The Olympic Games are a prime opportunity for prospects and veteran pros alike to audition for NHL scouts. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, several players used the Games as a final showcase, springboarding into the NHL.
The likes of Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (Finland), Detroit Red Wings forward Pius Suter (Switzerland), Ottawa Senators defender Artyom Zub (OAR), Chicago Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik (Czechia), Colorado Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz (Czechia), and San Jose Sharks forward Alexander Barabanov (OAR), among others, all used the Olympics as a stepping stone to the NHL.
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing will provide a similar opportunity for many. Here is a look at the most likely candidate from every nation who could earn the interest of an NHL franchise with a strong performance in Beijing.
Canada: Eric Staal
In youngsters Owen Power, Devon Levi, Jack McBain, and Mason McTavish, Canada has four future NHLers, but save for a late season audition, these prospects aren’t likely to burn a year of their contract. While some will scream for Josh Ho-Sang, who will indeed earn watchful eyes at the Olympics, the most likely candidate to earn an NHL contract immediately following the tournament is Eric Staal. Staal notched 5 points in 4 AHL games, and should he perform well for Canada, Stanley Cup contenders will be considering the low risk acquisition of signing Staal to a league minimum contract. He provides veteran leadership, and brings the experience of a Stanley Cup champion to a locker room.
China: Spencer Foo
Coming out of the NCAA, Spencer Foo was one of the most sought after prospects on the market. He eventually chose to sign with the Calgary Flames, which didn’t work out well (despite the fact he scored 2 goals in 4 NHL appearances and put up 20 goals in his rookie AHL season). Now in his third season in the KHL, Foo is having his best offensive campaign with 14 goals and 33 points in 48 games to lead the Kunlan Red Star. Still only 27, there’s time for Foo to take another kick at the can in North America.
Czech Republic: Jiri Smejkal
Former Columbus Blue Jackets forward Lukas Sedlak found his offensive touch in the KHL over the past three seasons, something that never truly translated on North American ice. Sedlak could return to North America and compete for a bottom six role. Michael Spacek is the youngest player on the Czechia side at 24, and is a former Winnipeg Jets pick. He’s scoring at almost a point per game with Frolunda of the SHL, but has already done his time in the AHL, and might not be willing to start again. Perhaps the most intriguing name is Jiri Smejkal, a 6’4” forward who has 31 points in 30 games for the Pelicans in Liiga. At 25, Smejkal came to North America to play in the WHL, but never reached the hype he was given. Perhaps he’s a late bloomer?
Denmark: Nicklas Jensen
This isn’t the Danish team that qualified for the Olympics, and to pick a name from those playing in Denmark’s top league would not be possible. That brings us back to players with NHL experience. Frans Nielson’s name sends shivers down the spine of Detroit Red Wings fans, and while Mikkel Boedker has gas in the tank, NHL teams aren’t going to come running for a veteran fourth liner. This leaves former first round NHL pick Nicklas Jensen as perhaps the lone player with a chance, albeit slim, of an NHL comeback. Jensen had his best season in North America in 2016-2017 putting up 55 points in the AHL, but went pointless in 7 games with the New York Rangers. Since joining Jokerit, Jensen has put up five very respectable seasons in the KHL, and had a spectacular World Championships last year. If he’s ever going to reignite interest from the NHL, the Olympics are his tryout.
Finland: Niko Ojamaki
Most of the Finnish roster is graying, but there are a few intriguing “prospects.” Miro Aaltonen came, saw, and went as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization without ever getting a shot at the NHL level. He’s having another strong year in the KHL and if he wants to play in the NHL, the clock is ticking for the 27-year-old. Ville Pokka is a right-shot blueliner who, similar to Aaltonen, came to North America without making the NHL, although he did put up strong numbers in four AHL campaigns. When it comes to choosing a player to watch, however, we’re going with a fresh face, Finland’s youngest player, 26-year-old Niko Ojamaki. Ojamaki has won World Championship gold and silver with Finland, and is a noted penalty killer. He’s also in the midst of the best offensive season of his career compiling 29 goals and 43 points in 48 games with Vityaz Podolsk of the KHL.
Germany: Dominik Kahun
Notably absent from Germany’s roster are the young superstars from the 2018 Olympics. There is no shortage of players with NHL experience who could capitalize off the exposure of the Olympics. Lean Bergmann is an interesting prospect. The 6’3” forward was rushed from the USHL to the NHL, playing games in two seasons for the San Jose Sharks. At only 23, he’s young, back in Europe honing his craft, and has time for a second shot at the NHL. The most likely candidate however will be Germany’s top offensive threat, Dominik Kahun. Kahun surprised everyone with two solid offensive seasons in the NHL before a flop year with Edmonton last season. At 26, he’d be a low risk addition for a team looking to add secondary scoring.
Latvia: Rodrigo Abols
To say the Latvians have a true future NHLer on their roster would be false, but Cinderella stories exist for a reason. Latvia does have relative youth on the blueline including KHLers Karlis Cukste, Janis Jaks, and Kristaps Zile. Zile, 24, has captained Latvia at the World Juniors and is a KHL veteran, but has limited offensive upside. The sizeable Cukste had a good NCAA career and was a San Jose draft pick, but has little to show offensively this season in the KHL. On output alone, the eldest, 26-year-old Jaks could surprise people during the Olympics. A right-shot defender, he’ll likely earn power-play minutes. The best bet on Latvia’s roster, however, is forward Rodrigo Abols. A Vancouver Canucks pick, Abols is captaining Orebro HK in Sweden. He had a decent season in the AHL in 2019-2020, and at 6’4” offers physical tools that can’t be taught. A breakout at the Olympics could land Abols another AHL contract with eyes from a parent club.
Russia: Sergei Telegin
Roll a dice here and you might hit an NHL find, or an NHL bust. The success rate of bringing Russian free agents to the NHL lately has been a mixed bag at best. We can rule out returns from Nikita Gusev and Vadim Shipachyov. Despite strong output in the KHL, these two fit the NHL “bust” category. Nikita Nesterov is having another good year in Russia, but can the third time be the charm in the NHL? Andrei Chibisov has grown offensively after his failed stint with the Winnipeg Jets and could stir some interest, but perhaps the best prospect is 21-year-old Sergei Telegin. Undrafted and never a member of Russia’s World Junior roster, Telegin has come out of nowhere to crack this veteran roster. He’ll be on full display as a relative unknown to many in the hockey world, and as one of the youngest players in the tournament.
Slovakia: Peter Cersenak
Unlike many nations, the excitement on Slovakia’s roster will come from youth. Budding stars including Simon Nemec and Juraj Slafkovsky will get to showcase their NHL draft prospects against top competition. Pavol Regenda is a 6-foot-4 player who will be relied upon up front. At only 22-years-old, Regenda has not been tested against tough competition outside of Slovakia, so it will be interesting to see if he’s mobile and skilled enough to earn a look at a higher level. From a veteran perspective, 6’3” right shot blueliner Peter Ceresnak would be a safer choice. The former New York Rangers pick has spent the last eight seasons in Czechia’s top league. At 29-years-old, he is not a prospect, but he is having the best offensive season of his career, and with NHL clubs’ insatiable blood thirst for right shot defenders, who knows what a strong Olympics could bring?
Sweden: Fredrik Olofsson
Perhaps no team has the depth of prospective NHL signees as the Swedes. Most, if not all, would likely come over and battle for a spot between the NHL and AHL to start, but Sweden’s Olympic core has offensive upside. Before we go in that direction, however, massive netminder Magnus Hellberg has been lights out in five seasons of KHL action after a cup of coffee with the New York Rangers. The former NHL second-round pick is 6-foot-6 but at 30, would he be willing to come back to North America, and will he even start for the Swedes? NHL castoffs Jacob de la Rose and Lucas Wallmark will be relied upon upfront for the Swedes, but could also earn a call to come back to the North American pro ranks. Swift skating Jonathan Pudas leads the way on the blueline. He’s undersized but can jumpstart offense from the back end. The most likely candidates are power forward Gustav Rydahl and former Chicago pick Fredrik Olofsson. Olofsson was an NCAA star, but never stuck around in North America to play pro. This season, the 25-year-old is scoring at a point-per-game pace in the SHL.
Switzerland: Denis Malgin
Come on, someone has to give Denis Malgin another shot at the NHL. Sure, he’s 5-foot-9, but in his four NHL seasons, he was buried behind dynamic offensive cores in Florida and Toronto. Since returning to Switzerland, the 25-year-old has scored at close to a point per game. The same could be said for Sven Andrighetto, who had decent offensive numbers playing depth minutes for the Colorado Avalanche. Either of these players could use the Olympics as their showcase. While there are others, these two will take much of the attention on the ice, and from NHL clubs looking to fill depth scoring roles for a bargain.
USA: Marc McLaughlin
The United States roster is a group of polar opposites. Budding stars like Owen Power and Matt Beniers whose NHL careers are inevitable, and depth veterans whose NHL careers are behind them. There are three young prospects who fit outside this mold. In net, Strauss Mann had an all-star NCAA career at Michigan. He’s not likely to get much time in net, but the USA shouldn’t rule him out after the numbers he’s put up as a rookie in the SHL this year with Skellefteå AIK. The main knock on the 23-year-old Mann is by NHL standards he’s small at only 6-foot-0. Up front, Ben Meyers and Mac McLaughlin are NCAA free agents who will draw a feeding frenzy from NHL teams trying to add a prospect to the pool without a draft pick. Meyers captains Minnesota, while McLaughlin wears the ‘C’ for Boston College. Both are point per game players in the NCAA, and both will sign NHL contracts. McLaughlin will be especially enticing given his record as a two-way forward, including as the Hockey East Best Defensive Forward in 2021, that can drop into the bottom six of almost any NHL team.