Four key position battles for ’14 Winter Olympics

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With news of a working understanding that NHL players will participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics, we thought it’d be a good time to start looking at the fight for jobs in 2014.

Why four? Because the games are every four years, and I couldn’t come up with a fifth.

Who’ll be Canada’s  starting netminder?

While the state of Canadian goaltending is hardly in flux, the current choices for No. 1 do come with question marks…

— Roberto Luongo, who led the country to gold in Vancouver, was resigned to a backup role with the Canucks.

— Carey Price struggled mightily for Montreal down the stretch and into the playoffs.

— Cam Ward suffered a season-ending knee injury in March.

— Marc-Andre Fleury has been benched in favor of Tomas Vokoun.

— Martin Brodeur will be closing in on his 42nd birthday.

Other candidates — Mike Smith, Corey Crawford, Brian Elliott — have been mentioned, but they’re considered peripheral contenders at best.

Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun is pushing Braden Holtby for consideration, but that seems like a longshot.

Who’ll be Finland’s starting netminder?

Almost the polar opposite situation from Canada’s — it could be argued Finland has the best goaltending depth in the world right now:

— Tuukka Rask, who just posted arguably the finest regular season of his career.

— Antti Niemi, who just received his first-ever Vezina nomiation.

— Pekka Rinne, who finished third in last year’s Vezina voting.

— Niklas Backstrom, who tied for the NHL lead in wins (24) this year.

— Kari Lehtonen, who posted back-to-back 3o-win seasons from 2010-12.

No shortage of quality candidates to choose from, and this list doesn’t even include Miikka Kiprusoff.

Who’ll be Team USA’s head coach?

The smart money is on Pittsburgh’s Dan Byslma who, since taking the Pens gig in 2009, has:

— Posted a 201-92-25 regular-season record (.671 winning percentage).

— Qualified for the playoffs every year, won Stanley Cup in 2009.

— Captured Jack Adams in 2011.

Despite that resume, Bylsma will have challengers for the gig.

New York’s John Tortorella and Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette will likely be in the mix, as both have coached at the national team level in previous years.

Jack Capuano, coming off a highly-successful campaign with the Islanders, will also garner some consideration, as will Jackets bench boss Todd Richards after orchestrating a tremendous playoff push in Columbus.

Who’ll play defense for the Russians?

According to NHL.com, there were just nine Russian defensemen in the league this year — Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar, Slava Voynov, Fedor Tyutin, Alexei Emelin, Dmitry Kulikov, Nikita Nikitin, Anton Volchenkov and Dmitry Orlov.

It’s an odd group, age-wise:

— Gonchar (39) and Markov (35 in December) are old.

— Orlov (22), Kulikov (23) and Voynov (23) are young.

— The guys in the middle are…nothing to write home about.

There were signs of trouble on the Russian blueline during the ‘1o winter games, when the roster included three KHL defensemen (and a fourth, Edmonton’s Denis Grebeshkov, who would soon join them.)

Team Russia proceeded to allow 13 goals over four games, including seven in a quarterfinal loss to Canada.

PHT Morning Skate: On how Jacques Plante ‘revolutionized’ hockey

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Brian Campbell may have spoken to teams about continuing his career, but he didn’t start negotiating with any of them because he knew he wasn’t willing to continue playing. “I’ve been thinking about [retirement] for a while. At the end of the season, I didn’t know if I was ready to do it anymore. So that was only fair. But I will say July 1 was tough, a tough day. There’ve been some tough days. But I think we’re happy with our decision.” (CSN Chicago)

–The Hockey Writers ranked each team’s farm system from 1 to 31. Interestingly enough, the Vegas Golden Knights don’t have the worst system in the league. That honor belongs to the San Jose Sharks. The number one team on the list is the Philadelphia Flyers. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been with the Oilers for six years now, but he still hasn’t established himself as one of the dominant forces on the team. Per the Edmonton Journal, he could be skating on thin ice. “With Draisaitl likely to be paid next season and McDavid already signed to big money the following campaign, the cap budget at centre is tight. Whether Nugent-Hopkins stays or goes in the longer term, he needs a major bounceback next season to prove his worth.” (Edmonton Journal)

–On Nov. 1, 1959, Jacques Plante revolutionized the game of hockey by putting on a goalie mask for the first time. NHL.com contributor Stan Fischler wrote: “The legacy of Plante’s decision is evident in today’s game. Not only are all goaltenders required to wear a mask, but teams must dress two goalies for every game. And when a goalie’s mask comes off during a game, the whistle is blown and play is stopped.” It’s a remarkable story. (NHL.com)

–It’s always fun to think about how teams over in Europe would do against an NHL team. With the help of a couple of Russian hockey journalists, The Score put together a KHL all-star team, and asked fans to vote on where they think that team would finish in the NHL. Most people feel like the KHL all-stars would finish somewhere between 17th and 29th in the NHL. (The Score)

Justin Williams signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes this summer, which means he had to move out of Washington. Some of his valuables got a little more attention than others:

Teammates, friends were glad to see Okposo back on the ice

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From the sound of things, Kyle Okposo‘s presence at “Da Beauty League” was a beautiful sight for Buffalo Sabres teammates, former teammates on the New York Islanders, and friends around the NHL.

NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce was at that informal game, which apparently didn’t go well for Okposo’s team.

That’s not the important part, certainly not in July. While Pierce noted that Okposo wasn’t comfortable answering questions during his first on-ice action in almost four months, it sounds like the talented winger was looking good on Wednesday night.

Onlookers agreed with that sentiment, and also seconded the notion that he’s been doing well this summer, overall.

“Obviously seeing a teammate go through something like that and struggle to get healthy is tough,” Sabres teammate Hudson Fasching said, via Pierce’s piece for NHL.com. “He’s such a good guy and going through a lot with that whole deal, trying to figure out what was wrong.

“I’m just happy he’s healthy and happy for him to get back.”

It was already noted that Okposo is expected to be ready for Sabres training camp, yet nights like these make it clearer that he’s likely on course. That’s a fantastic turnaround from his health scare in April.

Pierce also has more here.

Gaudreau on Flames’ future: ‘We have three great years ahead of us’

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Things change quickly in hockey, but it’s often especially interesting when someone gives their team a “window” for their best chances at success.

Considering the trying summer for the Capitals, GM Brian MacLellan’s two-year window proclamation might have been dead-on for Washington. If Johnny Gaudreau has similar prognosticating skills, then the Calgary Flames need to take some big swings in the next three seasons.

“I think we have three great years ahead of us,” Gaudreau said last week, according to NHL.com. “I’m really looking forward to these next three years.”

No, this isn’t Gaudreau hedging his bets based on his own situation; his contract runs through 2021-22. His partner-in-crime Sean Monahan‘s deal expires after 2022-23, so it’s not that, either.

Instead, the dazzling young forward noted that some of the team’s most important supporting cast members are locked in for three more years. Take a look:

Expiring after 2019-20:

T.J. Brodie ($4.65 million)
Travis Hamonic ($3.86M)
Michael Frolik ($4.3M)
Troy Brouwer ($4.5M)
Michael Stone ($3.5M)

Meanwhile, Mike Smith‘s contract lasts two more seasons, as does the rookie deal for Matthew Tkachuk. Dougie Hamilton‘s signed up for four more himself.

Gaudreau likely didn’t have this in mind, but it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer Mark Giordano will be at or near an elite level. Yes, he’s at a reasonable $6.75M for five more seasons, but he’s already 33.

All things considered, Gaudreau is reasonable in pinpointing these next three seasons specifically. In particular, defensemen as talented as Brodie and Hamonic are almost certain to command higher prices.

On the other hand, merely having such a talented player as Gaudreau signed for such a reasonable deal – not to mention the Flames lacking many “albatross” contracts – could mean that they’ll have a solid chance at competing for some time. Still, Gaudreau might be right that this is Calgary’s best chance at winning big in quite some time.

AHL teams can loan certain players to 2018 Winter Olympics

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Players on American Hockey League contracts will be eligible to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

President and CEO David Andrews confirmed through a league spokesman Wednesday that teams were informed they could loan players on AHL contracts to national teams for the purposes of participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics. The AHL sent a memo to its 30 clubs saying players could only be loaned for Olympic participation from Feb. 5-26.

The Olympic men’s hockey tournament runs from Feb. 9-25. Like the NHL, which is not having its players participate for the first time since 1994, the AHL does not have an Olympic break in its schedule.

The AHL’s decision does not affect players assigned to that league on NHL contracts. No final decision has been made about those players.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey