A year from now, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are set to see the return of best on best hockey, barring any COVID-19 related scheduling changes. It will be our first chance to see the likes of Connor McDavid, Nathan Mackinnon and Jack Eichel on the Olympic stage following the absence of NHL players in PyeongChang in 2018. What will Olympic rosters look like and what will be their impact on the 2021-22 NHL season?
Ottawa Senators fans will certainly recall what impact the 2006 Olympics in Torino had on the 2005-06 NHL season. It equalled their highest regular season win total with a record of 52-21-9. Up until the Olympic break, they were led by Dominik Hasek in net. Hasek went down with an injury playing for the Czech Republic and rookie netminder Ray Emery was between the pipes the rest of the way, eventually losing in five games to the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
As it stands today, the best record this season belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Given that the core of the Leafs roster will remain largely intact next season, let’s project who on the team is likely to take part in the Olympic hockey tournament.
Starting with Team Canada, Mitch Marner is a lock to play alongside either Sidney Crosby or McDavid. Morgan Reilly has shown enough over the last two seasons to worthy serious consideration as a top six defender on the Canadian Olympic team. I am also projecting that John Tavares will return to the Olympics after winning Gold in Sochi in 2014.
On the United States Olympic Hockey Team, Auston Matthews will make his heavily anticipated Olympic debut. Matthews, the leading goal scorer in the NHL this season, is projected as the top line centre for the Americans. Given a lot can happen in a year, I am including a dark horse pick for this team in Nick Robertson. Out with an injury currently, if Robertson enters the lineup and makes a strong impression, he could get some consideration.
There are two remaining Maple Leafs on the current roster who could be Olympians next February. William Nylander is a solid bet to slot in on the wing for Sweden. Nylander was named the Tournament MVP at the 2017 IIHF World Championships with 14 points in 10 games on their way to the championship.
Frederik Andersen would be my last pick to play in the 2022 Olympics. This one has some caveats, though. First, Andersen is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Second, Denmark has not qualified for the games. The Danish team will be play in a qualification tournament in August against Norway, South Korea and Slovenia for a spot in Beijing.
Top three forwards, top defenseman and top goaltender all potentially suiting up for their national teams. We have already touched on the Ottawa Senators experience in 2006. The experience in 2010 and 2014, though, tells a different story.
The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks featured Olympians Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky. The 2014 Los Angeles Kings featured Olympians Slava Voynov, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter.
History tells us that the playing of an Olympic hockey tournament in the middle of a season does not prevent the best teams, loaded with Olympians, from competing and winning a Stanley Cup championship. It also tells us that the inclusion of NHL players in the Olympics comes with the risk of season ending injury.
What would Leafs fans rather have: an injured Auston Matthews but Olympic Gold for Mitch Marner and John Tavares or a Stanley Cup Championship and a parade down Lakeshore Boulevard?
No matter the outcome, it will be exciting to watch Matthews vs. Marner, United States vs. Canada, best on best, once again, on the biggest stage there is.