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Top Players to Watch at Men's Olympic Hockey Tournament

No NHLers? No problem. The men's Olympic hockey tournament is sure to be interesting, and, frankly, quite wide open. Here's a look at a player to watch on all 12 teams.
Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY Sports

No NHLers? No problem.

That's the tagline we used in The Hockey News' Olympic Preview issue, on newsstands now. Most hockey fans would rather see NHLers playing on the world's biggest sports platform, but that just wasn't in the cards, unfortunately.

And while it's a huge bummer not seeing the best of the best representing their countries, it's something we got used to in 2018. The competition was fierce, the field was wide-open and the opportunities to make stars out of anyone made the event so much more intriguing.

The 2022 tournament will be no different. Featuring a mix of top young talent and former NHLers, there's a ton of quality talent worth keeping an eye on. Let's take a look at one player to watch on every team - not necessarily the best player on each team, but one that'll definitely catch your attention:

Group A

Mason McTavish, F (Canada)
Eric Staal might be the real highlight on this team, but McTavish might be one of the more intriguing players to watch. McTavish has had a wild season, starting the year in the NHL with Anaheim before seeing time in the AHL, two OHL teams and even two games at the World Junior Championship. With five points in two games, McTavish was ready to take the tournament by storm before positive COVID-19 cases on other teams prevented the tournament from continuing. So while he doesn't have a ton of experience against pro players, he did spend last year in the second Swiss league and played some big minutes with Anaheim at points, too, and many believe he deserved to stay up the whole season. If McTavish doesn't get a ton of ice time out of the gate, it shouldn't be long until he forces coach Jeremy Colliton's hand.

Jeremy Smith, G (China)
Also known as Jieruimi Shimisi in Chinese, this will be Smith's first time playing for China internationally after spending three years with Kunlun Red Star. Smith previously played for USA at the 2008 World Junior Championship and even got into some limited NHL action with Colorado in 2016-17, but he has found a home with the KRS program and will be China's most important player by far. China is the lowest-ranked team in the tournament and with Canada, USA and Germany in the group, China will need a big miracle to steal any points along the way. Smith is the team's best shot at that, and he's going to be quite busy in every single game.

Mathias Niederberger, G (Germany)
Goaltending was a big reason why the Germans made it to the gold medal game in 2018, largely due to the play of Danny aus den Birken when it mattered. aus den Birken is back, but Niederberger appears to be the No. 1 this time around. He was spectacular at the World Championship last year with a 1.70 GAA and .929 save percentage and has been one of the best goalies in the top German league with Eisbaren Berlin. Niederberger is no stranger to having to steal games against stronger competition internationally, proving so in a 39-save effort against the eventual champions from Canada at the worlds back in May. Don't be shocked if Niederberger ends up with the top goalie award.

Brian O'Neill, F (USA)
The youth might be the story of the national team, but O'Neill is a big piece of USA's gold medal hopes. The only returning player from 2018, O'Neill has managed to take his stock up a notch in the years since. O'Neill had 58 points in 2018-19 and has hovered around the 50-point mark in the two years since, with O'Neill currently sitting at 42 points in 41 games in his sixth year with KHL Jokerit. O'Neill was a stout AHLer at one point in time with the Manchester Monarchs but only had two assists in 22 games with the New Jersey Devils to show for before going overseas. With his second Olympic appearance on the horizon, he made a good choice pursuing a career in Finland.

Group B

David Krejci, F (Czech Republic)
A bit of a cop-out, maybe. But many still think Krejci has what it takes to still be an NHLer today after leaving the Boston Bruins over the off-season. The Czech captain previously played at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, but otherwise hasn't seen a ton of international action over the past decade besides a World Championship run in 2018. Still, he's the highest-profile name on the roster, and at 35, he still has some good hockey left to be played. If the Czechs are going to do some damage this year, it'll be because of Krejci's leadership and, well, his tremendous skill at an older age.

Sebastian Dahm, G (Denmark)
Whenever the Danes have found themselves punching above its weight at the men's international level, Dahm has typically been one of the team's heroes. Dahm had a near-perfect tournament at the Olympic qualifiers last summer and his World Championship run in May was one of the best we've ever seen from a Danish netminder. At 34, Dahm is a veteran of the Danish national team scene, starting the majority of major tournaments when Frederik Andersen hasn't been available. Group B has the opportunity to be wide open, and Dahm could be a game-changer.

Nikita Gusev, F (Russia)
Gusev's stock has fallen a bit since his dominant 2018 Olympic performance, but the Russian Hockey Federation definitely doesn't see it that way. Gusev has been Russia's best player in Euro Hockey Tour play with four assists in three games and should surely slide in beside Vadim Shipachyov on Russia's top line. Gusev enters the tournament after finishing the KHL regular season with 35 points in 31 games, good for third on SKA St. Petersburg. His two years in the NHL had its ups and downs, but internationally, Gusev has always been absolutely electric, highlighted by his 12 points and the top forward award en route to gold at the 2018 Games. Expect more greatness from Gusev in Beijing.

Grégory Hofmann, F (Switzerland)
Hofmann was a lucky addition to the Swiss after he and the Columbus Blue Jackets severed ties in early January. Up until that point, he was struggling to find a groove in the NHL and he elected to return home to Zug, where he had 10 points in six games before leaving for Beijing. Hofmann only got into two games at the 2018 Olympics but has emerged as one of the nation's better offensive threats at the men's level and should serve in the team's top left-wing spot.

Group C

Miro Aaltonen, F (Finland)
Making his Olympic debut at 28, Aaltonen, an Anaheim Ducks draft pick from 2013, is having one heck of a season in the KHL. Aaltonen, in his return to Vityaz Podolsk, finished second in team scoring behind fellow Finn Niko Ojamaki (43 points in 48 games) with 42 points in 44 games. Add in a team-leading five points in three Karjala Cup games and Aaltonen enters on a bit of a hot streak for a team many expect will compete for a medal in Beijing. Aaltonen centered Finland's second line during practice, but that's a good No. 2 to have.

Lauris Darzins, F (Latvia)
At 37, Darzins' career is in its final stages, But if there's one thing Latvia knows about its captain, it's that Darzins is a reliable force. Darzins had a strong run at the Olympic qualification with four assists in three games and despite his age, he's still the second highest-scoring Latvian on Dinamo Riga, the top Latvian-based professional team. Darzins is one of the best play-makers the team has, but Latvia will hope he can spark some offense in a group that has the potential to be wide-open.

Simon Nemec, D (Slovakia)
Is he the best player on Slovakia? No. But is he one of the more intriguing ones? Absolutely. The 17-year-old top defensive prospect for the 2022 draft already has a ton of men's national team experience to his credit and looked great in two World Junior Championship games before the tournament was shuttered. As Nemec continues to get more comfortable against men – and he certainly is with HK Nitra – Nemec will continue to earn more ice time and more responsibility. This is an excellent opportunity for Nemec to seriously build his draft profile.

Henrik Tömmernes, D (Sweden)
The Swedish roster looks a bit uninspiring on paper, but Tömmernes is definitely one to watch. The 31-year-old never made it to the NHL after getting drafted by Vancouver in the seventh round in 2011, but he's the two-time defending top defenseman in the Swiss National League and with 49 points in 41 games with Geneve-Servette this year, he's had his best professional season to date. Sweden will need all the scoring help they can get, and Tömmernes should be one of the go-to options from the blueline.



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