Without the NHL, Russia emerges as favorites for Olympic gold


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FILE – Kunlun Red Star Beijing players watch a scoreboard during the Kontinental Hockey League ice hockey match between Kunlun Red Star Beijing and Amur Khabarovsk in Mytishchi, just outside Moscow, Russia on Monday 15 November 2021. China will take part in the men’s hockey tournament at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Beijing after initial concerns the team would be embarrassed at home against an NHL-level competition. (AP Photo / Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

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Russia, OAR, ROC – whatever the name, now that the NHL is no longer at the Beijing Olympics, the Russians will be the favorites for the gold medal.

After the NHL withdrew from the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday to save a championship schedule ravaged by virus outbreaks at many teams, players based in Europe are expected to dominate the men’s Olympic tournament.

This puts the Russians, who compete in Beijing as ROC for the Russian Olympic Committee, in a strong position to retain the gold medal they won in 2018 as the Olympic athletes of Russia. The name changes were required as part of sanctions imposed by Russia for various doping-related issues in several Olympic sports.

Just like four years ago, the Kontinental Hockey League remains the strongest league outside of the NHL. Russia have used the spendthrift clubs SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow to keep talented young Russians at home when they might otherwise have moved to North America.

The Russian roster will be less familiar to North American fans than the 2018 roster led by Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, who have not officially retired but played no hockey this season. Kovalchuk could be in Beijing in a managerial role for the Russian Hockey Federation. Some 2018 gold medalists are now in the NHL, including Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov, Ottawa Senators defenseman Artem Zub and two of three goaltenders: New York Rangers Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders.

Expect center Vadim Shipachyov, briefly of the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights, to play for the ROC. He has 21 goals and 36 assists in 40 KHL games this season for Dynamo Moscow. Seasoned forward Mikhail Grigorenko is available as he returned to Russia this season after spending 2020-21 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and former New Jersey Devils winger Nikita Gusev is also expected to be on the roster. Former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov has not played in the NHL since a 2014 domestic violence arrest and subsequent suspension, but he is also seen as a key part of Russia’s plans.

FINLAND’S LUCK

The Russians can be beaten, however. Finland proved it on Sunday with a 3-2 overtime victory in Moscow in the Channel One Cup, a tournament used as pre-Olympic preparation for non-NHL players.

The winning goal was a bizarre goal, awarded by the referees due to a penalty kick on a Finnish breakaway against the empty Russian net. The puck never entered the net. Finland have won all three matches in the tournament but needed two extra time.

Former NHL players who are candidates for Finland include forwards Markus Granlund and Leo Komarov and defenseman Julius Honka. Komarov played a game for the Islanders earlier this season before agreeing to mutually terminate their contract.

Canada also sent a team to the tournament, beating Sweden but losing to Finland and Russia with a roster made up of clubs from six different countries. Two free agents, defenseman Jason Demers and center Eric Fehr, brought well-deserved experience with 699 and 652 career NHL games, respectively, and both went on to sign with the same KHL team.

Former Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien is set to be behind the bench for Canada, with former Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan the top contender for GM.

Wearing retro Soviet Union uniforms, Russia won victories over Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

USA Hockey may soon turn to retired NHL assistant general manager of hockey operations and goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck as general manager. Former Rangers coach David Quinn is one of the top contenders for the U.S. Olympic job overseeing a roster that includes college players.

GERMANY’S YEAR AGAIN?

The absence of the NHL creates opportunities for a surprise medalist. In 2018, it was Germany, who won silver after losing 4-3 in overtime to the Russians in the final.

The Germans were helped by their team cohesion, with players almost entirely from their national Bundesliga and familiar with each other’s game. The NHL decision means MVP Leon Draisaitl is still waiting to represent his country at the Olympics. Germany beat Slovakia, Switzerland and a Russian “B” team in a home preparation tournament in November.

BOOST FOR CHINA

Host nation China was under pressure to prove their men’s team meets competitive standards to play Olympic hockey. It’s less of a problem now.

China have used KHL Kunlun Red Star club as their national team proxy, with mostly naturalized players born in the United States and Canada, many of Chinese descent. Kunlun is ranked last among 24 KHL teams and has lost two games used by the International Ice Hockey Federation to assess his readiness.

China is drawn against the United States, Canada and Germany in the group stage. Without the NHL, China’s games are less likely to break records.

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AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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More AP: https://apnews.com/hub/olympic-games and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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