Canada's blue line tops Olympic defensive rankings
The 2014 Sochi Olympics could feature the deepest collection of talent for a hockey tournament in the sport's history.
Some of this generation's top players, including Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, are at the peak of their powers in the NHL, while some of the previous generation's greats, such as Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne, are getting one last chance at Olympic glory.
For years, international hockey has been led by a group of medal contenders known as the "big seven." But Switzerland continues to progress and could make it a "big eight" sooner rather than later.
So how does each of these eight medal contenders stack up against the competition at each position? NHL.com breaks down the top eight sides at forward, on defense and in goal. We began Sunday with the goaltenders. Now it is time to shift the focus to the defense, with the forwards to follow Tuesday.
The biggest debate leading up to Canada's big announcement was whether the 2013 Norris Trophy winner was going to make it the team. As it stands, P.K. Subban might not even see regular minutes. The Canadians had a wealth of right-handed defensemen to choose from, a fact that shaped the selection process and led to the omission of the Chicago Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook, who with Duncan Keith makes up one of the NHL's top defense pairings. Still, this team remains loaded on the blue line. Dividing ice time among a group of players used to playing 25-plus minutes every night could pose a challenge, but no other country can boast a crop like this one, which features top NHL defensemen Keith, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Weber and Subban.
The Swedes come closest to matching Canada's strength on the back end, with a loaded group of their own. Not bringing Victor Hedman, who is having a breakout season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. There is built-in chemistry with the potential pairings of Detroit Red Wings Niklas Kronwall-Jonathan Ericsson and Chicago Blackhawks Niklas Hjalmarsson-Johnny Oduya. But using both could mean Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson or (most likely) Alexander Edler not getting consistent top-six minutes. Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson could be the best duo in the tournament on the big ice.
3. United States
The Americans are young, but this group could rival Canada's collection if the NHL sends players to South Korea in four years. Ryan Suter will be the anchor and could challenge for the tournament lead in minutes played along with Zdeno Chara of Slovakia and Roman Josi of Switzerland. Who plays with Suter will be a story to monitor, but young right-handed shooters John Carlson, Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk all could be capable in that spot. Expect coach Dan Bylsma to use his Pittsburgh Penguins duo of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik together as a defensive-minded pairing while Cam Fowler and Ryan McDonagh could also be vital players for this club.
The defense corps was supposed to be the big question mark for the Finns, but a couple of breakout stars at the position, along with some key injuries up front, has changed that. Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo are NHL veterans and both are still consistent players. Youth will be served by Pittsburgh Penguins wunderkind Olli Maatta, a dark horse Calder Trophy candidate, and Sami Vatanen, who is having a breakout season for the Anaheim Ducks. It will be interesting to see if the veterans are paired together or if each gets a young understudy in the top four. Ossi Vaananen is one of the most respected players in Finland; Sami Lepisto and Lasse Kukkonen also have NHL experience.
Andrei Markov might be one of the most important players in this tournament. Vintage Markov for about 10 days would go a long way towards helping the Russians secure the gold medal. Slava Voynov could also emerge as this team's best defenseman. Markov could play with Montreal Canadiens teammate Alexei Emelin, and the two Columbus Blue Jackets, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, could be paired together. Where Voynov fits could be interesting. Two veterans of the Kontinental Hockey League, Ilya Nikulin and Evgeny Medvedev, have plenty of international experience.
Flag-bearer Chara will likely play half of each game for Slovakia, so that's 25 percent of the minutes on defense taken care of. Andrej Sekera is having a nice season with the Carolina Hurricanes and is also likely to see big minutes. Lubomir Visnovsky would have been a top-four guy, so not having him is a significant loss. Edmonton Oilers rookie Martin Marincin has played well in limited NHL duty and could be a key contributor. The three non-NHL defensemen all play in the KHL and have significant world championship experience but only two games of Olympic duty between them.
Josi, like Chara and Suter, could play up to 30 minutes per contest. Mark Streit and Raphael Diaz also figure to feature prominently for the Swiss, who actually decided to leave Luca Sbisa off the roster. Sbisa was hurt for most of the season but recently returned to the Anaheim Ducks' lineup. Severin Blindenbacher has more than 60 games of international experience at the world championship and Olympics, and possesses one of the best names in the tournament.
8. Czech Republic
The Czechs' depth is probably slightly better than the Swiss (and maybe the Slovaks), but it is a relatively old group and will likely distribute the minutes more evenly. Marek Zidlicky will probably quarterback the power play and it will be interesting to see how Radko Gudas' wrecking-ball style translates on the bigger ice. This team's medal chances will hinge on the ability of players like Tomas Kaberle, Michal Rozsival and Zbynek Michalek to play 20-plus minutes and deal with elite players on the big ice.