Sergeyev, Daniil Miromanov, Igor Ozhiganov and Alexei Marchenko. These players ranged from 0.41 to 0.59 points per game last season.
Because of his handedness and an impressive first season in the NHL, I’m calling Zub a lock for Beijing.
Candidate Status: Lock
Filip Gustavsson - We are getting deep into dark horse territory with this one but I’m going to give it a shot.
With the days of Henrik Lundqvist behind us, Team Sweden’s goaltending situation gets interesting. Of the candidates, you have Robin Lehner and Jacob Markström almost certainly playing the roles of starter and backup. After that, there are some questions.
Of the goaltenders with NHL experience, the only two who jump off the page as Gustavsson’s competition would be Linus Ullmark and Anton Forsberg. As Sens fans, we watched some Forsberg starts last year and, while he had some good moments, we can say Gustavsson’s performance in a small sample size was just as, if not more, impressive.
Ullmark, however, is Gustavsson’s real competition. After all, as your third string goaltender, would you look to have a 28 year old with 117 games of NHL experience ready for an emergency game? Or would you take a flier on a young up-and-coming goaltender who might get thrust into something he’s not quite ready for, should disaster strike?
I’m putting my money on Ullmark but that doesn’t make Gustavsson any less of a dark horse. Particularly if he can take Forsberg’s spot in Ottawa out of camp, competing with Matt Murray for the crease at the NHL level.
Candidate Status: Dark Horse
Brady Tkachuk - Brady Tkachuk is probably the hardest to pinpoint in terms of his status because, if there’s one position where Team USA is very strong, it’s on the wing. Between Patrick Kane, Max Pacioretty, Alex DeBrincat, JT Miller, Johnny Gaudreau and his brother Matthew, Tkachuk is in a tough spot when it comes to making this team in a scoring capacity. That being said, Tkachuk is a player who is in his own mold.
While you can look at American wingers and see plenty of scorers, none have the combination of tools Tkachuk has. Tkachuk is a player who uses his size and skill to win puck battles and get under the skin of his opponents. He’s one of those players who will fill a top line role just as well as he’d fill a fourth line role. How often can you find a player who will be an excellent fourth line grinder at even strength while being a net front menace on the powerplay?
In the past, Team USA has added some questionable personnel in the name of “roles”. Most recently, Justin Abdelkader comes to mind. I think we can all agree that Tkachuk is infinitely more useful than Abdelkader was in his prime and if Team USA is looking to construct a roster that’s going to score just as much as it’s going to physically punish its opponents, Brady Tkachuk should be on it.
It’s probably not an absolute lock for the Team USA front office, but it’s a lock for me.
Candidate Status: Lock
Josh Norris - Listen, I know he’s only played one season in the NHL and the likelihood that Team USA adds a sophomore centre with who they have available feels low but hear me out.
In his rookie season, Norris quickly ascended Ottawa’s depth chart to secure the 1C role. In that position, he was regularly tasked with playing against Auston Matthews, Mark Scheifele and, of course, Connor McDavid and, in doing so, he put up some very impressive numbers. Down the middle, the Americans have some high end skill. Matthews is, of course, a lock. Jack Eichel, provided he’s healthy, is as well. After that, you’ve got Dylan Larkin, Joe Pavelski, Jack Hughes and Vincent Trocheck.
For me, after Matthews and Eichel, Pavelski is probably a lock. While he’s 37, he can still very much play and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Americans lean on his experience and leadership up front. He could also slide to the wing, if necessary. So that leaves one, maybe two spots for Norris to secure.
It’ll come down to a very impressive start to his season for Norris to be selected over someone with more NHL experience like Larkin or Trocheck, but if Norris can replicate or improve upon his defensive play early on this year, there’s an ever so slight possibility he heads to Beijing.
Candidate Status: Dark Horse
Outside Looking In
This is likely the list - a stretched version of it, at that - of Sens players we could possibly see at the Olympics. When you think about the other top players on the Sens who may not have been listed, the competition is just too high for their consideration even as a dark horse.
Drake Batherson would have to be selected over Mark Stone, Mitch Marner and a large amount of Canadian centres who will inevitably be pushed to the wing - like Patrice Bergeron, Nathan MacKinnon, Mathew Barzal and more. Batherson would have to have some sort of ridiculous(ly impossible) start to this season to be considered ahead of these names.
We, the fans, love Erik Brännström even if the Sens front office and coaching staff aren’t sure about his size. But, even if DJ Smith and the gang were fans of the Brannchise, one of Sweden’s greatest strengths is their blueline. When you line up Brännström along side Victor Hedman, Mattias Ekholm, Jonas Brodin and Rasmus Dahlin, it’s pretty clear he isn’t even dark horse material.
Leevi Meriläinen is a goaltending prospect who, if he were representing a country like his fellow netminder Søgaard, might be on the short list for a third string spot. The only time we’ll see Meriläinen don a Finnish jersey any time soon, however, will be at the World Juniors this Christmas. He’s got Juuse Saros, Tuuka Rask, Antti Raanta, Kevin Lankinen and more ahead of him.
At the end of the day, though, if Team Canada is looking for a pair to secure them a golden goal, maybe they’ll take a look at Connor Brown and Nick Paul.
After all, they are the most recent Canadians to play hero on the international stage.