It’s either an enviable blessing or a dismal curse, the not-so-distant idea that the Maple Leafs could send a sizable contingent of talent to the Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Beijing in just under three months.
That would be a blessing, of course, as it would speak to a franchise with enviable skills. Auston Matthews appears to be the face of entering the United States. William Nylander is a shoo-in for Sweden. And the way Jack Campbell has played this season – with a .943 save percentage heading into Thursday night’s home game against the Rangers, a high among NHL goaltenders who have made at least 10 starts – it’s getting harder and harder to imagine that Toronto’s No. 1 puck keeper won’t find its place in the conversation as a member of the trio in the American crease.
Beyond that, Ondrej Kaše and David Kämpf, the childhood friends who have become the core of Toronto’s reliable third row, should grab the attention of Czech managers. Goalkeeper Petr Mrázek, while treating his ailing groin, has long been seen as an essential part of the Czech program.
And then there are the Canadian residents who have a more than credible chance of making the list to Beijing. These are said to be Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, the latter of whom spent part of this week soaking up teammates’ ribs after taking part in a promotion for Canada’s new Olympic apparel supplier wearing a crimson parka as long as a wedding veil.
In other words, the NHL’s three-week Olympic break could be anything but a vacation for a significant part of Toronto’s roster.
If you’re part of Toronto’s risk management department, that prospect probably raises the redder of the red flags. There’s a reason there are some NHL power brokers who remain firmly opposed to Olympic participation. Never mind the moral dilemma of indulging in human rights tramples in China’s authoritarian regime – a nose-pinch exercise that would have caused US President Joe Biden to consider a so-called “diplomatic boycott” of the Games. , an evisceration of the American delegation would presumably serve as a political statement that would not crush the dreams of a generation of athletes.
The main concern of NHL franchises is that the Games put highly paid players at risk in pursuit of an end goal that is not called the Stanley Cup, all without a palpable financial windfall.
No one seems to want to play in the 2022 Olympics more than Tavares, who has been enthusiastically announcing his wish to be part of Canada’s squad for weeks. Which can almost make you forget that the last time the NHLers were at the Olympics, in 2014 in Sochi, Tavares suffered a season-ending knee injury that left the New York Islanders without a schedule captain. post-Olympic NHL.
As Islanders general manager Garth Snow said at the time, “Are the IIHF or the IOC going to reimburse our season ticket holders now? This is a joke. They want all the benefits of the NHL players competing in the Olympics and they don’t want to pay when our best player gets injured… We lost our best player and he wasn’t even playing for us.
This is a fair point. And that’s not the only reason, in some eyes, the Games could be more difficult than they are worth. At least one academic study has suggested that teams that send many players to the Olympics experience a larger post-Olympic drop than clubs that send fewer players. And certainly, in the age of professional sports load management, you can explain why.
For the top performing players in the NHL, the 82-game regular season is long enough without a three-week transatlantic pressure cooker crammed into his compressed guts. For the Leafs, who are more likely to succeed in the 2022 playoffs than any hockey team, adding to the cumulative grind in such a breakthrough season seems less than optimal.
Campbell, for example, is already on track to more than double his previous high career workload this season. The last thing he probably needs is more work in Beijing. Tavares, at 31, could do without more kilometers on the clock. And really, who couldn’t?
To which Brendan Shanahan, the president of the Leafs, could provide a counterpoint.
In 2002, when Shanahan was playing for the Detroit Red Wings, his team sent 11 NHL-top players to the Olympics, including Shanahan. We all know how this story ended. Canada won gold in men’s hockey for the first time in 50 years. But the merits of Olympic participation also won a sort of victory.
That same year, Patrick Roy, goaltender for Detroit rival the Colorado Avalanche, refused to play for Canada in Salt Lake City. Roy has indicated that he prefers to focus solely on winning a second straight Stanley Cup with the Avalanche (although there are those who are convinced Roy withdrew because he was upset that Canada would not declare him the undisputed number one of the team at these Olympics, where Martin Brodeur finally claimed the net). As Roy relaxed during the Olympic break, Shanahan and his many Olympian teammates – among them Detroit captain Steve Yzerman – scoffed at the idea that they were jeopardizing their chances of success after the season. Sure enough, a few months later, the Red Wings beat the Avalanche in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
It was the time before the salary cap, mind you, when Detroit bought the depth of the roster at will. Shanahan’s lack of injury margin must worry Shanahan.
Yet, after so many moments of failure after the season, if there’s one thing the Leafs need, it’s to train more to play under pressure. The Olympics offer Matthews and Marner the chance to build their confidence on the big stage in a new and exciting environment. It’s the kind of luck you just can’t get in regular season games in November, no matter how many Leafs wins.
As Jonathan Toews, three-time Stanley Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada, said a few years ago: “(Playing the Olympics) is not like a regular season game where he there isn’t that much pressure. It comes down to the playoffs, tournament type format and the Olympics are exciting. Because these kinds of games determine what kind of gamer you are.
Since the Leafs are the type of team always looking for their legs in the big game, Beijing are offering the chance for a pre-playoff repeat with gold medal stakes. Ideally, the Olympics instill in some of the top Leafs the kind of confidence that can be brought to the post-season referendum that follows. If the NHL has never been in love with five-ring risk, Toronto can at least cross their collective fingers and hope to reap its potential reward.
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