In the opening article of our Sunday series last week, Olympic Preview Series: Introduction to Sochi 2014, we looked at how teams qualified, tournament groups, competition format, and schedule of play. Next up in PensBurgh's Olympic preview series we take a closer look at all the Sochi participating countries A-Z.
Willkommen in Österreich! Here are some fun facts about Austria (note #18, which doesn't make them all that dissimilar from us).
OLYMPIC HISTORY AND WORLD RANKING
Sochi 2014 will be Austria's first Olympic tournament participation since Salt Lake City in 2002, where they finished 12th. Austrian national ice hockey teams participated in the Olympic tournaments 12 times, their highest finish being 8th place at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
Austria is currently ranked #15 in the IIHF world ranking. It was one of the teams that didn't receive an automatic berth based on ranking and had to qualify, ousting Germany in the process and ending its streak of 16 consecutive Olympic appearances.
If you have 3 minutes to spare, watch this clip from the qualifying tournament in Germany (or just scroll to the 2' mark and start there). It's in German and it's a bit blurry, but you will see their (and their 2 dozen fans') unbridled joy at having qualified, and just a little bit of schadenfreude paired with Beck's I'm a Loser Baby (So Why Don't You Kill Me) aimed at their powerful neighbors to the north.
Only three Austrian-born players currently play in the NHL: Thomas Vanek (Buffalo Sabres), Michael Grabner (New York Islanders) and Michael Raffl (Philadelphia Flyers). The rest of the players on the roster will come from various North American minor leagues and European leagues, including their own Erste Bank Ice Hockey League.
The size of the Olympic rosters has been increased from 23 to 25 for the Sochi tournament, which would break down to 3 goaltenders, 8 defensemen, and 14 forwards. Unlike several other countries, Austria has not released a preliminary roster of Olympic candidates nor held a pre-Olympic orientation camp, so here is our best guess of what their final roster might look like.
Goalies: Bernhard Starkbaum (most recently Modo, Sweden); Rene Swette (Klagenfurter AC); Fabian Weinhandl (Klagenfurter AC).
Starkbaum is without a doubt the best goalie on this team. He played for Modo last season and was released despite posting a .933 SV% and a 2.06 GAA. Although currently unsigned, he is expected to sign with another Swedish team, Örebro, in the near future. His primary backup will be Swette, while the second backup will be either Weinhandl or potentially Mathias Lange (Iserlohn Roosters).
Defensemen (L stands for left, R for right shot): L Thomas Pöck (Klagenfurter AC); R Martin Schumnig (Klagenfurter AC); L Florian Iberer (Klagenfurter AC); R Andre Lakos (KHL Chomutov); L Robert Lukas (EHC Linz); L Johannes Reichel (Klagenfurter AC); L Mario Altmann (Villacher SV); and L Gerhard Unterluggauer (Villacher SV), athough he's 37 but I can't imagine his not making the team. Two other guys will definitely be in the mix and may get a nod: L Sven Klimbacher (Vienna Capitals) and L Matthias Trattnig (EC Salzburg). Either would be hard to omit but they have a lot of lefties and something will have to give. Their pairings might look like this: Pock-Schumnig; Iberer-Lakos; Reichel-Lukas; Unterluggauer-Altmann.
Forwards: LW Thomas Vanek (Buffalo Sabres); RW Michael Grabner (New York Islanders); LW Michael Raffl (Philadelphia Flyers); C Thomas Koch (Klagenfurter AC); LW Daniel Welser (EC Salzburg); C/RW Daniel Oberkofler (EHC Linz); LW/C Thomas Hundertpfund (Klagenfurter AC); LW/RW Markus Peintner (Villacher SV); LW/RW Thomas Raffl (EC Salzburg); RW/LW Gregor Baumgartner (EHC Linz); RW Manuel Latusa (EC Salzburg); LW/C David Schuller (Klagenfurter AC); C Raphael Herburger (Biel); LW/C Andreas Kristler (EC Salzburg). Again, based on position, familiarity, current form, or any injuries, a few other wingers will be in the mix, such as RW Matthias Iberer (EHC Linz) and RW Martin Ulmer (Biel).
While earlier this year many people had him as a lock for the Austrian team, it appears that RW Andreas Nodl's career has gone in the wrong direction since he posted 11G / 11A / +14 in 67 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010/11 playing primarily on the line with Mike Richards and James van Riemsdyk. He was placed on waivers in late November 2011, picked up by Carolina, spent some time in their system (with a handful of appearances in Raleigh), then went back to Europe this summer and tried to get a contract in Switzerland. He had tryouts with Lausanne HC and the Kloten Flyers, who ended up not signing him either.
If I had to guess what Austrian lines might look like, I'd say Vanek-Koch-Grabner (now that's a top line); Michael Raffl-Oberkolfer-Thomas Raffl (why not a brother line?); Welser-Hundertpfund-Latusa; Schuller-Baumgartner/Herburger-Peintner/Kristler. I had fun putting together most-difficult-to-pronounce lines, most consonants in a line, etc.
MEET THE COACHES
Austrian team will be coached by Emanuel "Manny" Viveiros, native of St. Albert (Alta). After a short-lived stint in the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars and the Hartford Whalers, Viveiros moved to Europe, settling in Austria. He became an Austrian citizen in 1998 and played in Austria until the end of his career. From 2008 to 2011 Viveiros was head coach of Klagenfurt AC in Erste Bank Hockey League, and in 2011 he became head coach of the Austrian national team. He was thrilled to see his team qualify for Sochi after unsuccessful qualifying campaigns for Turin and Vancouver.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Strength: Clearly their strength will be in the offensive zone. They have a lot of talented wingers, not quite so much depth at center, but they have scoring potential and some speed there. Vanek and Grabner are obvious players to watch, and Michael Raffl, an injury call-up for the Flyers, is making a strong case to stay with the team that's struggling to score. Paired with his brother Thomas, they could make 2/3 of a dynamic line for the Olympics.
Weakness: Defense. Their defensemen are solid and reasonably experienced, but aside from Thomas Pock, who did play in the NHL for a bit, they haven't seen the likes of forwards and prolific scorers that the Olympics will throw at them.
Austria has been drawn in Group B, along with Finland, Norway and 2010 Olympic champions Canada. Austria is probably one of the two weakest teams in the tournament. It was a huge deal for them just to qualify, and while they do have some terrific players, they just don't have the depth to compete against most other teams.
They first play Finland, then Canada followed by Norway. I think they'll lose respectably to Finland, badly to Canada, and it might be a close game against Norway. They will probably be ranked between 10-12 coming out of group play and will have to play an angry loaded team that didn't get a desired bye to the quarterfinals, and that will be it for Austria. I think their Olympic road will end in the qualification playoff. It will be a great experience for them nevertheless, and hopefully pave the road to future success and continued Olympic participation.
Next up is the country that gave us Nickelback. I tease Canada a lot because I love Canada a lot. Because all is fair in love, war, and hockey, and Olympics mean all three, the good Canadian boys are fair game next Sunday.