16 February 2006

T.H. - The Olympic Edition

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The format of the Olympic hockey tournament has changed in so many ways over the years – from the development of a formal medal round to dropping the amateur requirement (a fuzzy requirement at best for some of the former Soviet teams) in recent years, nonetheless it rarely fails to generate excitement. This year’s tournament is underway, and for hockey fans everywhere will hopefully provide drama on par with many past tournaments.

Many players have used the Olympics as a stepping stone to success in the NHL – back in the “amateur” days there was more of a sense of “coming out of nowhere” as most of the public hadn’t heard of the players until the tournament began. 1980’s “Miracle On Ice” United States team contained players such as Neal Broten, Dave Christian, and Ken Morrow who all went on to great success in the NHL. 1988 was the last hurrah for the legendary and mysterious Russian “KLM” line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov as they took gold in Calgary. Soon afterwards, players behind the Iron Curtain began to defect and find their way to North America. A better way of life, to be sure, but much intrigue was to be lost forever in international hockey.

1992 was an emotional tournament in which the unheralded United States – led by goalie Ray LeBlanc – went undefeated in their first six games to reach the medal round (where they lost their last two, finishing fourth). The eventual winner was the so-called “Unified Team” which was comprised of members of the former Soviet Union. And in 1994 Peter Forsberg “stamped” his presence on the international stage with his legendary shootout goal against Corey “lawsuit” Hirsch.

The format is drastically different now, with established professionals being allowed to compete, so the chances are less that an unheralded or unknown player will suddenly make himself known, especially on the Canadian or United States teams which are primarily comprised of veterans. Yet there’s always the chance that the world stage brings something out in a player and they reach new levels of success –recall Dominik Hasek’s performance at the 1998 Olympics: he had been considered an excellent goaltender before then but his incredible play leading the Czechs to gold cemented his status as an all-time legend of the game. He went on that season to win his second consecutive league MVP and over the next two seasons in the NHL he led his Buffalo Sabres to semi-final and final appearances.

The nostalgic part of me undoubtedly misses the “old” format – using the best amateur and junior level players in the world. For me, I’d rather see an eager college kid (e.g. 19-year old Brian Leetch -1988) manning the point than a 43-year old uber-veteran like Chris Chelios. Yet I also recognize that without the often-abused “amateur” tag as a barrier, we now have a true world tournament pitting the absolute best players in the world against each other, with perhaps as many as eight teams with a legitimate medal chance. I’d rather see the reinstitution of the old Canada Cup / World Cup format, with a return to the younger players in the Olympics, but that time has likely passed.

This week I’m offering a few quick one-timers on a few non-superstar players competing in the Turin Olympics who have been playing quite well of late in the NHL – some “underdog” names to watch for. I think each of them could have a big impact on their teams for the remainder of the NHL season.

Maxim Afinogenov, Winger, Buffalo Sabres - Russia

Maxim Afinogenov has been labeled a “Pavel Bure” clone for years now – fairly or not - but has never come close to validating that label on the scoresheet. He did score 21 goals in his third season and total 40 points but that has been his high until this year. With 14 goals and 42 points, statistically he’s on pace for his best year on paper, but watching him play it becomes especially obvious that he’s made great strides in all facets of the game. He is playing much more aggressively –not unwilling to muck it up and go after the puck in the corners - and when the situation calls for some puck control there may be nobody better in the entire league at stickhandling than Afinogenov. He still lacks that killer finishing touch which could turn him into a perennial 40-goal scorer, and at times actually seems to be playing “too fast” – he needs to find that ability to vary his speeds (and thereby not knock linemates offsides), but overall this season he has transformed himself from merely a talented curiosity into an integral part of the diverse Buffalo offense. Immediately before the Olympic break Afinogenov was on a four game point scoring streak with seven points and as a bonus was a +5. Now might be the time to grab the speedy Maxim and if you are in deep keeper leagues might be worth a gamble hanging onto in the off-season if he continues his confident play into the fall.

David Vyborny, Winger, Columbus Blue Jackets - Czech Republic

It’s hard to make the case that a team’s leading scorer is a sleeper pick, but when you’re the leading scorer of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and you’re not Rick Nash, it may be legitimate. David Vyborny has actually been around for a while compared to other players we’ve profiled – currently in his fifth NHL season, he also played eight professional seasons before arriving in North America for good, playing mostly in the Czech League (with one spent in the American Hockey League). Vyborny was a second round pick of the Oilers way back in 1993 and has since – as mentioned – bounced all over the world. He made his way to the Columbus organization in 2000 and has put up average-at-best offensive statistics over the past four seasons on a mostly very weak club. This year again started out poorly for the Blue Jackets (winning only five of their first 23 games) and Vyborny especially, who notched a mere five points in the first month. However since the new year, Vyborny has been hot and the Jackets have improved their play. Vyborny has scored 22 points in his last 17 games, 12 of those points coming on the power play. That’s a long hot stretch, one that makes it likely that with 44 points to date, he’ll top his previous season high of 53 points.

Marek Zidlicky, Defense, Nashville Predators - Czech Republic

If for some reason Marek Zidlicky is available in your fantasy league, you’re in great luck - he has become one of the top defensemen in the league without deserved fanfare. The Czech Republic is a favorite to medal in this tournament and Zidlicky is a crucial cog in their mobile defensive corps. The relatively unknown defenseman has a similar resume to David Vyborny’s in that he played nine seasons overseas before coming to the NHL. In this season, only his second in North America, he has 40 points (with ten power play goals) from the blueline and is a +6 for the powerful Nashville Predators. He’s an exciting player to watch and should continue his production as the Preds battle for first overall in the West.

Jochen Hecht, Center/Wing, Buffalo Sabres - Germany

Sadly for Germany – and of course Jochen Hecht himself – Hecht went down last week with a knee injury last week and is unable to play in the Olympics. Over the past few weeks Hecht has become one of the most important players for the Buffalo Sabres, if not the most important. With injuries to two of their top scorers in Daniel Briere and more recently Tim Connolly, Hecht moved over to center from his familiar wing position and has added a scoring touch to his strong defensive game, with five points in the six games that Connolly has missed. Hecht will never put together a season with huge numbers but his overall play makes him a very valuable player – as long as the Sabres continue to have injury woes, look for Hecht to remain in a bit of a scorer’s role, and he could be especially valuable if he qualifies in your league at center and wing.

Fedor Tyutin, Defense, New York Rangers - Russia

Second-year Russian defenseman Fedor Tyutin played one year in the Canadian Junior system and was the defensive anchor of the 2002 Memorial Cup host Guelph Storm, scoring an impressive 69 points in 62 games overall that season. He had yet to regain anywhere near that scoring touch until this year, where currently Tyutin is the leading defensive scorer on the division-leading Rangers, with 21 points in 54 games. Even though his overall numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, if you take out an early season 14-game pointless streak he’s been fairly steady at about a point every other game, which is quite good from the defensive position. As the baby on Team Russia’s blueline, the Olympic experience could be a big one for Tyutin, and the Rangers should benefit. Tyutin could be an excellent depth addition to your defense for the remainder of the season.

Mikael Tellqvist, goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs- Sweden

As has been the custom for most of this decade, this season started with high goals for Leafs fans. After the first few months of the season, those lofty goals looked not entirely out of reach, yet hard times have befallen the 1967 Stanley Cup champions and as of the Olympic break would be out of the playoff picture in the East. One part of the Leaf failure is the play of veteran Ed Belfour who continues to get the bulk of the starts yet statistically is far inferior to young Mikael Tellqvist. Tellqvist has played only 14 games this year to Belfour’s 45, yet has much better goals-against and save percentage numbers. At this point it is impossible to predict what coach Pat Quinn will do – he favors the veteran players for certain, but with Toronto embarking on a desperate run to simply make the playoffs, keep an eye on the netminding situation – Belfour is not the future of the team at age 40 and whether Tellqvist is or not is also uncertain. But if Belfour falters severely, look for the Leafs to rely on the Swede Tellqvist.

For the Olympic tournament, Tellqvist will likely be backing up Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers’ stellar rookie goalie.

Evgeni Malkin, Center/Wing, (property of Pittsburgh Penguins) - Russia

This is purely an entry under “long-term potential” and “keeper.” This Olympic tournament will be the first chance for much of the world to view the electrifying talents of Penguins’ draft choice Evgeni Malkin. Selected second overall in 2004 after Alexander Ovechkin, Malkin is described as a scintillating franchise player – something the Penguins are slowly stockpiling. If your league allows it, grab Malkin whenever you can and stow him away. Then watch the Russian team play over the next week and a half, and picture next year’s top line in Pittsburgh with Malkin next to Sidney Crosby. Better yet, picture that line in about three years when the team should be more mature and their young stars have likely begun to gel - Penguins fans can only hope the team is still in Pittsburgh at the time.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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