By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
Ever since the Winter Olympics featured NHL players for its 1998 edition, four men, including three goaltenders, have taken home the honor as the tournament’s best player:
1998 (Nagano, Japan): Dominik Hasek, Czech Republic
2002 (Salt Lake City): Joe Sakic, Canada
2006 (Turin, Italy): Antero Niittymaki, Finland
2010 (Vancouver): Ryan Miller, United States
Who will be top player in Sochi, carrying his team to glory? Here are five names to keep an eye on:
1. Henrik Zetterberg, Sweden
Considering the previous players to carry the captaincy for Team Sweden are Nicklas Lidstrom and Mats Sundin, Henrik Zetterberg has some big skates to fill in Sochi. The 33-year-old Detroit Red Wings star will arrive in Russia equipped with the makeup to handle the pressure for a hockey-devoted nation that has won just one medal (Gold in 2006) since the NHL floodgates opened.
This season Zetterberg has been carrying the injury-depleted Red Wings, leading Detroit in goals (16), assists (28), points (44) and plus/minus (plus-19). In last year’s playoffs the former seventh-round pick (another Red Wings diamond in the rough) found another gear, almost completely shutting down stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Detroit’s near upset of the heavily-favored Blackhawks. He’ll likely play a similar role to free up offensive space for his skilled Swedish teammates. Zetterberg should be menacing on both ends in Sochi.
2. Sidney Crosby, Canada
Sidney Crosby will arrive in Sochi under the same glare of the spotlight that he’s endured his whole career. To date that intense media focus has been well earned as the world’s greatest hockey player’s accomplishments have been nothing short of stunning: Stanley Cup Champion (2010), NHL MVP (2007 and likely in 2014), NHL scoring champion (2007) and goal scoring champion (2010). He’s also 26 years old, and may just be getting started. But the most famous moment so far in Crosby’s career came back in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics, when he scored the gold medal winning goal in overtime against Team USA.
Freshly minted as Team Canada’s captain, the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native will try to lead his native land to something the hockey-crazed nation hasn’t done in over 60 years: win a gold medal outside North America. The 26-year-old is poised for his biggest performance yet, as he leads the NHL in assists (48), points (75) and will likely be playing aside his favorite Penguins wingman Chris Kunitz on Canada’s top line (and potentially fellow sniper Steven Stamkos). Fans of the Maple Leaf are hoping that this dynamic duo will be even more dominant in Russia.
3. Evgeni Malkin, Russia
On a Russian squad full of stars, Evgeni Malkin might represent the team’s most complete player. An exceptional skater, shooter and puck possessor, the 27-year-old is also 6-foot-3 and physically strong. Considering that Malkin plays on the same Pittsburgh team as Crosby, it’s easy to forget that he, not Sid the Kid, won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP during the Penguins’ 2010 Stanley Cup march. Malkin also has a Hart Trophy in his case from his incredible, 50-goal, 109-point 2011-2012 season.
The Magnitogorsk native thrives in big games. As languages go, he’s certainly more comfortable in his native Russian. Therefore, as the pressure mounts on Malkin’s Team Russia teammates like Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, expect the power forward to feel right in his element in Sochi. Malkin will likely will slot on the team’s second line and be a brutally tough matchup for opponents trying to key on either him or Pavel Datsyuk.
4. Ryan Kesler, United States
Somewhat lost in the heroics of Ryan Miller and the American defense was Ryan Kesler’s performance at the 2010 Games. The prideful Livonia, Michigan native was a two-way stalwart competing in his NHL team’s home building, driving opponents crazy with his tight-checking game, while combining that with great offensive efforts on the other end. That’s exactly the kind of player Kesler has been this season with the Canucks. He’s got 18 goals and 33 points in 57 games with Vancouver, and leads the Canucks’ forwards in time on ice (22:13), a testament to his value in all game situations.
It’s been a remarkable comeback story for the 29-year-old, who after an incredible Stanley Cup playoff run in the spring of 2011 saw his career fall off an injury-riddled cliff. After posting 41 goals and 73 points in 2010-2011, Kesler slipped to just 22 and 49 in the following season. In the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 campaign, the 6-2 forward managed to dress for just 17 games. Healthy again, Kesler should be a force in Russia.
5. Antti Niemi, Finland
In a nation loaded with great goaltenders, the San Jose Sharks’ star might not even be Team Finland’s starter in Sochi (Tuukka Rask of Boston could get top billing). When it comes to big game goaltenders in the NHL, few are better than the 30-year-old Vantaa native. He won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2009 and has posted 120 wins and 18 shutouts over the past four seasons with the Sharks. In last year’s playoffs Niemi was nearly unbeatable, going 7-4-0 while allowing just 21 goals in 11 postseason contests (1.87 goals against average, .930 save percentage) as San Jose narrowly missed out a deep run.
Like Rask, Niemi has yet to take center stage in the Olympics. Both talented netminders will likely get at least one start in Sochi. Though the battle for Team Finland’s net should be intense, I expect the slightly older and more experienced Niemi to get the nod as he tries to carry Finland to a place the Scandinavian nation has yet to reach: The top of Olympic hockey medal podium.
Five more potential tournament standouts:
Jaroslav Halak, Slovakia; Shea Weber, Canada; Jonathan Quick, United States; David Krejci, Czech Republic; Jonas Hiller, Switzerland