Dark horses at Olympics to benefit from NHL talent
Can Switzerland's surprise run to a silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship be the start of an Olympic medal run for the nation's men's hockey team?
That will be the goal when Switzerland adds a few more NHL regulars to its roster for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held Feb. 12-23, in Sochi, Russia.
Switzerland hasn't had much previous Olympic success since NHL players began participating, with the team's best finish being sixth place in 2006.
Austria, Norway, Latvia and Slovenia also will look to a boost from a few NHL players to carry them to Olympic success. Here's a look at which current and recent former NHL players could help those teams in their medal quests:
Austria is back in the Olympics for the first time since a 12th-place finish in 2002. Offense shouldn't be a problem; the team's top line likely will include Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek. He led the Sabres with 20 goals and 41 points last season and topped Austria with four goals and six points in seven games at the World Championship.
Potentially joining him on Austria's top line is New York Islanders right wing Michael Grabner. One of the fastest skaters in the NHL, Grabner had 16 goals and 21 points in 45 games last season to help the Islanders make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He chipped in with four points in six postseason games.
Another NHL player who could make the team is forward Andreas Nodl, who split last season between the Carolina Hurricanes and the team's American Hockey League affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. Nodl had one assist in eight NHL games last season. He last played internationally for his country at the 2009 World Championship.
After finishing 10th in 2010, Norway's Olympic return likely will feature arguably the country's most popular player, Mats Zuccarello. The 5-foot-7 forward broke out on the international stage four years ago in Vancouver with one goal and two assists in four games. He also led the Swedish league in scoring in 2009-10 and parlayed that success into an NHL contract with the New York Rangers, where he's become a valuable role player over the past three seasons.
Former NHL defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen also is likely to be on the team. He last played in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2009-10 season. Since then he's played in Sweden and has captained Norway's team at the previous three World Championships.
Another player to watch is goaltender Lars Volden, a 2011 sixth-round pick of the Boston Bruins. He's played in Finland since getting drafted, and the 21-year-old got into two games at the 2013 Worlds.
Latvia finished 11th at the Worlds without its lone current NHL player, Kaspars Daugavins. He had four points in 25 games last season split between the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, and played in six Stanley Cup Playoff games, including four in the Final. Daugavins was held scoreless in four games at the 2010 Olympics, when Latvia finished 12th.
Zemgus Girgensons, a 2012 first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, likely will have a spot on the team that goes to Sochi. The 19-year-old center had 17 points in 61 games with the Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate last season, and had one goal in five games at the Worlds.
Another player who could earn a spot on the roster is defenceman Arturs Kulda. A 2006 seventh-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound blueliner played nine games for the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12. He spent last season in Russia but signed a new deal with the Jets in March. He had two points in seven games for Latvia at the Worlds.
Slovenia won a tournament in Denmark in February to qualify for the Olympics for the first time. They did it without the nation's best hockey player, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. The Kings' recent Stanley Cup Playoff success has kept Kopitar from representing his country since 2008, but barring injury, he'll be the most prominent player on the team when the tournament starts in Russia.
Another player who could be with him is forward Jan Mursak. He played two games with the Detroit Red Wings last season, and helped the team's AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, win the Calder Cup, finishing second on the team with 11 goals in 23 playoff games. He'll play for Amur Khabarovsk in Russia this season.
Years of improved development has the Swiss ready to make the jump to equal footing with the "Big 7" of international hockey.
Up front, expect recent NHL first-round picks Nino Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi to play major roles in the offense. Niederreiter, the fifth pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, spent last season with the New York Islanders' AHL team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, where he had a team-best 28 goals in 74 games, then had a team-best five goals for Switzerland at the Worlds. Traded to the Minnesota Wild over the summer, he should get the chance to earn a full-time NHL job this season. Baertschi, the 13th pick in the 2011 draft, had 10 points in 20 games with the Calgary Flames after totaling 26 points in 32 games with the club's AHL team, the Abbottsford Heat.
The big player on defence for Switzerland likely will be the Nashville Predators' Roman Josi. The 23-year-old capped his first full NHL season with a remarkable performance at the Worlds: He led the team with nine points and was named the tournament's best defenceman and most valuable player.
Also available to bolster the defence is Mark Streit of the Philadelphia Flyers, Luca Sbisa of the Anaheim Ducks and Yannick Weber of the Vancouver Canucks.
In goal likely will be the Ducks' Jonas Hiller. He played five games for Switzerland when it finished eighth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Competing for playing time will be former NHL goalie Martin Gerber. The 38-year-old last played in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2010-11 season, and had a 1.81 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in six games at the World Championship.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor