So here we are, at the end of an eventful day of Olympic men's hockey roster announcements and, while we're waiting for the dust to settle, we have a few hours until the Pens play a late game on the West Coast to reflect on the wealth of news and all the impressions.
As most of you know, over the past two months I've spent a lot of time writing a country-by-country preview of Olympic hockey teams. That involved tapping into my memories of great hockey battles of Olympics past as well as many hours of research and compiling the stats of players in hockey leagues of faraway countries. So naturally now that we have the teams announced, we can all reflect on what it means for some key medal hopefuls and, most importantly, what it means for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their players chosen (or not) to represent their countries.
The Pens are in the upper echelon of NHL teams when it comes to the number of Olympians, with 7 players. The St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks lead the pack with 10 apiece. Last week following the NHL Winter Classic we learned that our defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik were chosen for team USA, and today we know that five of their teammates will battle them on team Finland (Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta), team Canada (Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz), and team Russia (Evgeni Malkin). Are there any surprises there? Perceived, maybe. Actual, no. Since we've already talked about team USA ad nauseum, we'll skip that and focus on the other three teams on which the Pens will be represented.
Let's start with team Finland. Did I mention that Teemu Selanne is going to his SIXTH Olympics? Compared with the team I predicted, there are very few surprises, none really. On defense, the only difference was that Toni Lydman had retired due to numerous concussions, opening the door for Jokerit's Ossi Vaananen. At forward, KHL players Juhamatti Aaltonen, Petri Kontiola, Jori Lehtera and Antti Pihlstrom were chosen over injured NHLers Ville Leino and Saku Koivu (who pulled himself out of the lineup due to insufficient conditioning post-concussion), as well as Antti Miettinen and Niklas Hagman, whose form or role was judged to be inadequate. Can't argue with any of those. This is an excellent lineup and I maintain my original projection that Finland will medal in this tournament. Their defense is nothing flashy, just OK, but these guys know how to play on the big ice. Their goaltending is absolutely spectacular, and their forward corps have a great mix of youth (Aleksander Barkov, Leo Komarov) and veteran experience. Jussi Jokinen is a veteran of the Finnish Lions, having represented Finland 10 times internationally and collecting 6 medals. As for our baby Penguin, Olli Maatta, I couldn't be happier for him if he were my own kid. I tear up every time I think of how far he's come from that pimple-faced high-schooler we drafted at #22 18 months ago.
Moving on to team Russia. There are some considerable differences compared to the team I predicted. At goalie, they went with Dynamo Moscow's Alexander Yeryomenko instead of Konstantin Barulin, and I can't really argue with that. On defense, they went with Nikita Nikitin, Anton Belov and Alexei Emelin over Sergei Gonchar, Kirill Koltsov and Slava Belov. Again, no complaints. At forward, they went with Nikolai Kulemin, Valeri Nichushkin, Alexei Tereschenko, Viktor Tikhonov, and Sergei Soin over Alexander Semin, struggling Nail Yakupov, injury-hampered Evgeny Kuznetsov, and leading KHL scorers Sergei Mozyakin and Danis Zaripov. I can't fault them here either. Kuznetsov has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury most of the season. Yakupov, well, how much time do you have? Mozyakin and Zaripov are scoring machines, but there's only one puck and Russia already has many chiefs so they needed some indians. Totally wise. Oh, and supposedly Ovechkin will be on Malkin's wing.
Which brings us, inevitably, to team Canada. Sidney Crosby was a lock (the only question is will he be C or A?). Everyone else (Kunitz, Neal, Fleury, Letang) was debatable and in the end only Kuni made it. Like most other teams, Canada went after chemistry and desired roles over names and points scored. They were putting together a team to win a short and intense tournament, as opposed to an All-Star team. In regards to Fleury, you and I and my mom all know that he wouldn't have been picked even if he hadn't let in a single goal this whole season. He is too risky. Okay then, he plays too much as it is. Thank you for sparing him. Letang, again, he spent too much time being injured and inconsistent. He could use a chip on his shoulder. We still love you, Kris. If you spend the rest of the NHL season showing them you should have been selected, we'd be all for that. James Neal is a difficult omission to justify, but again, it's not like Canada is wanting of scorers. I imagine if it turns our Stammer can't go that Neal would be the first alternate on the right wing, though.
Mostly I laugh at all the people who went into absolute overdrive claiming Chris Kunitz is on this team only because of his chemistry with Crosby. Rather, Kunitz has that rare talent of being able to play well with everyone because he's good at what he does, which, incidentally, happens to be relentless forecheck, crashing the net and burying pucks in it. We also have a fanpost up on Kunitz's value to team Canada, so check it out.
So there we are. Five more Penguins will be at the Olympics, making it that much more confusing to figure out who to root for. Let's go, whoever you are - penguins / пингвины / manchots / pingviinit! We love you all!