This won’t be the most eye-popping of hockey tournaments at the Olympics.
But it will still be compelling hockey.
Fully 20 years after NHLers first competed just across the Sea of Japan in Nagano, the current Olympic ice hockey tournament will be bereft of top shelf NHL talent.
Rather, it will feature a collection of European league (think KHL), minor league and collegiate hockey players, many of who dreamed of one day playing for their countries.
It won’t quite be like the old days of “amateurs” who trained together for longer periods of time in order to compete, but rather a more hastily assembled group of pros and select amateurs who have worked mostly outside their home countries.
Is there a favorite to win among the 12 teams competing, then?
Hard to say, given the relative anonymity of some of the players, but you can bet the typical world powers like Canada, the U.S., OAR (that would be Russia) and Sweden will fight hard for gold.
Here are 20 players, most of them a bit recognizable, to watch when the tournament begins next week.
20. Pavel Datsyuk – OAR
It has to stick in the craw of “clean” Russian athletes that they can’t compete under their own flag, but make no mistake the Russians, or OAR (the clunky Olympic Athlete from Russia), are a fair powerhouse coming into these games. Pavel Datsyuk, just two years removed from the NHL, comes into the Pyeongchang Olympics as the OAR team’s captain and one of the biggest names. The 39-year-old is still producing at near a point per game clip in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg, which in itself is an All-Star team that features Ilya Kovalchuk. A shifty center, Datsyuk played 953 NHL regular season games, all with Detroit, scoring 918 points and winning three Selke Trophies and two Stanley Cups.
19. Derek Roy – Canada
Roy is one of those Canadian veterans at these Olympics who probably wondered what it would have been like to compete in the games. Leading up to the 2010 event in Vancouver, Roy was invited to attend the tryout camp the summer before. A key part of the Buffalo Sabres then, the Ottawa native was up against the likes of superstar centermen Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews for on of the coveted pivot spots. He didn’t make it and thereafter his production started to decline and he became a journeyman until heading to Europe in 2015. After scoring 524 points in 738 NHL games, Roy suited up for Bern in the Swiss league in 2015-16 and then split 2016-17 with Omsk and Chelyabinsk of the KHL. This season Roy is the leading scorer for Linkopings of the Swedish League with 33 points in 39 games. He’ll no doubt play a big role in any medal defending champion Canada wins.
18. Brian Gionta – USA
The little guy will be well represented at these games, what with the inclusion of 2006 Olympic participant and 5’7″ Brian Gionta to the American squad (Derek Roy is 5’9″ and Pavel Datsyuk is charitably 5’11”). Gionta, who will captain Team USA, is a special case, in that he was only practicing with the AHL’s Rochester Americans before being invited out (he didn’t sign a NHL contract, so he is eligible). The longtime NHLer played all 82 games for the Buffalo Sabres last season, scoring 35 points. The 39-year-old Rochester, NY native has played in 1,006 big league games, recording 588 points. He won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2003.
17. Rasmus Dahlin – Sweden
We are changing tack with the inclusion of Rasmus Dahlin. The Swedish defenceman isn’t even 18 yet but is the consensus no. 1 pick for the 2018 NHL entry draft by just about every learned hockey talent forecaster, like the International Scouting Service. The talented youngster plays for Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League and isn’t just a contributor, but dominant. If he was to be compared to anyone, he would be a mix of countrymen Erik Karlsson for his vision and offensive capabilities, Niklas Lidstrom for defensive prowess and Adam Larsson for hitting ability. So far this season with Frolunda, Dahlin has six goals and 11 assists in 35 games and was dominant at the World Juniors too, logging six assists in seven games for silver medalist Sweden.
16. Miro Heiskanen – Finland
While we’re on the subject of up-and-coming defencemen, Finland has one of their own too. Miro Heiskanen, who was drafted third overall by the Dallas Stars in 2017, is a dynamic two-way rearguard who is skating with Finnish Liiga powerhouse HIFK Helsinki. Just 18, Heiskanen has 11 goals and eight assists in just 25 games for HIFK. He already has plenty of international experience, having suited up in the last two World Junior championships for Finland and contributing three assists in 11 games. The book on the Espoo born Heiskanen is that he is an excellent two-way player, who, like Dahlin above, isn’t afraid of the rough going and has very sound offensive skills.
15. Martin Erat – Czech Republic
For those who might not remember Czech veteran Martin Erat, he was once one of Nashville’s premier forwards, playing the first 11 seasons of his 881-game career in the Music City. He scored the majority of his 545 points with the Predators, registering 163 goals and 318 assists in 723 games there. In 2012-13, when his production was going south, he was infamously traded to Washington for youngster Filip Forsberg, which in hindsight looks even more lopsided now. Erat left the NHL in 2015 after a season in Arizona, competing with KHL side Omsk Avangard in 2015-16, before heading home to play with Brno of the Czech League. In 47 games this season, the 36-year-old has 46 points. He won Olympic bronze with the Czech team at the 2006 Turin games.
14. Ladislav Nagy – Slovakia
In terms of chances to win at the 2018 Pyeongchang games, Slovakia has very slim hopes. But they do have a couple of weapons, who, should they be left alone on the ice could come back to haunt their opponents. One is former NHL winter Ladislav Nagy, who parlayed a seventh round selection (177th overall) in 1997 to St. Louis into a decent 435-game NHL career. He spent a good portion of it with the Phoenix Coyotes, scoring 115 goals and adding 196 assists. After a stint with Los Angeles in 2007-08, he headed back to Europe and the KHL with Cherepovets. Now 38, Nagy also bounced around in the Swedish League with MODO and in the Finnish Liiga with Jokerit before settling back with his hometown Kosice squad in the Slovak League. In two seasons with them, he has 99 points in 86 games. It will be interesting to watch him skate at these Olympics, his first ever.
13. Christian Ehrhoff – Germany
Germany hasn’t medaled at an Olympics in hockey since winning bronze in 1976 at Innsbruck. Given that no NHLers are competing at these games, some also-rans like the German side have an outside shot. The Germans last competed in 2010 at Vancouver and placed 11th. Ehrhoff was part of that team, as well as the 2006 entry that placed 10th in Turin. A top two caliber defenceman for many years in the NHL, Ehrhoff now skates with the Cologne Sharks of the top German League and continues to be a great puck-mover and shooter, piling up 54 points in 85 games over two seasons. He’s not that far removed from the NHL, last skating for the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16. Over a 789-game career, he tallied 339 points, as well as 34 points in 73 playoff games. He was a member of the Vancouver Canucks team that went to the Stanley Cup final in 2011, too.
12. Patrick Thoresen – Norway
Norway is no different from a half dozen or so other entrants at Pyeongchang in that any team could take down any team if they get good goaltending and a few breaks. The Norwegians, who finished a distant 12th at Sochi in 2014, have some solid players on their roster, the most notable of who is former NHLer Thoresen. The 35-year-old native of Hamar played in 106 NHL games with Edmonton and Philadelphia, registering 24 points. He was never drafted, signing a free agent contract with the Oilers after a very good career in the QMJHL (181 points in 131 games) and three seasons with Djurgardens IF Stockholm of the Swedish League. His two-season foray into the NHL was followed by some very good years in the Swiss League, Swedish League and KHL, where he still skates with Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk with SKA St. Petersburg. He has 11 points in 13 games with the team this season.
11. Jan Mursak – Slovenia
The most famous Slovenian hockey player, by far, is L.A. Kings superstar Anze Kopitar. He won’t be competing due to the NHL embargo, so the reins of leadership fall to lesser-known Mursak. The Slovenians, with Kopitar in the line-up at Sochi in 2014, managed to win a couple of games, get to the quarter-finals and ultimately finish seventh. Mursak left his native Maribor in 2006 to skate with Saginaw of the OHL and was later a teammate of PK Subban in Belleville. He was good enough to be drafted by Detroit in 2006, going 182nd overall. He would end up in their minor league system with Grand Rapids and was productive enough to be called up for 46 games over three seasons (two goals and two assists). He went back to Europe in 2013 and up until this season was in the KHL and putting up admirable point totals for teams like CSKA Moscow. This season the right winger is playing with Frolunda, where he has nine points in nine games. He had three points in five games for Team Slovenia at the Sochi event.
10. Pius Suter – Switzerland
There are a couple of recognizable names on the Swiss roster, like former long-time Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller and Montreal defenceman Raphael Diaz. The player to watch for Switzerland, though, is slight centerman Suter, who is just 21 and has been lighting up the Swiss A league with Zurich Lions. He is second in team scoring this season, scoring 38 points in just 33 games and in 117 games in Zurich since playing two seasons in the OHL with the Guelph Storm, he has 42 goals and 49 assists. Suter, who was never drafted, had a great second season in Guelph in 2014-15, scoring 43 goals and adding 29 assists in 61 games. Switzerland finished ninth at the Sochi games and haven’t medaled since winning bronze in 1948 at St. Moritz.
9. Matt Dalton – Korea
If the low ranked Koreans have any chance of winning — or just not embarrassing themselves — they’ll have to get good goaltending. The host team has drawn heavily on North American born talent and ex-pat veteran netminder Dalton will be front and center. The 31-year-old from Clinton, Ontario played NCAA hockey at Bemidji State with current Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Brad Hunt and then bounced between the Providence Bruins of the AHL and Reading Royals of the ECHL for two years. In 2011 he signed with Chekhov Vityaz of the KHL and finished up a fair career in that league with Nizhnekamsk in 2013-14. Dalton now plays with Anyang Halla of the Asia Hockey League, where he is tops in save percentage (.941) and goals against average (1.78) in 20 games. He’ll likely face a lot of rubber in the coming days.
8. Linden Vey – Canada
Vey gets the chance to showcase his recovered scoring touch in his first true international competition. Hailing from Wakaw, SK, Vey played in the NHL right up until a brief four-game stint with Calgary last season. After a great four-season career with the Medicine Hat Tigers, during which he was drafted 96th overall by Los Angeles in 2009, Vey put in great work with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. However, he wouldn’t find real full-time work in NHL, getting in 138 contests with the Kings, Vancouver and the Flames, scoring 14 goals and adding 30 assists. Vey signed with the KHL’s Astana Barys this year and tallied 52 points in 50 games before heading to Switzerland to play for Zurich, where he has five points in seven games.
7. Slava Voynov – OAR
Voynov, who was rather good for a few seasons with the Los Angeles Kings a few years ago, left under a cloud of controversy — he was suspended by the NHL after being arrested on domestic violence charges — and has starred alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk with SKA St. Petersburg for the last three seasons. The Chelyabinsk born rearguard has oodles of international experience, including five games at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the World Championships too. Just turned 28, Voynov is still in his prime and he headlines a OAR defensive corps that might be one of the best in this tournament. Look for him to quarterback the powerplay and make great transitional plays out of his own zone.
6. Ryan Zapolski – USA
The Yanks, who don’t have a ton of top end offensive talent and have invited several kids, too, will live and die by their goaltending. And playing in a group that includes the OAR, the starting netminder will get a stern test right away. Of the three who made the club, veteran Zapolski is the most intriguing. Hailing from Erie, PA, Zapolski is an unknown to most hockey fans who don’t follow Mercyhurst College (where he played four years of NCAA hockey) and the ECHL, where he bounced around for parts of three seasons before bolting for Finland. It was with Lukko Rauma of the SM-Liiga that Zapolski found his footing, posting a ridiculous 24 shutouts in 163 games. For the past two seasons he has starred with big Finnish club Jokerit, where he starts in front of former NHLer Karri Ramo. He has a .932 save percentage, 1.73 goals against and nine shutouts in just 38 games this season.
5. Jhonas Enroth – Sweden
It will likely be a battle between former NHLers Enroth and Viktor Fasth for Sweden’s starting goalie honors in Pyeongchang. Not to discount third man Magnus Hellberg, either. Of the troika, Enroth, in our estimation, has the inside track based on his overall body of work and play this season in the KHL with Minsk. The Stockholm native brings 153 games of NHL experience to the table (the last six with Toronto in 2016-17). He has been fairly brilliant with Dynamo, posting a 2.04 GAA with four shutouts and a .924 save percentage in 51 games. Enroth has also played a ton internationally for Sweden and won a silver medal with the Swedes at Sochi as the team’s third goalie. Sweden is in a group with rival Finland, as well as Germany and Norway.
4. Ryan Donato – USA
Instead of using all ex-NHLers and European players, the U.S. has decided to give four NCAA players a shot at glory. Of the collegiate three forwards, also featuring Jordan Greenway of Boston University and Troy Terry of Denver, we think Harvard’s Donato is well worth keeping an eye on. The Crimson junior is a Boston native and a Bruins draft pick (56th overall in 2014) and projects to be a sniper at the NHL level. The 21-year-old pivot has scored 55 goals and added 37 assists in 91 games for the Crimson in three seasons. Internationally, Donato played with bronze medal winning Team USA at the 2016 world junior championships, scoring three goals and adding an assist in seven games. His dad is former longtime NHL winger — and also a Bruin — Ted Donato.
3. Eeli Tolvanen – Finland
Tolvanen is another young gun poised to do great things at these Olympics, given the chance. Drafted 30th overall by Nashville in 2017 — he was expected to go higher — the sniping right wing has done wonders with Jokerit as an 18-year-old this season, scoring 17 goals and 17 assists in 47 games for the Finnish KHL side. He’s not the biggest guy at 5’10”, 181 lbs., however, he is quick and has a powerful, accurate shot in his arsenal. Tolvanen has been a terror at the international level for the Finns, scoring 12 points in 11 games at the last two world junior championships, and an incredible 16 goals in 12 U-18 contests. With his play this season in the KHL and a strong showing in Pyeongchang, Tolvanen may end up being a huge steal for the Preds.
2. Ben Scrivens – Canada
Canada’s goaltending situation may remain fluid right up until the Olympic playoffs, given that they have three fairly competent netminders, all with NHL experience. For our money, we think Scrivens has the goods to take the team the furthest, but that remains to be seen. The undrafted netminder played four standout seasons with Cornell and made the leap to pro in the Toronto system in 2010. Scrivens made his debut with the Maple Leafs during the 2011-12 campaign and would go on to play 144 games in the NHL, also appearing with L.A., Edmonton and Montreal. His numbers were fairly solid, with a .905 save percentage, seven shutouts and a 2.92 goals against average. This season with Ufa Salavat Yulayev of the KHL, he has a 2.29 GAA in 35 games, with four shutouts.
1. Ilya Kovalchuk – OAR
The one player we won’t be able to take our eyes off at the Pyeongchang should easily be the best player, the OAR’s Ilya Kovalchuk. For five years since leaving the NHL — while still in his prime — Kovalchuk has ripped up the KHL with the star-laden SKA St. Petersburg squad. After 816 points in 816 NHL games with Atlanta and New Jersey, the big left winger has 120 goals and 165 assists in 262 games. He’s added another 33 points in 54 playoff contests too. Kovalchuk took the NHL by storm after being picked first overall by the Thrashers in 2001, twice scoring over 50 goals, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2004 with 41. At 34 years of age, he is showing no sign of slowing down either, scoring 63 of his latest 120 KHL goals the last two seasons. This will be his fifth Olympics and another crack at an elusive gold medal.