By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
In the spring of 1998, Dominik Hasek was 33 years old. He’d never won a playoff series in his career, almost all of which was spent playing for the small-market Buffalo Sabres.
He wasn’t an overnight star at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, but he was close. When Hasek led the Czech Republic to the gold medal, he went from a recognizable NHL player to the best at his position in the world.
Who will be this year’s Hasek? Here are five possibilities.
1. Matt Duchene, Canada
With young forwards Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon all blossoming this season, there is a reason why the Colorado Avalanche are National Hockey League’s surprise team. Duchene leads the three future stars, and all Avs, with 27 assists and 44 points. Those efforts led to a surprising Canadian Olympic team selection over the likes of Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis, James Neal and others.
The maturation of this recently turned 23-year-old has been impressive to watch. For Team Canada, Duchene will likely fit onto a lower-line role, and will be expected to play a strong two-way game while showing off his great skating ability. On a team full of big-name stars and better-known talents, I expect the Haliburton native to be one of the tournament’s big surprises.
2. Roman Josi, Switzerland
When watching third-year Nashville defenseman Roman Josi play, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 23. The Bern native is one of the NHL’s best-kept secrets, and fast becoming a superb transition blueliner who can take over a game with his puck skills. Josi has six goals and 22 points in 44 games this year. Already, he fits in nicely on the Predators’ emerging young defense alongside Shea Weber and Seth Jones.
On the international stage, Josi has already stepped to the forefront in 2013 after leading Switzerland to his country’s first silver medal at the World Championships since 1935. Josi took home tournament MVP honors while leading all Swiss players with nine points. He was also named the tournament’s best defenseman. In Sochi, a larger audience will see first-hand the evolution of this talented defender as he helps Switzerland contend for a medal.
3. Cam Fowler, United States
When the U.S. unveiled its 2014 Olympic roster, one of the biggest surprises was the selection of Fowler over Team USA veterans Jack Johnson and Keith Yandle. The 22-year-old has done nothing but amaze in his fourth NHL season with Anaheim. On the league’s best team, Fowler is fifth in scoring with 29 points, while posting an impressive plus-12 rating. Put in perspective, the Northville, Michigan native struggled to a minus-28 rating in 2011-12.
Now heading to Sochi, Fowler will be expected to take all that he’s learned from mentor Scott Niedermayer and provide a youthful spark on an American squad quickly maturing into a perennial gold-medal contender. Likely to slot just behind cornerstone blueliner Ryan Suter, the smooth skating Fowler should be a player to watch on the big ice in Russia.
4. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Sweden
Joining perhaps the best blue line in the world heading to Sochi, it’s easy to overlook Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Yet this 22-year-old has already emerged as the go-to blue liner on the Phoenix Coyotes and a player well worth paying to see every night with his dynamic two-way game.
Under the guidance of Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, Ekman-Larsson is strong and effective in his own end. He’s among the top 60 NHL defenseman in hits, one of few offensive stalwarts on the list. He’s also posted a positive rating in each of his first four NHL seasons. Meanwhile, Ekman-Larsson is an effective transition scoring defender, capable of contributing offensively night after night (26 points through 50 games). In Sochi, look for the Karlskrona native to play a significant role for the always-dangerous Swedes.
5. Vladimir Tarasenko, Russia
On a St. Louis Blues team not known for its elite skill up front, Vladimir Tarasenko is emerging as his team’s game-breaker. In his past 13 games Tarasenko has 14 points, upping his season total to 17 goals and 31 points. Perhaps most impressive for the 22-year-old: A plus-12 rating, representing just how much Tarasenko’s overall game is maturing under the guidance of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
An always explosive player who loves to shoot, the Yaroslavl native might get lost on Team Russia as opponents try to match their best defenders against Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuck. This means Tarasenko might find some unusual skating room to shine and become a well-known face on the home favorite Russians.
Five more poised to step out on the international stage: Gabriel Landeskog, Sweden; Olli Maatta, Finland; Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia; Tomas Tatar, Slovakia; Valeri Nichushkin, Russia.