As we prepare to watch most of the NHL's best embark on an adventure halfway around the world in the name of nationalistic pride, one can't help but wonder who the biggest difference-makers will be for the country who takes home gold in Sochi.
Crosby, Ovechkin, Lundqvist, Rask, Price, Sedin, Datsyuk and a host of others will likely get their just due–and in most cases even more than that-– in the lead up to the start of the men's ice hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
But amongst these star-studded rosters filled with all the talent imaginable, there are bound to be names that get overshadowed before the puck drops. Who might they be?
Let's take a look at some of the players you may know a little bit about now, but may learn a whole lot more about over the next two weeks:
It's sort of obnoxious to look at Team Canada's roster and act as if there's a player who could be considered "under-the-radar." But when you look at how many big names are on that roster, the 23-year old Duchene often gets lost in the shuffle. Many pundits didn't think he'd even make the team, preferring Claude Giroux or Logan Couture in his place. But with the onus on stopping Canada's phenomenal top six, the door could be open for Duchene to have a huge tournament.
On an Olympic ice surface, speed is often lauded as a primary quality, something you can never have too much of. As a result, quickness, an attribute with equal worth to pure speed, often goes largely unnoticed. Duchene's first step in open ice may be as explosive as anyone on this roster. See. I told you. Go ahead, watch them both. I'll wait.
With more room to maneuver and make defensemen look silly, I expect a huge tournament from Duchene, as he continues to elevate his game to a world-class level.
Jamie Benn is everything Bobby Ryan wishes he could be. In Dallas, Benn has "quietly" paced the Stars to a respectable spot in the tough-as-nails Western Conference playoff race. Benn's the quintessential power forward, using his large frame to both outmuscle and outposition the opposition while also being more skilled than everyone on the ice a large majority of the time.
Like Duchene, Benn won't likely get the minutes he's accustomed to in Sochi, but that may only play to his advantage. Unleashing a player of his caliber on the third and fourth lines of most of the other teams in this tournament is silly. Don't be surprised if Benn takes full advantage of it.
One of the hottest young talents in hockey, Valeri Nichushskin has thrived in his first season in North America at the age of 18. He was so impressive, he even managed to find a spot on the host nation's Olympic roster ahead of names such as Alexander Semin and Evgeni Kuznetsov, among others.
Like Benn, Nichushskin has been a key member of Dallas' playoff push just a year removed from playing just 18 KHL games and dashing Canada's medal hopes at the World Juniors. Nichushskin, also like Benn, is that rare blend of size and skill which leaves you wondering how exactly he slipped to 10th in even such a talented draft class. Oh, right. Nevermind.
if Russia is to go deep in this tournament, expect Nichushskin to play a big part in it and become as household a name in Moscow as Ovechkin, Datsyuk and Yashi—… um, just Ovechkin and Datsyuk.
It's pretty crazy to think that in less than a week's time, the Americans and Russians will face off in the most anticipated game of the group stage and we don't know who will be in net for either team.
While Sergei Bobrovski has followed up his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2012 by struggling with injuries and inconsistent play, it's clear he's done enough to warrant a shot at the starting job for the host nation in Sochi. However, the short leash he's on, with a Russian defense that may very well be exposed early on, may give way to Varlamov sooner rather than later.
Varlamov is enjoying a career year on a surprising Colorado team that also lacks a strong, consistent blue line presence. If called upon, he may become the calming presence in net the Russians so desperately need to win their first gold medal since 1992, and does that one even count?
You didn't actually think I was going to pass up an opportunity to use this photo, did you?
The Washington defenseman has slowly turned into one of the Eastern Conference's most sure-handed rearguards over the past two seasons. Carlson, who plays in every situation, may not get the most ice time on the team in the group stage, but he's got the legs for it. Averaging nearly 26 minutes per night with the Capitals, he's also chipped in 10 goals and 13 assists.
If the Americans make a deep run, expect his time on ice to steadily increase as the tournament progresses.
Oh right, and there's this thing I'm contractually obligated to show you as a citizen of the United States of America. Enjoy.
Max Pacioretty has 26 goals so far this season and is on pace to break his career high of 33 set in 2011-12. So why is he on this list? That's a fair question.
But it's the same reason guys like Duchene and Benn are on it. Names like Kane, Parise, Kessel, Backes, Pavelski and Kesler that are all familiar from that magical run to the gold medal game in 2010 overshadow some players who are budding stars. That's not a bad thing at all, especially for the Americans, who will take any offense they can get.
Pacioretty's scoring touch could be a major asset to USA Hockey in Sochi, and they should be thanking their lucky stars and stripes they dodged a bullet when reports surfaced that he was injured in the final game before the Olympic break.
Lauded by some as a Norris Trophy candidate heading in to this season, Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be called upon heavily to stand in front of Henrik Lundqvist if Sweden is going to progress deep into the tournament.
While all the emphasis about the Swedish blue line is on Erik Karlsson, defenseman in name only, Ekman-Larsson is the player with both the hockey sense and skating ability to shut down the world's best forward units while also contributing offensively. However, this is a far greater test than he's faced in his tenure in Phoenix.
With his dominant play in the last month, Gustav Nyquist seemed to be an obvious selection to replace Detroit teammate Johan Franzen for the Swedish Olympic team. Three weeks from now, we may be asking ourselves how on earth Nyquist was passed up to begin with.
Playing alongside fellow Swede Henrik Zetterberg, Nyquist has tallied 14 points in his last 10 games, including a hat trick and four-point afternoon against the Capitals on February 2. Without Henrik Sedin's presence in Sochi due to injury, someone will have to try to replicate that production. Don't be surprised to see Zetterberg and Nyquist working together again for Sweden.
Man, that 2013 draft class was really something. Maatta, who was selected 22nd overall by the Penguins, has looked more and more like a seasoned NHL veteran despite being just 19 years old. Helped early on by injuries on the Pittsburgh blue line, Maatta was given a chance to step in and after a few weeks of adjusting to the pace of the NHL, he has become one of the more talked about rookies in hockey.
Maatta's average time on ice has grown to just under 19 minutes per game, and with Letang expected to be out indefinitely, his role will only continue to intensify. Given his success at the pro level at such a young age, Maatta is a player the Finns will count on to play big minutes in Sochi. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to taking on the world's elite, especially in their group stage matchup with Canada.
The injury to Mikko Koivu was devastating to Finland's hopes of winning a medal in Sochi, said everyone. But he wasn't the only Finnish center making a living in Minnesota. Mikael Granlund, already a staple of Finnish hockey lore, has been showing signs of late that he may be ready to break out in a big way in Sochi. Centering Zach Parise, Granlund has nine points in his last 10 games as the Wild try to hold on to one of the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference.
Without Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, everyone is ready to write off Finland as a legitimate medal contender. However, their injuries may simply give way to Granlund's playmaking ability and growth as a player. Besides, crazier things have happened for Finland already in 2014.
Derek Stepan, USA – Could potentially end up being the Americans' best playmaking center. That's not necessarily a good thing for Team USA.
Alex Pietrangelo, Canada – Another one of those "why is he on this list" candidates. Will almost certainly be lauded for his play in lower minutes against worse competition.
Alexander Radulov, Russia – Remember him? The former Predators prospect is feeling at home in the KHL and may take to the big stage on his home soil.
Carl Hagelin, Sweden – Speed kills, and this kid's got a ton of it. Definitely a player to watch for Sweden.
Alexander Barkov, Finland – If he can shake off recent injuries, Barkov could be another difference-maker for the Finns. That's a big if though.