NHL Players with the Most to Gain at 2014 Winter Olympics

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2014

NHL Players with the Most to Gain at 2014 Winter Olympics

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    One of the best aspects of the Olympic hockey tournament is how it shuffles the deck. We get to see familiar stars take on alternate identities—playing for their countries, on all-star squads, in a different style of game where a single play can be the difference between winning and losing.

    Some players wilt under the changed expectations, while others rise to the occasion. Those who shine are building a rich personal legacy that will enhance their reputation through their playing days and into retirement.

    Here are nine stars bearing different weights on their shoulders as they get ready to head to Sochi and the prizes that await if they dazzle on the global stage.

    Let us know in the comments which NHLer you think has the most to gain at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

    All stats through January 14, courtesy of NHL.com.

Phil Kessel: Team USA

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    What's on the line: Respect. Phil Kessel puts up great regular-season numbers and has already locked up a long-term contract extension that befits a superstar, but he's rarely mentioned in the same breath as the league's top players. A strong Olympics would go a long way towards altering that perception.

    What needs to be done: Kessel needs to be a more dynamic presence than he was as a 22-year-old in Vancouver, where he tallied just one goal and one assist in six games. He's currently second among all Americans in NHL scoring behind Patrick Kane. Team USA is counting on his offensive contribution.

    Sochi outlook: Kessel should get a chance to be a game-breaker for the Americans in Sochi. If he can deliver at key moments on the worldwide stage, he has a chance to show the rest of the world what Maple Leafs' management thought they were acquiring when they signed him to his $64 million deal.

Henrik Lundqvist: Team Sweden

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    What's on the line: The title of "greatest goaltender in the world"—Henrik Lundqvist was widely thought to be that goalie until he started struggling with the New York Rangers this season. As he winds back into form, the 2006 gold medalist has a chance to earn back his accolades in Sochi.

    What needs to be done: He's doing it. Since New Year's, Lundqvist has started finding his game, going 3-1-0 while allowing just seven goals in his last four games. He was also named the NHL's third star for the week ending January 12th.

    Sochi outlook: The 31-year-old is rounding into form at just the right time to raise hopes back home. Team Sweden is one of the Olympic favorites. With Lundqvist at the top of his game, the group has a chance to go after its second win in three Olympiads.

Ryan Miller: Team USA

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    What's on the line: Ryan Miller came within one goal of winning gold for the upstart Team USA in Vancouver in 2010. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, Miller could use another big Olympic performance to leverage a trade-deadline deal to a contender and help secure a lucrative new contract.

    What needs to be done: First, Miller needs to keep Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard out of the American net in Sochi. Second, he needs to play like he did in Vancouver. Miller has been strong this year despite the dysfunctional situation in Buffalo. He'd love to have a chance to show his best stuff again on a big stage.

    Sochi outlook: It's likely that Team USA will give the incumbent Miller the reins to start the tournament, but with Jonathan Quick lurking in the background, it won't take much for his opportunity to be snatched away. Miller can't give management any reason to doubt him.

Alexander Ovechkin: Team Russia

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    What's on the line: The title of "best player in the world"—Sidney Crosby moved above Alexander Ovechkin when he won the Stanley Cup in 2009, then took a firm grip on the accolade with his Golden Goal in Vancouver in 2010. Ovechkin would like nothing more than to best him on his own home turf this time around.

    What needs to be done: Simple—score the winning goal to grab the gold. Ovi leads the NHL pack in goals by a wide margin this year, so his scoring touch is in top form. He's heading to Sochi looking to avenge his country's quarterfinal loss to Canada in 2010. 

    Sochi outlook:  From the moment he lit the first Olympic torch to start the relay in Greece this summer, Ovechkin has made no secret of his enthusiasm for these Games. As he told the Associated Press about Team Russia: "I don't think somebody (is) going to (think) their mission is done to be just on Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win gold medal."

Teemu Selanne: Team Finland

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    What's on the line: Forty-three-year-old Teemu Selanne is about to tie a record as he plays in his sixth Olympic Games, dating all the way back to 1992 in Albertville, France. The only other hockey player to skate in the Olympics six times was Raimo Helminen, who appeared for Finland from 1984 to 2002. Must be the saunas.

    What needs to be done: Just show up, really. Selanne took over the lead in the all-time Olympic point parade in 2010 in Vancouver. His leadership and experience are the key traits he'll bring to Sochi, capping off a fine career with another impressive achievement.

    Sochi outlook:  Selanne has been the Olympics' top scorer on two previous occasions, and he was named most valuable player in Turin in 2006. He has a silver medal and two bronzes in his collection already and could add to that with Team Finland in Sochi.

Tuukka Rask: Team Finland

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    What's on the line: Tuukka Rask came up through a Finnish national program that was crowded with great goaltenders of similar age, so he's rarely had a chance to shine on the international stage. He has a chance to grab the No. 1 job—and a medal—in Sochi.

    What needs to be done: Out-duel Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen for the chance to start. All three Finnish goaltenders will be making their Olympic debuts after a crew of Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Antero Niittymaki backstopped the Finnish team to bronze in 2010.

    Sochi outlook: Rask is sixth in the NHL with a 2.11 goals-against and fourth with a .928 save percentage—the best numbers of the three candidates. He was a Stanley Cup finalist in 2013, but Niemi won the big prize in 2010. If Rask gets to play, he could vault himself to the top of the ultra-competitive Finnish goalie ranks and help justify the $56 million contract he was awarded last summer.

Steven Stamkos: Team Canada

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    What's on the line: A superhero-like return to action. Steven Stamkos is getting close to being game-ready after breaking his leg in November. If he can come back to star at the Olympics as at the level that was expected before he was injured, his will be one of the most compelling stories of the Games.

    What needs to be done: Stamkos has said he wants to play in the NHL before the Olympics start to make sure he's ready. There's still no timeline for his return, though he is skating at times in practice with his Tampa Bay Lightning. The smart money says he'll be back on the ice with time to spare.

    Sochi outlook: Stamkos is known as one of the hardest-working players in the NHL, and one of the themes throughout his rehabilitation has been his desire to give himself every chance to play in Sochi. If he gets clearance to play, he'll be riveting to watch.

P.K. Subban: Team Canada

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    What's on the line: After a great deal of speculation that he'd be left on the sidelines, the 2013 Norris Trophy winner was named to the Canadian Olympic Team for Sochi. Armchair GMs will be scrutinizing P.K. Subban closely to see if they agree with Steve Yzerman's decision to bring him along.

    What needs to be done: First off, Subban needs to crack the lineup. Once he does that, he'll need to be airtight defensively and show his creative panache on the big ice if he hopes to stay ahead of Canada's other defensive options on the depth chart.

    Sochi outlook: Limited. With talented right-side defensemen Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo also named to Team Canada, there's no guarantee that Subban will even get to play unless there's an injury. All three of his rivals are strong on offense and the power play but aren't as likely to make the defensive mistakes that Subban is known for. If he can score significant minutes in Sochi, he could write a great redemption story.

Semyon Varlamov: Team Russia

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    What's on the line: Semyon Varlamov's season was off to an outstanding start before he was charged with domestic violence following an incident with his girlfriend in late October. While Russian authorities worried about how the legal situation could affect the Olympic prospects of their likely No. 1 goaltender, Varlamov stayed with the Colorado Avalanche and continued to play well. The charges were dropped in December. 

    Varlamov's also a restricted free agent this summer. A good showing in Sochi will dramatically increase his bargaining power when it comes time to sign a new deal with the Avs.

    What needs to be done: Varlamov needs to show that the incident hasn't been a distraction. His NHL numbers have stayed solid: He's eighth with a .926 save percentage and 15th with a 2.33 goals-against for Colorado. Now, he needs to show that he can perform at the same level under the intense pressure to capture a home-ice gold medal for his country.

    Sochi outlook: Despite the high-pressure situation, Varlamov will be given every chance to succeed in Sochi. Should he falter, 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky will be waiting in the wings.