If all goes as they hope, NHL players will make their return to Olympic competition next February at the Winter Games in Beijing.
While not yet official, the NHL included an Olympic break in its recently released 2021-22 schedule. NHL players were last at the Winter Games in 2014, having not participated in 2018 when the Olympics were hosted by Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The Edmonton Oilers would certainly be well represented in China, the question is how big the contingent of Oilers Olympians could be.
Edmonton’s current roster includes a pair of players that have previously competed in the Olympic Games: defenceman Duncan Keith and goalie Mike Smith were members of Canada’s gold medal team in 2014, while Keith also won gold representing his country in 2010.
But Keith and Smith are in the twilight of their careers, so don’t expect to see either at the 2022 Games. Rather, the Oilers going to Beijing would all be making their Olympic debuts. They are among this generation’s current stars set to shine on sport’s greatest stage.
Connor McDavid, the NHL’s reigning point scoring champ and Hart Trophy recipient, would lead Canada in its pursuit to reclaim gold. The 24-year-old centre has previously represented his country several times, winning gold at three different levels: U18 Worlds (2013), World Juniors (2015), and the World Championship (2016).
This would be McDavid’s first chance to play on a team with Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, harkening back to another Canadian pairing of the greatest players of their era, at the Canada Cup in 1987, when Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky and Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux made magic together.
Darnell Nurse wasn’t among the leading names being discussed for a place on Team Canada, but that all changed after a fantastic season from the Oilers rearguard, who scored 16 goals (second among defencemen) while logging 1,435 minutes (third among all skaters) in 2020-21. TSN’s Craig Button included Nurse in a recent projection of the 2022 Canadian Olympic roster, slotting the 26-year-old on the left side of Canada’s third defensive pairing opposite Dougie Hamilton.
Nurse was a teammate of McDavid’s on the Canada’s World Juniors championship-winning team in 2015. He has also suited up for Canada at the World Championships, U18 Worlds, and Hlinka Cup. Notably, he would become the second Olympian in his immediate family: sister Kia Nurse represented Canada in women’s basketball at the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Summer Games
Tyson Barrie has never even been in the Canadian conversation, but after leading all NHL defenceman in points (48) last season when he paired with Nurse, could Barrie catch a ride on his partner’s coattails to Beijing? The answer is almost certainly no, but a fun one to ask nonetheless, considering all three of Canada’s gold-medal winning teams featured defencemen that were NHL teammates (Rob Blake and Adam Foote of the Colorado Avalanche as well as Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger of the St. Louis Blues in 2002; Keith and Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010; Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues in 2014),
There was a time when Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was talked about as a potential Olympian, but his hopes faded as the Games drew nearer. In fact, they seem to have completely disappeared after a mediocre 2020-21 season, when he had 35 points and posted a minus-four rating in 52 games.
Jesse Puljujarvi was always likely to be named to the 2022 Finnish Olympic men’s hockey team, but the Oilers winger secured his spot with a breakout season in 2020-21. That’s when he returned to Edmonton after a year back home in the Liiga, and produced NHL career-highs of 15 goals and 25 points in 55 games. The 23-year-old has a terrific international resume, winning two gold medals in 2016, at World U18s and World Juniors.
Many early projections for Finland’s 2022 roster included Mikko Koskinen, but more recent projections no longer have the Oilers goaltender making the cut. The 33-year-old has been overtaken by the younger Joonas Korpisalo, and with Koskinen now relegated to the role of backup on the Oilers, he is not likely to see enough action to play his way back into contention.
While McDavid may be the best player on the planet, fellow Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl is arguably the best player on the planet that doesn’t have a Canadian birth certificate. The native of Cologne might have to be even better than that if Germany is to make it back-to-back appearances on the podium after winning a surprising silver at the 2018 Olympics.
Draisaitl, who was the biggest winner at NHL awards in 2020, has played in more international competition than any of his Edmonton teammates, and is likely to serve as Germany’s captain in Beijing.
The key word there is likely. Likely is also the best way to characterize the NHL’s involvement at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, until it’s finally made official. Until then, Draisaitl, McDavid, and Puljujarvi can already start making tentative plans, while Koskinen and especially Nurse might want to hold off on planning any vacations for the NHL Olympic break.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.