Another four years are gone and a new wave of anticipation and national pride is upon us. The Olympics will cut into the 2013-2014 NHL season like a welcomed stop on a long road trip, a way to better appreciate and boost interest in the game of hockey before returning to North America and the pursuit of the Stanley Cup. While the final rosters will not be complete and the puck won’t drop on Olympic ice until much later in the season, the process to select which players will don their country’s jersey has already begun.
Invitations have been sent to hockey-playing hopefuls, and camps have been held to orientate these potential members of their national teams. Of all the invites sent, six members of the San Jose Sharks are lucky enough join the fight for those few roster spots.
The first three months of the NHL season will serve as a testing ground for whether or not a player makes their country’s roster. For now, the stats from each players’ 2013 season can give us a peek at what kind of impact these lucky Sharks can bring to their respective camps.
Joe Thornton – Canada
If Canada is overloaded on talent in any one position that would be forwards, and especially centers. While some of the young guns might challenge the old guard for a spot, Joe Thornton is up to the challenge: his background speaks for itself.
Hitting just below a point-per-game pace over the past three years doesn’t necessarily mean Jumbo Joe is slowing down (he has been over a PPG pace since his 2001-2002 season with the Bruins, save for one season). His assists are making a bigger impact on the score sheet than any wristers or slapshots, but turning into a great set-up man rather than a pure goal-scorer can be an asset at Sochi with the wealth of talent. In the playoff series against Vancouver, for example, his six assists contributed to the four-game sweep.
Among his wealth of experience is his strong showing in international competition. Not only has he made the roster of Canada’s 2006 and 2010 Olympic teams, he has served on three World Championship series, plus World Juniors. Competing on a worldwide stage since 1996 brings the sort of familiarity some Olympic hopefuls can only dream of matching someday, but Thornton hasn’t seen international ice since Turin in 2006. Whether that will factor into Team Canada’s decision remains to be seen.
Speaking of young guns, there is also Logan Couture. With only 49 NHL playoff games to his resume, he may be too inexperienced to crack the roster. Add that to his mere 33 points and it will be a tough sell. However, a trip to Sochi will be greatly determined by how a player performs in the first three months of the season. It’s great news for Couture; he has picked up his game in a big way down the final stretch of seasons.
Like the rest of his teammates, Couture piled on points during the Sharks’ seven-game win streak at the start of 2013. While he was quiet during the middle, it was during the end of the season when Couture really heated up. In the month of April, he scored four game-winning goals, including capping off a memorable night against Minnesota with two goals and four points. This offensive spark continued during the playoffs, with three more game-winners and 11 points.
Couture will definitely be an intriguing option for Team Canada. He can help his case if he continues his productivity from the end of the 2013 season and moves in an upward angle.
Dan Boyle – Canada
Two Sharks defensemen received invites from Hockey Canada. One shoots left, one shoots right. One is a veteran with previous experience in the Olympics, the other is a youthful player who has been to two World Championships. Whether one or both or neither makes it to Sochi will be a big question.
First, there is Dan Boyle and his strong showing during the 2013 season. He was first among Sharks defensemen in points and sixth across the whole league with seven goals and 13 assists. He also led all Sharks in ice time, chewing up an average of over 22 minutes per game while maintaining a positive plus-minus. In fact, after joining the Sharks in the 2008-2009 season from the Lightning, he has launched a plus rating streak over all five seasons in San Jose.
Then there are the big games. Boyle maintained an over-22-minute average ice time during the Sharks playoffs run with eight points over 11 games. Included in those points were two big difference makers: a game-winner and an assist on a game-tying goal. Despite not advancing to the conference finals, Boyle was still tied for sixth productivity-wise among playoff defensemen.
What Marc-Edouard Vlasic lacks in the depth of experience set by Boyle, he makes up for it in other areas of his game, such as his experience gathered from his seventh post-season appearance, and seven games played at World Championships.
Vlasic is a plus player at plus-67 over seven seasons with the Sharks, an impressive achievement for a defenseman. He is also tied for the most blocked shots on the team at 81, sharing that honor with none other than Boyle. In this past season’s playoffs, he scored his first postseason goal against the Kings. Perhaps one of the more difficult areas to anticipate for the Hockey Canada team is injuries. Fortunately for Vlasic, he has remained relatively healthy throughout his career, which could help him snag a spot on Team Canada should any other hopeful gets hurt. In fact, his 519 games played puts him second to reach the 500-game mark among the entire 2005 NHL draft.
While all of these achievements are great, Vlasic has tough competition, and not just from his teammate Boyle. Of the 16 other defensemen making it to the orientation camp, quite a few have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup or the Norris. Others wear the “C” or “A” for their teams. It will be a hard road to show why he should be considered over others, but Vlasic is up to the challenge.
Joe Pavelski – USA
USA Hockey invited several gritty centers to their orientation camp, and Joe Pavelski fits that mold perfectly. His hardworking, hard-hitting style with 44 blocked shots and a willingness to battle in the corners will gel with USA Hockey’s “blue-collar” mentality.
Pavelski is a complete package for a Team USA center. His faceoff percentage in the 2013 season was 51.8 percent. When it comes to lighting the lamp, not only did the Big Pavelski tie for third on the Sharks team in point totals (31 points in 48 games), but he also excelled in the clutch moments with five game-winning goals. The minutes he played on the Sharks’ power kill were highest among Sharks forwards. Another plus, his PIMs (10 in the regular season and zero during the playoffs) rank among the lowest in the NHL. Added to his well-rounded game are his high amount of takeaways and shots.
But it is in the big games where his playing style produces the most important results on the score sheet. In the 2013 playoffs, Pavelski’s 12 points led his teammates, starting with a four-game point streak during the Sharks sweep of the Vancouver Canucks. Should he make USA Hockey’s Olympic roster, Joe Pavelski will make a big impact on the international stage.
Among Finland’s wealth of talent, no position is as loaded as their goaltending. With netminders such as Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask, Niklas Backstrom and Kari Lehtonen competing with the Sharks own Antti Niemi for the right to man the crease in Sochi, the decision should be very difficult for the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.
While Rask made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, Niemi’s 2013 season should put him on the top of the list. Not only was he tied for first among all NHL goaltenders in wins at 24 and a staggering 2,581 minutes played, he also played the second highest number of games at 43 out of 48, including all 11 games of the Sharks’ playoff run. Niemi faced 1,220 shots, making saves on 1,127 of those shots for a save percentage of .924, seventh highest in the league. He also added four shutouts to his season stats. Despite the game seven loss in the semifinals in 2013, Niemi still ranked fourth among all goaltenders in wins.
It was this performance that finally pulled the eyes of the East-coast sports media towards northern California and landed Niemi a Vezina nomination for 2013. While he didn’t add that to his hardware collection this spring, his name is engraved on the Stanley Cup. Add his experience in the playoffs (56 games played over four seasons) and you can say that Niemi can excel for the team in front of him with his habit of remaining cool in big games. It is this sort of performance that will make him the prime goaltender for Team Finland.