30 Thoughts: Keys to Olympic hockey success
Olympic-themed analysis looks at how NHL players will need to adjust
He doesn’t get a lot of pub, but one of the players I enjoy chatting about hockey with is Florida’s Jesse Winchester. He’s got a good eye for things and breaks down the game easily enough for dim-witted reporters.
Last season, he spent some time in Finland with Jokerit. When the Panthers passed through Toronto a couple of weeks ago, we talked about what Canada should expect on the big ice in Sochi. He had some really good thoughts, so I asked him to take some time to compose them in an email.
He agreed. Here are some of the highlights:
SYSTEMS: “Based on my experience overseas, most teams I encountered used a neutral zone trap to negate the speed with which their opponents were able to attack…It took some getting used to, only because in the NHL so many systems attack aggressively in all three zones and use the boards as a battle ground to gain possession. The trap can be frustrating as it keeps lesser-talented teams in games longer, so it's important for our boys to stay the course. Cliche, yes, but it will pay off.”
MIKE BABCOCK’S WAY: “Babcock's coaching philosophy in Detroit seems to highlight the importance of puck possession versus chasing pucks down so I wouldn't expect to see much change in Canada's approach. Like Zetterberg and Datsyuk attack teams through the middle, I expect to see the same things from Canada given our depth at that position. Honestly, I'm excited to see the first time that we break through the neutral zone cleanly with Crosby at full speed and a few extra feet of space to manoeuvre- could be scary!”
PENALTY-KILLING: “As a player who relishes that type of role I can assure you that my approach to killing changed dramatically because of the extra space in-zone. I expect most of the contenders to play a system with a very tight box, forcing less, and relying more on staying tight as to limit plays through the center of the box. Again, this is in contrast to how we do it on the smaller ice. There are far fewer opportunities to force the opposition into making a rushed play because the extra length it takes to enforce that read can get you so far out of position and into a situation where you are unable to recover. Therefore, there will be times where penalty kill will be in limbo because killers will want to force a play but are forced instead to stay patient and rely on the system more so than instinct.”
POWER PLAY: “Our PP will not feel pressured the way they are in the NHL, but teams will be very tight around the net...our big men will have to be brilliant around the paint, especially as the tournament drags on.”
So, there’s some stuff to keep an eye on, especially since Canada’s first two opponents, Norway and Austria, will definitely try to slow down the game. Let’s drop the puck already.
1. Florida’s Nick (not Scott) Bjugstad played on an international surface at the University of Minnesota. He reinforced one of Winchester’s points: do not chase along the boards. A couple players said they noticed how Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall adjusts his game, not really trying to lay any of his fierce open-ice hits on anyone. “You can’t,” he said Tuesday. “The other four players can’t make up for it if you miss.”
2. The Russians are undoubtedly the team with the most pressure on them, but I get the sense that the Canadians are really trying to ramp up the pressure on themselves. They don’t like hearing how they couldn’t score in 2006 or how they can’t win on the full-sized surface. That’s how they are challenging themselves: Can we be the team to prove we can stop this line of questioning?
3. One scouting item on Martin St. Louis: Eight years ago, the Canadian coaching staff noticed his offensive-zone moves, particularly a spin-and-shoot he uses quite well, were “off” because of the larger dimensions. “He missed the net more than normal,” one coach said.
4. Back in 2006, a Canadian coach, Ralph Krueger, frustrated Canada’s team by coaching Switzerland to a 2-0 win in Turin. This time, Manny Viveiros of St. Albert, AB gets that chance as the bench boss in Austria. Viveiros won a Memorial Cup with Prince Albert in 1985 and played 29 NHL games for the Minnesota North Stars. He spent 12 years in the Austrian league before becoming a coach and winning a national championship in 2009. One son, Landan, has now joined Manny there, while another, Layne, plays for the Portland Winter Hawks.
5. One international reporter took issue with something I’d written in a previous blog, about the politics of some of these selections. For example, the Czechs took Michal Barinka, whose father-in-law is the coach. Russia always has pressure to take KHLers. Anyway, he made a good point: that it would be stupid for the European teams not to do this on the larger surface, especially against Canada and the United States. The Czechs had nine skaters playing in Europe on their 1998 winners, although Sweden only had three in 2006.
6. Here’s the breakdown among the teams with an NHL/overseas hybrid: Slovakia has 12 skaters based in Europe. Switzerland has 15 (11 of the forwards), the Finns have 11, Russia seven and the Czech Republic six. Sweden has just one. The Finns will be interesting, because their goaltending is scary good. Opponents think they will try the 1998 Czech blueprint, trying to win 2-1 or 1-0. And, as one said, “They could do it.”
7. Teemu Selanne told Glenn Healy that every Finnish player was given a bicycle to ride during the Olympics. The Olympic “cluster” including the hockey arenas is pretty spread out, with some suggestion players could be walking three miles per day. So, the Finns gave their guys the option of riding to keep their muscles fresh. “I only walk three miles at Augusta,” Selanne laughed. (In case you don’t get it, that’s where The Masters is played.)
8. At Russia’s practice on Tuesday, each puck had the name of a player’s hometown on it. A little reminder of how this is about country.
9. The Russian players haven’t said much publicly, but privately after 2010 felt their coaching really let them down. The complaint was five-man units were set and never changed. In-game adjustments were almost non-existent. One said Canada’s coaching was a huge advantage for them. Vyacheslav Bykov is out, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov (known as “Coach Bill”) is in.
10. Bilyaletdinov, who was an NHL assistant in Winnipeg and Chicago, is very successful in the KHL, but hasn’t always enjoyed the National Team spotlight. He despises being interviewed. At the 2004 World Cup, we chased him down a hallway to ask about his lineup. It was pretty funny: he looked at us like we were trying to steal his wallet and was searching for an escape the entire 45 seconds he spoke. But he’s smart and Vladimir Putin wanted him to run this team. That’s a hard guy to say no to.
11. One European scout said Bilyaletdinov prefers two very offensive lines and two very defensive lines. You can see it. He’s got Evgeni Malkin with Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Semin, then Pavel Datsyuk with Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov.
12. Pavel Datsyuk on Russia’s 2010 Olympic crash: “How many years ago was that?” Answer: “Four.” Reply: “You remember that, not me.”
13. Datsyuk has a great deadpan sense of humour, but didn’t seem pleased with Mike Babcock questioning his health. He says he’s good to go, although there are rumours of a degenerative or arthritic knee issue. For his part, Babcock said, “Like any player recovering from injury, Pavel is going to get better as he plays.”
14. That’s one of the most important things to remember about this event…the best players and best teams use the preliminary round as more of a dress rehearsal. Babcock reminded the Canadians they will face adversity several times in this event. ,” Henrik Zetterberg said, “We have three games to figure out what our strengths are.” That’s why it is unwise to get too wrapped up in early line combinations or even some of the results. Things are going to change. The two times Canadians won gold, the goalie who started the first game was the backup in the final.
15. Another great example of this is Drew Doughty, a breakout player in Canada’s 2010 victory. How much did that tournament change him? “Quite a bit,” he said. “I’d never faced anything at that high of a level, nothing with that much pressure. I’m a visual learner. I learned a lot watching Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.” Like what? “They were both really smart. With Niedermayer, it was how quickly he would get back. He’d go with the play up ice, but always be back to defend. Pronger was so good with his stick, knocking down pucks, always having it in the right place. And he was great at closing gaps.”
16. Canada will start Carey Price against Norway and Roberto Luongo versus Austria. Jonathan Quick opens for the United States, although Dan Bylsma would not say if he plans to use Ryan Miller or Jimmy Howard elsewhere in the opening round. The major difference for goalies is adjusting to different angles. Luongo said he had some issues during the first practice, but after two more, "I don't even notice it."
17. Some surprise that the Czechs will start KHL regular Jakub Kovar over Ondrej Pavalec in their opener. What does that mean for the Jet? Coach Alois Hadamczik has some Mike Keenan in him when it comes to goalies. At the 2011 Worlds, where the Czechs won bronze, he rode Pavelec – who didn’t lose until the semifinals – all the way. At the 2006 Olympics, Dominik Hasek got hurt in the first game. Hadamczik moved to Tomas Vokoun, who was pulled against Canada. In came Milan Hnilicka, who beat Slovakia in quarters, but was clobbered by Sweden in the semis. Vokoun came back to win the bronze-medal game. At the 2012 Worlds (another bronze), Hadamczik alternated Kovar and Jakub Stepanek in the round-robin. Kovar beat Sweden in the quarters, but was pulled in the semis. Stepanek won the bronze-medal game. Lesson: be ready, Ondrej.
18. I’m really fascinated by the dynamic of Sidney Crosby and John Tavares and hope they spend some time together. One of the reasons is the Islanders and Penguins tend to play competitive, high-speed games; you can see how these two measure themselves against one another. The other is that both are used to carrying the puck, and it sounds like Tavares will defer a little with the captain. Here he is about practising the powerplay with Crosby: “You see how he angles himself towards the net and how he likes to position himself to get the puck. I’ve got to look to shoot…When he’s got the puck, I always have to be in position and ready for it.”
19. Tavares on how he needs to play: “In straight lines. As much as you want to take advantage of the width, you still have to play inside the dots…driving the net, driving through the middle of the ice. You don’t want to be zigzagging across the ice.
20. Matt Duchene played for Team Canada at the 2010 and 2011 World Championships, but was not invited in 2012. He was pretty down, only to be perked up by a call from Brad Pascall, Hockey Canada’s vice president of hockey operations. “It was important for us to let him know he was still on our radar,” Pascall said. “There were three or four players we called at the time with that message.” Duchene was the only one of them to make this team, and he told The Denver Post how appreciative he was of that particular conversation.
21. One thing you really notice here is how excited the NHL players are. You go from the dog days of the season to competing for an Olympic Gold; several of them look totally rejuvenated. The knock on European players used to be that they cared more about the Olympics or the World Championships than the Stanley Cup, but that’s not the case anymore. Remember when European players were ripped because they cared more about the Worlds or the Olympics? Well, there’s been a huge shift in the North American players’ attitudes. It’s not the Stanley Cup, but it’s extremely special.
22. Ed Snider is nothing if not consistent. After the 2006 event, we did a piece for HNIC on the future of the Olympic hockey competition. He agreed to be interviewed on-camera and was quite clear he didn’t want it to continue after Vancouver. Steve Yzerman passionately argued in defence of participation earlier this week. The players want to be here. I’m not as convinced as others there will be no NHL involvement in South Korea.
23. Why? It benefits the NHL to create doubt in the IOC’s and IIHF’s mind. When negotiations were ongoing for Sochi, several sources said there was no way those two entities would pick up travel and/or insurance costs. “They don’t do it for basketball, why would they do it for hockey?” was the common statement. Well, it happened. If you get someone to bend once, you’re convinced you can do it again. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr (assuming he is still around then) will wait, wait, wait as is his regular strategy to see what the other side is willing to give up when decisions must be made. Let’s see where this goes.
24. One player (and team) that could really benefit from the added lift of this event is Erik Karlsson and, therefore, Ottawa. It’s been a tough season for him, but he’s noticeably energized here. I didn’t see much of Sweden’s practice on Tuesday, but a few players and observers said he was just flying through it. The Senators have had trouble finding him a consistent partner, but he’s lined up with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so that shouldn’t be an issue.
25. Another one is Daniel Sedin. Goalless in his last 19, he’s very comfortable alongside Nicklas Backstrom. “Very similar to Henrik,” Daniel said. “He likes to bring the puck up the ice…and he’s pretty smart with it, too.” Sedin added that, despite the NHL drought, he felt much more comfortable in the last week. “There’ve been times this year where our execution has not been great. Not defensively, but offensively. In the last three games, I felt we were turning the corner. The results didn’t show it, but we were better.”
26. Under-the-radar player to watch: Latvia’s Ralfs Freibergs. He’s a 22-year-old defenceman who plays at NCAA Bowling Green. He’s also a free agent, hoping for an NHL contract. A good performance here would certainly help.
27. One player on Zdeno Chara, who’s been here a little longer as the Slovak flag-bearer: “His body will be better adjusted than the rest of us. Like that guy needs any more of an advantage.”
28. No issue here with Chara being allowed to leave early for the Opening Ceremonies; good on the Bruins. But could you imagine the debate if it was Ovechkin for Russia? The earth would have opened up and swallowed itself whole.
29. Learned on the charter: Michal Rozsival has the best-behaved children on the planet. Two boys approximately five-to-eight years old. Any parent would be jealous.
30. Looking ahead to the opening round, the three Group winners and best second-place finisher get byes to the quarterfinals. You have to like Russia over the USA, Slovakia and Slovenia in Group A. Sweden is the pick in Group C in front of the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia. You can’t help but look at Group B and think Canada and Finland are in excellent early position, because whoever loses their head-to-head match should have two other wins (over Austria and Norway) and a good goal differential to grab the fourth bye. Of course, now that I write this, Austria or Norway is going to beat one of them.