It’s either an enviable blessing or a lamentable curse, the not-so-faraway notion that the Maple Leafs might send a considerable contingent of talent to the Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Beijing in a little less than three months.
It’d be a blessing, of course, because it would speak to a franchise stacked with enviable skill. Auston Matthews figures to be the face of the entry from the United States. William Nylander is a shoo-in for Sweden. And the way Jack Campbell has played this season — putting up a .943 save percentage heading into Thursday night’s home game against the Rangers, tops among NHL goaltenders who’d made at least 10 starts — it’s getting harder and harder to imagine that Toronto’s No. 1 puck-stopper won’t find his way into the conversation as one of the trio in the U.S. crease.
Beyond that, Ondrej Kaše and David Kämpf, the childhood friends who’ve come to form the core of Toronto’s dependable third line, figure to catch the eye of Czech selectors. Goaltender Petr Mrázek, should he nurse his ailing groin back to health, has long been considered a staple of the Czech program.
And then there are the resident Canadians harbouring a more-than-credible shot at making the Beijing-bound roster. They’d be Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, the latter of whom spent part of this week absorbing the ribbing from teammates after he appeared in a promotion for Canada’s new Olympic apparel provider wearing a crimson parka as eye-catchingly long as a bridal veil.
In other words, the NHL’s three-week Olympic break could be anything but a vacation for a significant portion of Toronto’s roster.
If you’re in Toronto’s risk-management department, that prospect probably raises the reddest of red flags. There’s a reason why there are NHL power brokers who remain steadfastly against Olympic participation. Never mind the moral quandary of making nice with the human-rights tramplers in China’s authoritarian regime — a nose-holding exercise that has U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly considering a so-called “diplomatic boycott” of the Games, a gutting of the U.S. delegation that would presumably serve as a political statement that doesn’t crush the dreams of a generation of athletes.
The chief concern of NHL franchises is that the Games put highly paid players at risk in the pursuit of an end goal not named the Stanley Cup, all without a palpable financial windfall.
Nobody seems to want to play at the 2022 Olympics more than Tavares, who’s been excitedly announcing his wish to be on Canada’s team for weeks. Which can almost make you forget that the last time NHLers participated in the Olympics, in 2014 in Sochi, Tavares suffered a season-ending knee injury that left the New York Islanders without a captain for the post-Olympic NHL schedule.
As the Islanders’ then-GM Garth Snow said at the time: “Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It’s a joke. They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt … We lost our best player, and he wasn’t even playing for us.”
It’s a fair point. And it’s not the only reason why, to some eyes, the Games might be more trouble than they’re worth. At least one academic study has suggested teams that send many players to the Olympics suffer a greater post-Olympic fall-off than clubs that send fewer players. And certainly, in the load-management era of pro sports, you can build a case as to why.
For the NHL’s top performers, the 82-game regular season is long enough without a three-week transatlantic pressure cooker crammed into its compressed guts. For the Leafs, who have more riding on succeeding in the 2022 playoffs than any team in hockey, adding to the cumulative grind in such a make-or-break season seems less than optimal.
Campbell, for instance, is already on track to more than double his previous career-high workload this season. The last thing he probably needs is more work in Beijing. Tavares, at age 31, could do without more miles on the odometer. And really, who couldn’t?
To which Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs president, might bring up a counterpoint.
Back in 2002, when Shanahan played for the Detroit Red Wings, his team sent an NHL-high 11 players to the Olympic Games, including Shanahan. We all know how that 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 victory of sorts.
That same year Patrick Roy, the goaltender from Detroit’s rival, the Colorado Avalanche, declined to play for Canada in Salt Lake City. Roy cited his preference to focus solely on winning a second straight Stanley Cup with the Avalanche (although there are those convinced Roy pulled out because he was upset Canada wouldn’t declare him the team’s undisputed No. 1 at those Olympics, where Martin Brodeur ultimately claimed the net). While Roy relaxed during the Olympic break, Shanahan and his many Olympian teammates — Detroit captain Steve Yzerman among them — scoffed at the notion they were putting their chances at post-season success in peril. Sure enough, a few months later the Red Wings beat the Avalanche in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference final en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
Those were the days before the salary cap, mind you, when Detroit bought roster depth at its whim. The lack of margin for injury in Leafland has to concern Shanahan.
Still, after so many moments of post-season failure, if there’s one thing the core Leafs need it’s more practise at playing under pressure. The Olympics offer the likes of Matthews and Marner the chance to bolster their big-stage confidence in a new and exciting environment. It’s the kind of chance that simply can’t be had in, say, regular-season games in November, no matter how many the Leafs win.
As Jonathan Toews, the three-time Stanley Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medallist for Canada, said a few years back: “(Playing in the Olympics) is not like a regular-season game where there’s not as much pressure. It comes down to playoffs, the tournament-style format, and the Olympics are exciting. Because those kinds of games determine what type of player you are.”
Given that the Leafs are the type of team still searching for its big-game legs, Beijing offers the chance at a pre-playoff rehearsal with gold-medal stakes. Ideally, the Olympics inject some of the best Leafs with the kind of confidence that can be carried into the ensuing post-season roster referendum. If the NHL has never been enamoured of five-ringed risk, Toronto can at least cross its collective fingers and hope to reap its potential reward.
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