Late last week, the NHL officially announced that its players would be attending the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The NHL and NHLPA have an opt-out clause that gives the two sides the option to pull out of the games if COVID worsens before the Olympics begin. But for now, the plan is to let NHL players attend. And the New Jersey Devils could have more than a few players who’ll represent the team and their respective countries.
The Devils would’ve had a slew of potential Olympic participants before this offseason occurred. But after a busy summer, they’re brimming with potential Olympic talent. Let’s take a look at who could be playing at the games and what roles they might have for their national teams.
Tomáš Tatar – Slovakia
The Devils’ top offensive addition this offseason, it’s highly likely that Tatar plays a significant role for Slovakia. Over the last three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, he averaged close to 24 goals and 62 points per 82 games. His on-ice results at five-on-five were among the best in the league for forwards, as he had Corsi and expected goals percentages a touch above 59 percent. He’s an elite play-driver and knows how to generate offense, something Slovakia will need since they won’t have much star power.
As it stands, Tatar leads active Slovak forwards in the NHL in scoring with 377 points. The next closest to him is Richard Panik, who has 194 points. Tatar will play a top-line role for them without a doubt. And if they stand any chance of getting out of their group, which includes Sweden and Finland, he’ll need to have a big tournament.
Dougie Hamilton – Canada
Their prized acquisition this offseason, the Devils signed Hamilton to a massive seven-year, $63 million deal as a free agent. In his three previous seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, he averaged 54 points per 82 games and was an elite play-driving, top-pair defenseman. Some have questioned his defensive ability, but he handled minutes against elite competition quite well in his time with the Hurricanes.
The question for Hamilton is, where will he play on Team Canada? There’s no debating they’ll be the most talented team at the Olympics. Their blue line will likely consist of players such as Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Cale Makar. At worst, he should be a third-pair defender for Canada. But minutes will be hard to come by on a team that will have a blue line as talented as Canada’s.
Pavel Zacha – Czech Republic
Zacha had a breakout season in 2020-21, finishing with 17 goals and 35 points in 50 games — a 26-goal, 57-point pace over 82 games. He found success moving from center to left wing, where he played most of the season. He has a strong shot, which he was able to showcase better playing on the wing. And while the Devils’ power play struggled in 2020-21, Zacha was one of their top scorers on the man advantage due to his finishing ability.
Though David Krejcí retired from the NHL, he’ll still be playing professionally in his native Czech Republic. He’ll be at the Olympics and should be the Czech Republic’s first-line center. That likely leaves Tomas Hertl as their second-line center, so Zacha will need to play on the wing if the Czechs want his scoring ability in their top six. If I had to guess, that’s where he ends up. His skill set translates best on the wing, and he can give them a shooting threat alongside either Krejcí or Hertl.
Jesper Bratt – Sweden
Bratt is far from a lock to make Team Sweden, but don’t count him out either. He finished with 30 points in 46 games in 2020-21 — a 53-point pace over 82 games. And that’s with him only scoring seven goals and shooting 6.9 percent. His on-ice results at five-on-five have been good. Plus, he can drive play and is defensively responsible.
If Bratt does make Team Sweden’s roster, he’d likely be a bottom-six forward or an extra. Sweden will have a ton of skill in their top six and even their top nine. Playing time would be tough to come by. But compared to Victor Olofsson or Rikard Rakell, who could be among Sweden’s final selections, Bratt could edge them out if he has a strong first half to 2021-22.
Nico Hischier – Switzerland
Despite Hischier’s injury-riddled 2020-21, he’s still one of the best Swiss players in the NHL. In his previous three seasons before 2020-21, he averaged 54 points per 82 games. His defensive game is still coming along, but he is an underrated scorer and seems due for a rebound once the 2021-22 campaign begins in about a month. Assuming he can stay healthy, he’ll be at the Olympics.
I don’t think there are many questions as to what Hischier’s role will be for Switzerland. He’ll be their first-line center and will likely get to play alongside Kevin Fiala and Timo Meier. Switzerland won’t have the deepest team, but if they can get the Hischier line going, no matter who his linemates are, they can make their group — which includes the Czech Republic and Russian Olympic Committee — a bit interesting.
Mackenzie Blackwood – Canada
Blackwood struggled this past season, finishing with a .902 save percentage (SV%) in 35 appearances. Part of those struggles was due to a rough bout of COVID he had in January and February. The Devils also had a team-wide outbreak that kept them off the ice for 16 days. Once they did return in mid-February, they played four games every six nights until their final game on May 10. With little time off and no reliable backup behind Blackwood, that only amplified his struggles.
Canada’s top two goalies at this point are pretty clear: Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price. But teams carry three goalies for the Olympics, and who’ll be Canada’s third goalie remains a question mark. Jordan Binnington is probably the frontrunner because of his experience, but his .911 SV% since winning the Stanley Cup in 2019 doesn’t lock him into the spot. If Carter Hart rebounds from an awful season, he has a shot too. Blackwood had a career SV% of .916 before 2020-21, so he’ll be in the mix if he gets back to that level, especially if he’s outperforming Binnington and Hart when Canada makes their final decision.
Jack Hughes – USA
The point production hasn’t been there for Hughes in the NHL yet, but a breakout doesn’t seem too far away. He finished with 31 points in 56 games in 2020-21 — a 45-point pace over 82 games. But his on-ice results at five-on-five were terrific. He finished with a Corsi percentage of 55.1 percent and expected goals percentage of 54.2 percent and was a high-end play-driver over the final four to five weeks of the season.
Hughes’ status for Team USA will depend on how he does in the first half of 2021-22. Will he be playing at a high enough level to edge out someone on the bubble, such as Dylan Larkin? If Hughes is pacing for something close to 65-70 points over a full season when Team USA is finalizing their roster, he’ll be on their shortlist. But he is a long shot and has to earn his way onto their team by shining with the Devils. If he does make the final cut, he’d likely be a bottom-six forward or an extra.
Jonas Siegenthalter – Switzerland
Siegenthaler has only been with the Devils since April when they acquired him from the Washington Capitals. He played in just eight games for the Devils last season after missing time with COVID, but his results were encouraging. He was one of the team’s best shot suppressors when he played, and finished with an expected goals percentage of 54.8 percent. With a clean slate of health, he should be a regular on the Devils’ third pair in 2021-22.
Aside from Roman Josi, Switzerland will not possess the defensive depth other top-tier teams will have. Siegenthaler should be a good bet to make their team, and he should have a pretty important role. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play in Switzerland’s top four at even strength, and he should be one of their top penalty-killers.
Christián Jaroš – Slovakia
Acquired from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Nick Merkley, the 2021-22 season will be Jaroš’ first with the Devils. He doesn’t have much NHL experience, playing in 83 games and totaling 14 points over the last four seasons. He’s a physical presence at 6-foot-3, 222 pounds and is the true definition of a defensive defenseman. Given the Devils’ depth on defense, he’ll likely be an extra once the regular season begins.
The only active Slovak defensemen in the NHL are Zdeno Chára, Andrej Sekera and Erik Černák. They won’t have many options to choose from in European leagues either. So even if Jaroš doesn’t play much for the Devils, he seems like a good bet to make Slovakia’s roster. He could play a third-pair role for them while seeing time on the penalty kill.
Marián Studenič – Slovakia
Last but not least, there’s Studenič, who’s been with the Devils since they drafted him in 2017. He made his NHL debut in 2020-21 and scored his first career goal in a game against the New York Rangers. Otherwise, he played the rest of the season in the AHL, where he had seven points in 22 games. Since the NHL season got pushed back to January because of the pandemic, Studenič spent time in Slovakia’s top pro league with HC Slovan Bratislava, where he had 15 points in 25 games.
Studenič has played quite a bit for Slovakia’s national team over the last couple of years. He was even part of their team for Olympic qualifying this summer, so it seems highly likely he’ll be part of their Olympic squad too. Though he hasn’t scored much in North America, he’s a good skater and has been a high-end penalty-killer in the AHL. He has shown scoring touch for Slovakia at the international level in the past, though. And with Slovakia not having the deepest team, he could find himself in a third-line role.
Devils Should Be Well-Represented in Beijing
Zacha, Hischier, Tatar, Studenič and Jaroš are most likely locks to represent their countries at the Olympics, assuming they’re healthy. We can probably throw Siegenthaler in that group too. The Devils player I wonder about is Hamilton. He should be a lock for Canada, but he has his fair share of detractors who question his defensive abilities. We can argue whether that’s fair or not, but I don’t think it’d be enough to keep him off the team. He offers too much offensively, and Canada will have enough shutdown defenders on their roster.
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As for bubble players like Hughes, Blackwood and Bratt, they have work to do. But if they’re consistently producing during the first half of 2021-22, they can work their way onto their national team’s rosters. And even if they don’t make it, the Devils should be well-represented at the Olympics. Assuming the NHL doesn’t opt out because of COVID, it could be a fun three weeks watching Devils players shine on the world’s biggest stage for the first time since 2014.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick