Summer is all about camp.
For kids, a trip to camp means new friends, new experiences and days filled with games like capture the flag.
For parents, it’s a case of capture the quietness.
The best hockey-playing nations have their version of summer camp every four years in preparation for the Olympics. Finland has already held its summer get-together, Team USA is currently putting its prospective charges through the paces in Woodridge, Ill., while powerhouses Canada and Russia both have camps slated to start in the near future.
The puck won’t drop in Vancouver for another six months, but the competition has clearly already begun. Each of the seven major entries will have burning questions to answer when the Olympic flame is lit. Here’s a sampling.
Who can wing it for Canada?
The host nation will obviously have a host of pressure on it, going for gold on home soil. Team Canada is absolutely stacked down the middle, so it will be interesting to see who is asked to slide over to the wing and how well they fare. Natural pivots who could flip to flank include Jeff Carter, Jonathan Toews and perhaps even Mike Richards.
David ready to be a Czech Goliath?
Maybe the Czechs should investigate the family origins of some of Canada’s centers because they are awful thin at that position. As such, it looks as though 23-year-old David Krejci will be penciled in as the No. 1 man. Krejci had a breakout season with Boston last year and will have to come up with a big tournament if the Czechs are to pose a legitimate threat to the top contenders.
Who is the No. 1 stopper in the land of Finns?
Pop quiz: Who was the top goalie in the 2006 Turin tournament? Need a hint? He was on the losing side of the ledger in the final, won 3-2 by Sweden over their rival Finns. Niklas Backstrom? Nope. Not Miikka Kiprusoff, either.
Antero Niittymaki, you will recall if your memory is better than most, was the backbone of the Finnish team that came oh-so-close to dumping the Swedes in the battle for gold.
It’s hard to believe Niittymaki will be in the mix this time, but it will be interesting to see whether Kipper or Backstrom enters the tournament as Finland’s top crease crusader.
Don’t forget about dark horse Pekka Rinne, too.
Don’t rush off
Barring injury, Russia will run out the best two forward lines in the tournament. Consider that, between Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, there will only be about 10 minutes per game when Russia’s opponent won’t have to be completely concerned with trying to stop a runaway train that jukes like a Porsche.
But who is going to take care of the back end? Andrei Markov will be the team’s best D-man, followed closely by Sergei Gonchar. Both are great puck-movers, but neither will inflict any hurt on opposing forwards.
Anton Volchenkov is a superb shot-blocker, but not nearly the caliber of shutdown blueliner other teams boast.
Slo your roll
Slovakia is the weakest sister of the seven contenders, but the Slovaks do have a seriously multi-purpose ace to play in Zdeno Chara.
Really, the team needs Chara to have an out-of-his-mind tournament, strapping straight jackets on attackers for nearly 30 minutes a game, while uncorking that cannon of a slapshot every time he gets a chance.
For Slovakia to have any chance, it will need better-than-expected goaltending from Peter Budaj or Jaroslav Halak and exceptional play from special teams. Chara’s presence running a power play and killing penalties can swing games.
Who’s next on a Swedish stamp?
Mats Sundin has already said he won’t be in Vancouver and it seems a highly probably bet the defending champs won’t have longtime Tre Kronor legend Peter Forsberg in their midst, either.
It’s up to young Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Sedin to show they can be top centers on a championship team. If either falters in that role, Cup-winner Henrik Zetterberg can easily switch over from the wing.
Is green a good color on the U.S.?
Team USA will enter the derby with an extremely young, inexperienced team.
Maybe that’s just the formula for pulling off a stunning upset or two, especially given how tightly their Canadian cousins will be gripping their sticks.
The question is, who among a pack of Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and Patrick Kane can step up and be the go-to offensive leader?
The Americans can’t match the top-end talent other squads boast, but they’ve got a lot of back-and-forth boys capable of burying and defending.
Throw in a monster performance from Tim Thomas or Ryan Miller and the Yanks certainly can’t be counted out.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.