Olympic hockey will happen in 2018, NHLers or not. At the very least, the tournament will feature the world's best female players. Will the men's elite make the trek to PyeongChang, South Korea? We'll see. Whatever happens, the IIHF is proceeding as if everyone will come to play. It released the respective formats for Olympic men's and women's hockey qualification Wednesday. Let's break down how each field will be determined – under the assumption NHLers play.
The 2015 men's World Championship has extra meaning this year. Normally, I must admit, I criticize the tourney's popularity because it's not a true best-on-best affair. It pits whoever is available versus whoever else is available. The 2015 incarnation, however, will play a major role in determining the top eight automatic entries for 2018 men's Olympic competition. World rankings are based on a points system factoring in the past four world championships and the most recent Olympic Games, with heavier weighting toward the most recent events. Note that the 2016 World Cup of Hockey has no bearing on the Olympics, as much as it should in spirit. The IIHF has nothing to do with the World Cup, which is an NHL/NHLPA-run event.
The 2018 Olympic format will mirror that of Sochi's in 2014. Twelve countries will qualify. Host Korea earns the (generous) 12th seed automatically, leaving three spots open for additional qualification.
A multi-stage process will determine the 9-11 seeds. It's outlined in full detail on the IIHF website. Seeds 27-36 will compete this November, producing three qualifiers to join a tournament with the 18-26 seeds in February 2016. The process repeats, with the top three from that group climbing up to battle the 9-17 seeds in September 2016. The top trio from that group qualifies for the 2018 Winter Games and, bada-bing, completes the 12-team field.
The women's tournament will go by 2016 ranking, not 2015, presumably because its qualification process has fewer stages. Using the same ranking criteria, the top five teams after the 2016 worlds get automatic 2018 berths. That leaves three spots open, as the women's Winter Games will again feature an eight-team field. Groups will be tiered by rankings like in Sochi, with Canada and the U.S. the top two from Group A earning semifinal byes and the bottom two from Group A playing the top two from Group B in the first elimination round. The top four after 2016 form Group A, and the No. 5 team heads Group B. Host Korea automatically earns a Group B bid, meaning only two spots will remain.
The qualification process for 2018's final two Group B participants works just like the men's but with one fewer stage and one fewer qualifier per stage. Seeds 18-24 battle it out in August 2016. The top two from that group join seeds 12-17 in November 2016. The best duo then faces seeds 6-11 in February 2017, determining the final two seeds.
Whew. Ya got that?
Now let's speculate on how the groups might play out, using the current IIHF rankings as a jumping-off point.
PREDICTING THE MEN'S BRACKET
The current top eight:
5. Czech Republic
6. United States
No surprises in terms of who cracks that group. To the uninitiated, though, the order can be jarring. Canada, the undisputed world champs, ranked fourth? That's what happens when every World Championship nation's roster features whichever players it can scrounge up. Canada hasn't won this thing since 2007 and hasn't even medalled since 2009. That's why it entered the Sochi Olympics as the No. 5 seed and only jumped two spots after the Sochi victory. Finland, Russia and Sweden regularly excel at the worlds, with Russia taking four of the last seven titles.
None of these squads is in serious danger of missing the 2018 Games, though Slovakia bears some watching. Many of its best players, from Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa to Marian Gaborik, are aging out. Slovakia can still rely on up-and-comers like Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Marko Dano to keep its seed afloat – but even that is a tall order considering there's no guarantee they can play at this year's worlds. Falling out of the top eight would be scary for a borderline team like Slovakia, as the final Olympic qualifier tournament, involving the 9-17 seeds plus three more teams, takes place in September 2016. What if, say, the Red Wings don't let Tatar and Jurco play since they'll be starting training camp? The slope becomes slippery.
Thankfully, the Slovaks still have enough depth that they'll almost surely earn one of the three other available spots after the top eight for 2018, even if it means winning without their NHLers. A look at the projected final qualifier field, based on current rankings:
And that field would have three more teams climbing up from the previous qualifying stage. Will we see a Cinderella squad make a miracle run to the 2018 Games, like Slovenia did – without Anze Kopitar – for the 2014 Olympics? Here's a best guess at the final 2018 qualifiers, following official IIHF seeding rules:
Korea (12/host bid)
Czech Republic (5)
Austria (11/final qualifier)
Denmark (9/first qualifier)
Latvia (10/second qualifier)
Note the lack of Slovenia this time, with Austria getting the edge since it's more likely to ice NHLers. The Slovenians' run was amazing in 2014, but that doesn't mean they can make it all the way back. They'll have to run the gauntlet again, likely without Kopitar again. Their play in Sochi wasn't a fluke, but so much has to go right for them to get back to the Olympics. Especially because the host nation isn't a true "hockey nation," meaning it occupies a spot it could never earn. Skill-wise, Korea has no business being in this bracket. Korea ranks 23rd in the world. But them's the rules. Korea went 0-5 at the Div. I Group A worlds last year, losing 7-4 to Hungary, 4-0 to Slovenia, 7-4 to Austria, 4-2 to Japan and 8-2 to the deadly Ukraine.
PREDICTING THE WOMEN'S BRACKET
The current top five:
Since the women's teams can still send their best players to every tournament, these rankings are far more accurate than the men's. Canada and the U.S. remain in their own tier. Great goaltending from Florence Schelling and Noora Raty, respectively, make the Swiss and Finns dangerous. And Sweden has arguably the best offensive player in the world not from Canada or the U.S.: Pernilla Winberg.
The projected women's qualifier field:
9. Czech Republic
This field includes two more qualifiers from the tournament below it. Two teams from this final qualifier tourney will join the 2018 Olympic field alongside host Korea, which ranks 24th in the world. Russia and Germany have strong chances to make the cut, but Japan and the Czech Republic can't be counted out. The Czechs absolutely dominated the women's Div. I A tournament and lost a very close best-of-three series against Japan to determine which team would play in the division at the 2015 worlds. The top teams didn't play a World Championship in 2014 because it was an Olympic year.
So, playing a hunch on rising Japan, and following IIHF women's seeding rules, here's a projected 2018 women's Olympic field:
Russia (6/first qualifier)
Japan (7/second qualifier)
Korea (8/host bid)
The Korean squad, like the men's, will be in tough, though the gap between it and the other Group B teams isn't as significant as what the men's squad will experience. The Korean net will likely resemble Sonny Corleone's car after his trip to the toll both.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin