Underdogs? Really? U.S., Canada Face Tough Road in Olympic Hockey

Martin Green

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 7:40 PM UTC

Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 7:40 PM UTC

With the NHL not sending players to the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1994, the American and Canadian teams are in unfamiliar territory for the Games in South Korea.

[/]{"component":"video", "type":"youtube", "url":"https://www.youtube.com/embed/STyJki5pqqQ", "videoSize":"Large" }[/]Winter Olympics: Men's Ice Hockey Odds

Team USA has been forced to put together a ragtag group of minor-leaguers, college athletes and former pros for its Winter Olympics men’s hockey team this year. It will be the first time since 1994 that the NHL has not sent players to the Games, causing a selection headache for Coach Tony Granato. The IOC can no longer cover the cost of travel, insurance and accommodation for NHL stars, and the league cannot afford to, so Granato and his assistants have been forced to look elsewhere.

Team USA has not won gold since 1980 and is unlikely to reverse that trend in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Brian Gionta, 39, who played more than 1,000 NHL games, will captain the United States. He admitted to turning down NHL offers this season so he could represent the USA at the Games, and will sign with a team afterwards, so he brings genuine star quality. He represented the USA in 2006, but will have to roll back the years to thrive this time around.

Gionta is backed up by Chris Bourque, who leads the AHL in points this season, and three of the leading point scorers in the Swiss league: Mark Arcobello, Broc Little and Garrett Roe. Matt Gilroy, a veteran of 225 NHL games, will anchor the blue line. Ryan Gunderson, the leading defenseman in Sweden, will also help solidify the defense for the USA.

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Get to know these 3️⃣ U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team defensemen -> https://t.co/DCefxSgQvs #TeamUSA 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/xydesUUfPt

— USA Hockey (@usahockey) February 7, 2018

Canada won gold in men’s hockey at the past two Winter Olympics -- Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. This time it is denied all its star power and has had to mine the European leagues and the AHL to cobble together a team. The most recognizable names on the roster are Mason Raymond, Ben Scrivens, Derek Roy and Wojtek Wolski. Scrivens is likely to start at goaltender, with 144 NHL games under his belt with various teams. Raymond is a bit of a journeyman and has had spells with the Canucks, Maple Leafs, Flames and Ducks, and now plays for SC Bern in Switzerland at age 32. Roy had a strong career with the Sabres and has been on the fringes of the Canadian team before, but never quite made the cut. He is 34 and plays for Linkopings HC, so it is safe to assume he is past his prime, although he should still be a potent weapon. Wolski scored 205 points in 311 NHL games from ages 20-23, but his career petered out and he now plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League in eastern Europe.

The team is bulked out with the likes of Chris Kelly, a 37-year-old Toronto native who has played just 10 games in the AHL this season, and Linden Vey, who is doing well in Kazakhstan. Canada’s fans will find it easy to cheer their team, which already is reveling in its underdog status.

The sudden weakness of former Olympics hockey giants USA and Canada has opened it up and given several smaller teams a genuine shot at glory.

The favorite on Bovada's Olympics hockey odds board is the Olympic Athletes of Russia, a group of Russians that is allowed to compete but cannot represent its country or wear its colors, as Russia is banned following a doping scandal. Russia has the strongest league outside of the NHL, so it is perfectly poised to capitalize in South Korea. It flopped in 2014, losing to Finland in the quarterfinals, and has not won a medal since taking bronze in 2002. However, it probably has the strongest lineup heading into the 2018 Games, boasting the likes of former NHL stars Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, and Andrei Markov.

Olympic Athletes of Russia was +175 with Bovada, followed by Canada at +300, although the likes of Raymond and Roy are not a patch on Sidney Crosby, Carey Price and the others that led the team to glory last time. Sweden was +400, but it too is hampered by the NHL not participating as its best players play in North America. Finland and Czech Republic were +800, and the USA was +900.

It looks like the Russian group is in the driver's seat, but there is value on the USA and Canada, who can continue to play on their underdog status. Sweden looks like an interesting option, too, at +400. It has a strong domestic league, and the team won gold the last time the NHL did not send players, and took silver in Sochi.

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