We are now less than a year away from puck drop to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi Russia. Even though there is uncertainty about whether or not NHL players will be allowed to play in the Olympics, I do believe it will all work out and we will see NHL stars perform for their countries in the quest for a gold medal.
There were some shocks in the IIHF Olympic qualifiers while the NHLers were playing hockey in North America. Surprisingly, Slovenia was able to replace Germany in the Olympics as an 18th seed. That means Stanley Cup winner Anze Kopitar will have the opportunity to make his country proud for the first time, and possibly the only time.
Also, Thomas Vanek will be heading to Sochi with Austria who qualified, replacing Belarus. Latvia will remain in the Olympics, however I think Germany and Belarus could beat them.
Here are the three groups in Sochi.
Thoughts: This is going to be a tough division. Russia and the US will battle for the number one spot. When they clash at the Bulshay Ice Dome in February, all eyes around the world will be on that game. Slovakia could pull an upset on one of those teams with Zdeno Chara at defense, even though he is aging. Slovenia will not be expected to win a game, which is what will most likely end up happening. However, many will be cheering on the underdog, hoping for a major upset to shake up the standings.
Thoughts: Not knowing much about Austria, but they could find hope in playing good team defense and having Vanek leading them in scoring. Canada will be heavily favored in this group as they will have a fully loaded roster with great depth, as per usual. Finland will be an interesting team to watch for as Pekka Rinne could be able to play out of his mind and be able to stop a team like Canada. Norway doesn't have too much skill, but they should be able to play solid, all-around defense to prevent other teams from scoring.
Thoughts: Of all the groups, this will be the most intriguing to watch because all of these teams, except Latvia, could advance to the playoffs. Sweden is the favorite due to their depth, similar to the United States'. The Czech Republic has always been inconsistent, so no one really knows what to expect from them. They don't have a all-star goalie like Sweden, US, Canada or Finland, but the players up front can do the job and get wins. Do you remember Switzerland in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics? Yes, they were fun to watch as everyone was rooting for them to pull the upset. Jonas Hiller was playing the best hockey he has ever played and in order for them to repeat that similar success, Hiller will have to play the same way.
With less than eight months away from the USA Hockey Olympic roster announcement, I have done the work to create my own roster for Team USA. I believe the US team will have a better team entering the Olympics, now that they are more experienced and have grown older.
Here is USA's predicted roster.
Zach Parise - Ryan Kesler - Patrick Kane
Phil Kessel - Joe Pavelski - Dustin Brown
Bobby Ryan - Alex Galchenyuk - Maxim Pacioretty
James van Riemsdyk - David Backes - Ryan Callahan
Ryan Suter - Keith Yandle
Jack Johnson - Kevin Shattenkirk
Brooks Orpik - Ryan McDonaugh
Look for the Team USA Hockey selection to get out with the old and bring in the new. Alex Galchenyuk, James van Riemsdyk, Derek Stepan and Max Pacioretty are perfect examples of young players coming in. They are also quick and hard working, which is how the US plays.
Leaving the team could be Ryan Miller, but highly doubt it. Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson is playing well right now and could be a better option to be a back-up than Miller.
Follow @OlympicHckyNews for the latest news in Olympic Hockey. The Olympic Hockey News site will be up and running soon and I have high expectations for this project.