A Phoenix Coyotes fan’s guide to Sochi

Ekman-Larsson, Smith and Korpikoski (photo credit: PhoenixCoyotes.com)

Ekman-Larsson, Smith and Korpikoski (photo credit: PhoenixCoyotes.com)

With five Phoenix Coyotes slated to hit the ice in Sochi, Coyotes fans will have plenty to watch for in the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics. Goalie Mike Smith will represent Team Canada, winger Lauri Korpokoski will represent Team Finland, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will represent Team Sweden, and defenseman Zbynek Michalek and center Martin Hanzal will both don the Czech Republic colors.

Mike Smith has been inconsistent in the 2013-2014 NHL campaign, but dating back to his stellar 2011-2012 season he is one of the winningest Canadian goalies in the NHL. At 31 years of age, this is the Kingston, Ontario native’s first trip to the Olympics.

Lauri Korpikoski gets the call for Team Finland after being a fixture in the desert since 2009. He has 118 points in 304 games in a Coyotes sweater, and brings solid two way play to the Finnish forward group.

Since his selection at sixth overall in the 2009 NHL draft, Oliver Ekman-Larsson has steadily risen through the ranks of the best defenseman in the world; it’s only fitting that the 22 year old represents his country on his first opportunity. The Karlskrona, Sweden native leads the Coyotes in average time on ice this season, clocking in at 25:32 a game, good for eighth in the NHL this season.

Czech it out! Martin Hanzal and Zbynek Michalek are headed to Sochi. (photo credit: PhoenixCoyotes.com)

Czech it out! Martin Hanzal and Zbynek Michalek are headed to Sochi. (photo credit: PhoenixCoyotes.com)

From Jindrichuv Hradec in the Czech Republic, 31-year old Zbynek Michalek returns to the Czech squad after being on the team in the 2010 Olympics, when the team placed seventh. After  battling a hip injury for most of this season, Michalek appears healthy and ready to contribute. The top pairing partner of Ekman-Larsson on the Coyotes, Michalek has five points in 36 international games.

Joining Michalek on the Czech team is big centerman Martin Hanzal. Hanzal has already tied his career high in points this season with 35. This is Marty’s first Olympic invite in his six year NHL career, although he is no stranger to international competition, playing in the World Juniors in 2006 and 2007 as well as the World Championship in 2008.

Because the Olympic Games essentially replace the traditional All-Star game this season, it can be interpreted that the Coyotes have five All-Stars this season, a proud achievement for any franchise. It could even be argued that even more Coyotes could make the squad. Chief among them are Keith Yandle for Team USA and Radim Vrbata for the Czech Republic.

Since the 2009-10 season, no American defenseman has more points than Boston native Keith Yandle. While his defensive game is far from perfect, Yandle is a lightning rod of a player who has a strong case to play in Sochi. A true leader in the Coyotes locker room, Team USA will be without one of the best American hockey players with Yandle watching from home.

ESPN’s Scott Burnside writes about Yandle’s omission: “The feeling is that even without Yandle on the team, there will be enough skill on the power play to be effective with Joe Pavelski expected to play the point at times along with Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk.”

Another Coyote who saw a questionable snub is Radim Vrbata, whose chemistry with countryman and linemate Martin Hanzal would have been an asset to the Czech squad. Among Czech scorers in the NHL, Vrbata is fourth this season.

“I think he deserves to be on the team. His statistics speak for themselves the last couple of years,” said teammate and Czech countryman Zbynek Michalek. “Unfortunately, our coach has a different opinion. We’ll just have to wait and see if it was the right decision or not.”

But don’t let these guys’ snubs take away from the five that made it. It’s a truly remarkable achievement to play for their country, and it gives Coyotes fans something to cheer for outside of the national squads.

The Olympic Men’s Hockey Tournament will start February 12th at 12PM Eastern, with the Czech Republic taking on Sweden.