Last week the NHL confirmed it is going back to the Olympics in 2022. The last time fans saw the best male players in the world on the biggest stage was in Sochi eight years ago. The 2014 tournament was full of memories: TJ Oshie single handedly taking down Russia (back when we could still call it Russia), Carey Price and the Canadians shutting down Sweden in the Gold Medal Game and the U.S. continuing its medal drought. The Avalanche didn’t have a lot of standouts in the tournament that year with the best representation coming from Paul Stastny scoring his only two goals of the tournament in a 7-1 USA rout of Slovakia. That’s expected to change in Beijing thanks a number of stellar players expected to make their countries’ teams.
Let’s start with the three players who have previously represented their country at the Olympics. Gabriel Landeskog, Pavel Francouz and Valeri Nichushkin were all in Sochi and all have the possibility of returning to the Games in February.
Landeskog is one of the many locks to make his national team. After being named assistant captain of an experienced Swedish squad, he is almost guarantee to be on the roster in 2022 and likely to be a big part of the leadership group once again. He could (and should) be Sweden’s captain and first line left winger. Playing on the wing of either Elias Pettersson, and Mika Zibanejad, Landeskog will play a similar role to the one he does currently with Colorado. His net-front presence and ability to be gritty when needed will open up a lot of ice for the star centers to utilize their elite shooting talent. Plus, he can slot in anywhere in Sweden’s top six. This versatility combined with his leadership and experience make it clear why he’s a lock for a promising Swedish team.
Valeri Nichushkin has Olympic experience as well but isn’t as much of a lock for the Russian Olympic Committee’s team as Landeskog is to Sweden’s. He has blossomed into a solid middle-six player during his time in Colorado, and when he joined the team on a one-year deal a little more than a month before the 2019-20 season, he was in a serious offensive slump and didn’t have the underlying numbers he has now to keep him on the NHL roster. It took 19 games with the Avalanche to break his goal drought, and since then, he hasn’t looked back. Now viewed by many as one of the best defensive forwards in the game while putting up just enough offense to make him a middle-six player, will that scarce offensive production be enough to place him on to the ROC’s offensively stacked roster? There’s a good chance. When you think of players that are a lock, you think of guys like Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov and Artemi Panarin—pure offensive talents. One of the biggest things the ROC needs is defense, and Nichushkin can bring that. He’s one of the few elite defensive forwards available to the country and could end up being a big factor in a potential medal push. If properly utilized, he can provide the ROC with a big advantage by shutting down the many superstars in the tournament.
While Landeskog and Nichushkin were at the Olympics back in 2018, Pavel Francouz is the only current Av to play in PyeongChang four years ago. After seeing no NHL playing time since game four of the second round series against Dallas back in August of 2020, Francouz will likely be back in action for the Avalanche this fall. Once Francouz returns (barring any unforeseen setbacks), he will have to prove that his 2019-20 success wasn’t a fluke. If he does, there’s a good chance he returns to the Czech Republic’s Olympic roster as the only current Av to play in back to back Olympics.
Francouz will have to compete with fellow backups Petr Mrazek and Vitek Vanecek for a regular spot on the team, though. If healthy, he likely has an edge over the duo due to his performance for the Czechs in 2018. During that tournament, Francouz played all six games for the Czech Republic and posted a 2.27 GAA and a .905 SV% en route to an appearance in the bronze medal game. Francouz was also one of only two Czech players to earn a consistent NHL spot (the other being Dominik Kubalik of the Chicago Blackhawks), making his performance that much more impressive. As long as Francouz stays healthy and performs at a similar level as 2019-20, he should make the team and even have a good chance of winning the starting role. However, the most likely outcome for Francouz is that he splits time in the tournament with Vanecek, who had a breakout performance for the Washington Capitals last season.
Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Andre Burakovsky are all locks to be at the Olympics. Despite these players’ lack of Olympic experience, they’re too good not to represent their teams.
The superstar duo of MacKinnon and Makar will both play a big role in any success Canada has in the tournament. Along with Dougie Hamilton and Alex Pietrangelo, Makar will anchor the right side of Canada’s blueline while likely getting a spot on one of the two powe play units. As for MacKinnon, he will almost certainly be moved over to the wing — something he regularly does when playing with Team Canada — and could find himself playing with Connor McDavid in center to create one of the most explosive offensive lines ever assembled.
The same is true for Mikko Rantanen: He’s guaranteed to play big minutes and have a huge impact for Finland. Like with the Avalanche, Rantanen will likely find himself riding shotgun next to a superstar center, lining up on the top line with Sasha Barkov.
The fourth player that will almost certainly be making the trip to Beijing is Andre Burakovsky. While he’s a near lock for Sweden, he won’t have as significant of a role as the likes of Landeskog. A second-line sniper for the Avalanche, Burakovksy’s ability to play either wing could help him find a place in the middle-six. Though they’re both right handed shots, William Nylander and Filip Forsberg both like to play on the left side of the ice. Add Landeskog to the mix, and the left wing becomes crowded for Swedes with a lack of talent left for the right side, leaving an opening for Burakovsky to step in and contribute.
Another three members of the Avalanche could find their way onto an Olympic roster come February.
Samuel Girard and Devon Toews both have a legitimate shot at making Canada’s squad. Unlike the right, the Canadian’s do not have the same sort of star power on the left side of the blue line. Shea Theodore is probably the best left-shooting defender for the country, but after him there are a lot of question marks. Along with Jakob Chychrun, Adam Pelech, Morgan Rielly and Tomas Chabot, both Girard and Toews will be in a group of LHD that will be strongly considered for roster spots. There’s also the possibility that Canada decides to fill a role on the left side with one of its strong RHD options, like Pietrangelo or Aaron Ekblad. Regardless, Girard and Toews should both at least be in the conversation.
Another possibility exists for Canada in net. It’s hard to project how Darcy Kuemper will perform in his first season for the Avalanche, but given his track record both in the NHL and internationally for Canada, there’s a strong possibility he makes the team as one of the three netminders. With Carey Price the only lock — assuming he’s healthy — Kuemper will be in the conversation with Jordan Binnington, Marc-Andre Fleury and Mackenzie Blackwood for the final two spots.