The Summer Olympics have wrapped up in Tokyo and it won’t be long before attention shifts to the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are set to begin in Beijing on Feb. 4.
Currently, the National Hockey League and the league’s Players Association have an agreement to take a three-week break during the regular season and send its players over to Asia to play in the Games. Things could certainly change before then, as the NHL and the International Olympic Committee have yet to put pen to paper on an agreement, but the plan is to have NHL participation if all goes well.
What does that mean for the Flyers?
Besides staying up all hours of the night like the rest of us to watch the United States take on Canada or to witness Sweden renew its rivalry with Finland, some players might actually be heading over there to compete.
It’s early. There are many factors including injuries that can influence each country’s roster, but here is the likelihood of Flyers playing in China in six months. We’ll break it down into three categories (Most Likely, On the Bubble and Dark Horses). Let’s go for gold.
Most Likely: Barring the unforeseen, Ivan Provorov and Rasmus Ristolainen can likely book their hotels and brush up on their Mandarin. Provorov and Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev are the likely top pairing for Russia, which looks to be stronger on offense and in goal than it is on the blue line. Expect big minutes for the Flyers’ cornerstone defenseman.
Ristolainen, on the other hand, might make it on a pretty thin Finland blue line. After Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell, there’s a dropoff, and you have to figure the Flyers’ new acquisition slots somewhere on the second or third pairing for Finland.
On the Bubble: If this were a year ago, I’d have Carter Hart as Canada’s second goaltender behind Montreal’s Carey Price. Hart had a down year, and Marc Andre Fleury had a resurgent season to win the Vezina but Hart will still be in consideration due to his brief body of work in the NHL and his success at the international level in the World Junior Tournament. He’ll need a big start to the season to cement his spot.
After Hart, the Flyers have three or four players who are likely on the outside looking in. Sean Couturier is certainly under consideration but plays the center position, where the Canadians are absolutely stacked: Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Nathan Mackinnon, Mathew Barzal, etc. Coaches love Couturier’s shutdown ability and penalty-killing prowess so they could get creative and move guys like MacKinnon, Brayden Point or Mark Scheifele to the wing, but Couturier would still be battling other Selke candidates Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly. It could come down to who is healthy in January.
Team USA has a few Flyers on the radar. Buffalo’s Jack Eichel’s uncertain health could determine if there’s room for Kevin Hayes at center. Injuries and a hot start to the season could determine whether Cam Atkinson or James van Riemsdyk nail down a spot. Right now, there are too many talented wingers like Patrick Kane, Kyle Connor and Johnny Gaudreau and too many Tkachuks to find a place for Atkinson and JVR at the moment. Atkinson’s penalty killing and 200-foot game has him a step ahead of JVR.
Dark Horses: Staying on Team USA, what a big year it could be for Joel Farabee. Coming off a 20-goal season, he’s in a contract year and an Olympic nod would be the cherry on top. Again, he’d be battling those talented USA wingers but he could be seen as a much-needed spark plug.
We mentioned before that Team Canada is stacked, and Claude Giroux has certainly been surpassed by the younger superstars at center. But his successful move to the wing makes Giroux a very tempting pick to make the team as a dark horse. Canada also likes to stack its wings with guys who can win faceoffs.
Speaking of Canada, Ryan Ellis is also on the cusp of a talented group of blueliners. Canada is healthy on defense with guys like Cale Makar, Alex Pietrangelo, Morgan Rielly, Dougie Hamilton, Shea Theodore and Thomas Chabot. But Ellis is right there in the conversation, especially as Shea Weber doesn’t appear to be an option anymore. Don’t be surprised if Ellis at least travels with the team.
For Russia, it would be a long shot, but we mentioned the country’s shortcomings on defense and given an injury or two, Yegor Zamula could be called into action.
Finally, could Oskar Lindblom continue his incredible story by making Sweden’s roster? By looking at Swedes in the NHL, Lindblom would have a tough time beating out Gabriel Landeskog, Filip Forsberg or Rickard Rakell at left wing and could have even more competition if Sweden moves a player like Elias Petterssen to the left side. We’re also not going to pretend to know which non-NHL players Sweden might be considering from its Elite League, so Lindblom probably needs some help. But we’ve seen him overcome things before. ••