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Who Are the Favorites in an Olympics Without NHLers?

With no NHLers heading to Beijing, let's take a look at how some of the top men's hockey teams are shaping up for the Winter Olympic Games in February.
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The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea proved anything is possible – and the 2022 tournament could double down on that.

The fact of the matter is without Canada, USA and other teams filling their rosters full of NHL superstars, the talent pool shrinks, and, by default, the competition gap. So while the best players won't be plying their trade for a shot at a medal, more teams will realistically have a shot at gold – something Germany learned nearly four years ago.

So, which teams are early favorites?

The first, and most obvious name, is Russia – or, more specifically, the Olympic Athletes of Russia. They won gold in 2018 off the backs of Ilya Kovalchuk, Kirill Kaprizov and Kirill Kaprizov, but weren't overly convincing against Germany in the final game. Still, they shouldn't have many issues challenging for a medal again, even if Kaprizov is in the NHL and Kovalchuk is working on the management side. Gusev, Vadim Shipachyov and Andrei Kuzmenko should be among the team's key offensive threats, with youngsters with a host of other KHL and World Junior Championship players sprinkled in.

Canada can't be counted out, either. If there was a redo of the semifinal game against Germany – Canada's worst outing of the tournament, by far – they'd likely come out on top on talent alone. But Canada kept stepping on their own toes, resulting in a loss to a German team that never gave up. Canada should be back in a big way in Beijing, although they won't have a real difference-maker. Canada's biggest benefit is, if we take a look at a projected roster, the team will be reliable defensively and, potentially, have one of the better goaltenders in the tournament in Devan Dubnyk. If he can channel that energy that made him so dominant in Minnesota, Canada might have something.

The most consistent team in Euro Hockey Tour play so far this season has been Finland, finishing second at the Karjala Cup and Channel One Cup. The Finns, even without NHL stars, always find a way to give teams headaches, highlighted by gold at the 2019 World Championship with no full-time NHLers. Miro Aaltonen, Harri Pesonen and Valtteri Filppula were standouts, while former NHL defender Sami Vatanen putting up a good fight at both ends of the ice. There's a good argument to make that Finland can snag gold given how they love to grind and defend until there's nothing left.

Sweden didn't get the results they wanted in 2021 at any major international tournament, but the 2022 Olympics could change their tides. It'll be far from a pretty squad: Mathias Brome, Anton Lander, Linus Omark and Carl Klingberg will be some of the key pieces of the offensive core, while Lawrence Pilut and Henrik Tömmernes will lead the blueline. From early looks in Euro Hockey Tour events, Sweden should be a gritty, hard-working squad with a ton to prove, and that definitely isn't a bad thing. Sweden is always a safe pick to win a medal, but they just need to stop tripping over themselves to do so.

The United States' roster will be a bit of a mystery. In 2018, they leaned on some young college faces to supplement an otherwise mediocre group of professionals, but will the NCAA and its member schools allow its players to go? With the ongoing health situation, it would be completely understandable if they didn't. If they did, names like Matty Beniers, Jake Sanderson and Luke Hughes could be among the options suiting up, and that could at least make things spicy.

No NHLers means teams like Czechia, Denmark and Germany will be without game-changing players, but it might also help their case to stun some of the big dogs. All three nations are used to playing without a multitude of star talent in major international events, so the chemistry built by the players who have played in countless World Championship, Euro Hockey Tour and Euro Ice Hockey Challenge events, among others, should help them get up to speed quickly. The Czechs, in particular, should have good depth and solid goaltending.

And then there's Switzerland, a team you can never count out from medal contention. Can they play underdogs? Many thought so in 2018. 

That's a good portion of the total team base, so who are the true medal contenders right now? Long story short: expect a lot of the same from 2018. Some of the teams will have some new talent to spice things up, while others will go with tried-and-true groups to create some sort of familiarity. 

If I'm picking a top three right now, I'm liking 1. Russia, 2. Finland and 3. Canada, with Sweden and the Czech Republic putting up good arguments themselves. But part of the beauty of a non-NHL tournament like this is it breeds opportunities for new hockey heroes to emerge, with many looking for their first – or a final – shot at an NHL contract. 

Let the games begin – the guessing game, that is.

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