Team USA announced its men’s Olympic ice hockey roster on New Year’s Day, delighting New York Rangers fans in the process with the selections of Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan. Only one other NHL club – the St. Louis Blues – will have that many Olympians representing Team USA, which should make the Americans’ pursuit of gold especially exciting for the Garden Faithful. With that in mind, here are a few other Rangers to look for when the rest of the rosters are revealed on Tuesday.
Rick Nash, LW: Team Canada
The Case For: It’s no secret that Rick Nash has had a lousy offensive campaign for the Rangers so far, but the Big Easy remains one of the elite talents in the NHL. Few players boast the combination of size, speed and skill that Nash does (Jamie Benn and Ryan Getzlaf come to mind), and when you tack on his Olympic experience (2006 and 2010 team member), Nash enters a league of his own. In a tournament where speed will come at a premium (the games will be played on an Olympic ice sheet for the first time since 2006), and experience will prove crucial in the later rounds, it’s just hard to imagine Team Canada leaving Nash behind.
The Case Against: It’s no secret that Rick Nash has had a lousy offensive campaign for the Rangers so far…and that’s about all you need to know. Team Canada has such a surplus of talent that Nash’s impressive track record may not be enough to earn him a locker in Sochi. He was a near lock for this team when orientation camp opened back in July, but Nash may have played himself off the roster with an underwhelming performance thus far in his second season as a Ranger.
Marc Staal, D: Team Canada
The Case For: Another invitee to the team’s summer orientation camp, Staal is the type of player who would thrive on the more spacious Olympic sheet. 15 extra feet from dasher to dasher may not seem like much, but you get the feeling Staal would be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate if the NHL were played on a wider ice surface – his skating ability is that impressive. Given Team Canada’s past struggles on the Olympic sheet (4th place in 1998, 7th place in 2006), you have to figure Staal, who shortens the ice with his long strides, will get a look. One other thing working in his favor? Staal has lengthy experience playing against – and muzzling – Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin, who has struggled to assert himself against the swift-skating Ranger defenseman. If Team Canada thinks its path to Gold will have to run through Russia, Staal is a valuable asset to have in tow.
The Case Against: Staal has been his usual steady self for the Rangers this season, which is to say he hasn’t been spectacular enough to make Team Canada. The Canadians are deep defensively, and probably don’t have much interest in a player who has posted just four points in 33 games this season. As impressive as Staal’s defensive game is, there are a number of other players (Brent Seabrook, Shea Webber to name two) who can give you everything Staal gives you plus some offensive upside.
Henrik Lundqvist, : Team Sweden
The Case For: He’s Henrik Lundqvist. He led Sweden to the gold medal in 2006. He’s the best goalie the country has ever produced. Say what you want about a shaky 2013/14 season, but Lundqvist is still one of the best goalies in the NHL. A sticky-handed bandit, the debonair Swede has that scary ability to simply take over a game. With high-octane offense likely to be the theme in Sochi, Team Sweden will need to steal a game or two to return if it wishes to return to Olympic Glory. Lundqvist is the man for such a job.
The Case Against: If this were USA or Finland we were talking about, two countries rich with goaltending talent, Lundqvist’s roster spot might be in jeopardy. But after Lundqvist, the Swede’s next best options in net are Robin Lehner and Jhonas Enroth. And thus there is no case to be made against Lundqvist.
Carl Hagelin, LW: Team Sweden
The Case For: Did we mention yet that the games will be played on the Olympic ice sheet? In the case of Hagelin, it’s worth mentioning again. Hagelin won the fastest skater competition at the 2012 skills competition, and with that our most recent barometer, it’s fair to say Hagelin is the fastest man on two skates. If speed kills in the NHL, it will simply decimate in the Olympics, making Hagelin an extremely dangerous player for the Swedes. It’s also worth noting that the former Michigan standout has developed a nose for the net this season, potting ten goals through 33 games.
The Case Against: Not much to be said here. If Nash and Staal have played themselves out of Olympic contention, Hagelin has done just the opposite this year – and especially of late. The swift Swede has moved up to second line duty for the Rangers and looks to be the closest thing to a lock for Sochi.
Anton Stralman, D: Team Sweden
The Case For: Stralman plays big minutes for Alain Vigneault and the Rangers, thanks largely to his reliability in the defensive end of the rink. He is poised with the puck on the breakout, unafraid to take a hit to make a play, and dependable in coverage, rarely missing an assignment or losing his man. In fact, Stralman is almost robotic in the way he plays the game, taking to his job with a stoic manner. He does exactly what is asked of him each and every night, and has thus emerged as one of the Rangers’ most important players. If he’d give a limb for the Blueshirts, there’s no telling what he’d sacrifice for his home country.
The Case Against: Stralman is in a similar position as Staal: good, but likely not good enough. Sweden, like Canada, is deep on the blueline, and Stralman may simply be a casualty of his country’s penchant for breeding elite defensemen. As good as he is in his own end, Stralman just doesn’t have the offensive punch (4 points in 42 games) Sweden is likely looking for.
Mats Zuccarello, LW: Team Norway
The Case For: How about this: Zuccarello is Norway’s best player. Ever know a country to pack up for the Olympics and leave its best player behind? *Bobby Ryan bristles.* Me neither. (Ryan, despite the clamoring among American fans, is a goal-scorer, yes, but hardly a top-six forward for the United States.) Zuccarello is Norway’s most dynamic talent, and that’s before considering what he’s done this year for the Rangers. Out of nowhere, the diminutive forward has emerged as the team’s best player, leading the Blueshirts in both assists and points through 43 games. Norway might not have the horses to keep up with the pack in Sochi, but they’ll surely have The Hobbit, whose magic might help conjure up a win or two.
The Case Against: Let’s not waste the space.