Possible Difference-Makers in Sochi

BRIAN BABINEAU/NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE/GETTY IMAGES

In hockey, your best players are often your most important players. That truism should resonate in Sochi as ultimately the winner of the Gold Medal will be determined by the Crosbys, Ovechkins, Lundqvists, and whichever goaltender gets the starting nod for the United States. If those guys do not play well for their country, and the Toewses, Suters, Datsyuks, and Zetterbergs fall short too – their team is not winning.

Despite this, other players who you might not immediately think of could have a big impact in Sochi. So the following is a little bit different than a most-valuable-players-in-Sochi list. These are four players from the contenders to win the Gold Medal who do not jump off the page when you scrutinize each country’s roster, but who could have a big role in the outcome – positive and negative.

Note: All statistics used are from ExtraSkater.com.

Positive Impact:

Cam Fowler

The list of defensemen named to the United States Sochi team who, in a vacuum, are playing as well or better than Fowler right now: Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh. That is the entire list. To emphasize this point: He is playing better than Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Justin Faulk, John Carlson, and Kevin Shattenkirk.

Fowler is an absolute beast right now, and the Ducks’ domination this season is definitely correlated to his blossoming. This seems like a good time to mention that the Ducks’ defender has dual citizenship in the United States and Canada. So, given the Canadians’ angst over what four defensemen would play the left side to keep their right-left symmetry intact, where would Fowler rank after the first 50-plus games if he were playing for Canada?

Just below Duncan Keith and Jay Bouwmeester. That’s all. Fowler has a more versatile game than Marc-Edouard Vlasic and is indisputably playing better than Dan Hamhuis this season. The numbers support it on a macro and micro level, and Hockey Prospectus recently suggested he will be listed in future Norris Trophy discussions. So what is he doing right?

Cam Fowler possesses the “tactical acuity” of an automaton and the “strategic guidance” of a self-aware human. Unsurprisingly, that translates to composure on one-and-ones against superstar players and confidence when hemmed in the Anaheim zone.

Fowler is a very good skater, and when the puck is in his vicinity he will win possession, anticipate whether he has a lane to make an outlet pass out of the zone or whether he needs to skate it out, and then he will execute that plan. A lot of credit has been given to Fowler’s defensive partner, Ben Lovejoy, for raising his game after being shown the door in Pittsburgh. Lovejoy is shooting more and is holding up against the NHL’s toughest competition — an amazing feat considering he was traded for a fifth-round pick.

But equally justified is the credit for Fowler, and the trust the two have together. When Fowler activates in the offensive zone or neutral zone, he trusts that Lovejoy will provide adequate stability on the back end. Lovejoy trusts Fowler will be able to disrupt any turnover he might make when he attempts a tougher first pass on his reads, and that comfort level breeds confidence.

People are looking for someone to have a breakout performance like Drew Doughty did in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver — that is, a player who raises his game on the biggest stage when some of his teammates are not cutting it. The United States’ back end is a justified concern, and if Orpik and Carlson are getting badly exposed, look for Fowler to step in and assume a larger, minute-eating role.

Rick Nash

IH has been critical of Rick Nash because of what he is not. Nash is not a two-way player. He is not a skilled playmaker. He does not generate steady scoring chances for his linemates. But dammit, the guy can score. So pouring out the half-empty glass and refilling it until it is half full, why exactly is Nash going to be a positive impact player in Sochi?

Well, his game makes sense on the big ice. If the 2014 Olympics were played on NHL-sized rinks, Penguins’ winger James Neal might be a better fit in the sniper role, mainly because his release is so fast. But the bigger ice is perfect for Nash. His release is not that quick for a sniper, but when he has that extra half-second, he usually releases a scorcher past the goaltender.

Extra ice equals extra time for Nash. Just think about what Nash likes to do. He loves to catch passes with a full head of steam and shoot as hard as he can with all of his momentum going forward. Otherwise, he will resort to the box-out and whirl around and shoot. Nash likes to have at least one stride or push off going into his shot before he releases it. Neal is more of a catch-and-shoot sniper. Neal can score in stride too, but the speed of his release makes him more valuable in less space.

Nash likes to take a step and rocket a shot in a corner. In the NHL, there is not always the time to do that. That is why Rangers’ teammates Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider are such perfect linemates for him. They understand he likes to shoot when he has room and is gaining speed, and will hit him for the area pass on transition, which stretches the ice. When Nash is charging like a freight train down the outside and is galloping towards a spot close enough to shoot – the goaltender is not stopping it.

If Nash is matched with some heady, two-way playmakers in Sochi who can help make up for his defensive shortcomings, the role of the DG — Designated-Gunner — is perfect for him. Nash needs skaters who will go beneath the goal line and do the grunt work and feed him when he finds soft ice. Remember that Twilight Zone where the guy (Henry Bemis) had all the time he needed to read in a post-apocalyptic world? That is Nash in a strictly scoring role with more time and space. With the right linemates, he could splatter his name across the score sheet.

On IH’s Team Canada Sochi picks, Claude Giroux got a spot over Nash, but after watching more of Giroux this year, his two-way game is far from complete. Nash should be on the Canada team because he is perfectly tailored to have an absolute, narrow-minded shooting role where he receives passes and whips pucks at the corners of the net. His numbers since being named to Canada have been prolific, and as Craig Custance noted today, he has 23 goals in 34 career IIHF World Championship games. He stands to be a brow-beating offensive force in Sochi.

Negative Impact:

Daniel Alfredsson

A few eyebrows were raised when Alfredsson was named to the Swedish team over more dynamic, younger forwards like Marcus Johansson, Gustav Nyquist, and Patric Hornqvist, but when you hear about how Sweden’s international team operates, it makes more sense. Seniority seems very important. That is why Henrik Tallinder is on the team and Jonas Brodin and Victor Hedman are not. (That also should have Anaheim pretty freaking excited over Jakob Silfverberg, who was named to the team even though he is a kid.)

IH’s concerns are these: Sweden has a whole heap of talent on their team. Their forwards are excellent, their defense is robust, and their goaltending is arguably the best in the tournament. But if they value seniority to such a high degree, how big a role is Alfie playing on this team? Is he playing power play time and for crunch-time minutes?

Alfredsson is one of the best Swedish players to ever play the game – he is third among Swedish NHL skaters in all-time points and ninth in points per game — but those who watch Detroit these days will recognize that the end is near. His effectiveness is waning on both ends – he has the third worst Corsi and Fenwick rates among Detroit forwards. If he is going head-to-head against wingers like Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, there should be a lot of concern. Sweden has better options. The big question is, how much will they sacrifice for nostalgia?

Andrei Markov

Russia’s Markov is having another really good season, which is cool to see because he was sidelined by injuries for three consecutive seasons leading into last year’s truncated season. And his Corsi and Fenwick rate in both Close and Relative are very impressive on a team that is not good at driving play.

But Markov does not move well – he is closer to plodding than smooth, and there is some worry by IH that he will be exposed on the big ice. Do you remember how old and slow Team Canada looked in 2006? If you have enough mileage, it shows. Just watch how a dynamic player like Evgeni Malkin turns the corner on the outside here.

The knee-jerk reaction to this concern is: Not everyone is Malkin. However, in Sochi the skill-level of the best teams Russia will see have many players with that ability. Matt Duchene is in the middle tier of Canada’s forward group and he has the capability to go outside-inside like that. So does Montreal teammate Max Pacioretty for the United States.

Markov’s value on the power play is obvious, but Russia’s defense is a bold question mark aside from Slava Voynov. Markov is the veteran of the group and will be given significant playing time, but how will he hold up against teams with pace who move the puck efficiently? Russia’s vastly improved goaltending will help, but its blue line corps’ footspeed is a problem. (This concern also applies to Fedor Tyutin, who can be caught flat-footed against explosive forwards. Tyutin does not fare as well under the magnifying glass as Markov and his Corsi and Fenwick rate in both Close and Relative are second-worst among Columbus defensemen.)

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