One week ago, other nations announced their rosters for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. There will be four players from the New Jersey Devils. Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, and Marek Zidlicky will suit up the Czech Republic. Damien Brunner has been named to the Swiss team. As much as I've griped about Andy Greene about not being considered, much less picked, for the United States, it's only fitting that I bring some attention to the four Devils that will be on the big ice in Russia next month. It's also a good time to touch on what they have meant for the Devils so far this season.
Sean Gentille's report on the Czech roster at the Sporting News reveals plenty of curious decisions. Michal Neuvirth isn't going, but Ondrej Pavalec and his sub-90% overall save percentage is starting. The roster includes a number of players plying their trade in Europe. That in of itself is not a bad thing. It is when it's in place of three good forwards in the best league in the world. Seriously, Jiri Novotny, Roman Cevernka, and 42-year Petr Nedved got named over Jiri Hudler, Radim Vrbata, and Tomas Fleischmann. That almost makes the Bobby Ryan and Martin St. Louis snubs look small. As for the Swiss, there's only eight Swiss skaters and two Swiss goalies in the NHL right now. Per Allan Muir's report of the Swiss roster at SI, Sven Baertschi and Luca Sbisa are the only ones not going. And they're not in the NHL right now anyhow. The make up of both teams mean that all four Devils will likely play a lot and play well for their countries to do well in Sochi. So let's consider all four of them:
The Olympian: Jaromir Jagr
Does He Deserve to Go?: Absolutely.
Is He Important to the Devils?: Certainly. He's been the team's leading scorer with 13 goals and 23 assists. He's also became the team leader in shots with 114. All of this while making defending players look silly along the boards and driving the play. The only negative has been his current goalless streak of nine games, which may (hopefully! maybe!) have ended by the time you see this post. Regardless, Jagr has been the team's best forward this season.
Will He Be Important for the Czechs? Of course. In addition to his wealth of experience and his leadership position, Jagr remains a scoring forward. Not that the Czechs are devoid of forward talent, but Jagr leads his countrymen in the NHL in scoring prior to Sunday's games. (He's tied to Hudler, who isn't going for reasons I couldn't tell you). The good news for the Devils fans is that since David Krejci, Tomas Plekanec, Martin Hanzal, Patrik Elias, and Jakub Voracek are going, he may not have to play as much as a top forward.
What's the Concern?: Injury and fatigue. Jagr maintains his incredible shape but hockey is a game where a second or an inch can make the difference between a routine hit and a painful injury. The Devils need him to come back healthy and hopefully in good spirits.
The Olympian: Marek Zidlicky
Does He Deserve to Go?: He nearly has double the points of the second leading Czech defenseman in the NHL and he has as many points as Michael Frolik. For all of his warts, the answer is a pretty easy "yes."
Is He Important to the Devils?: The 2-1 overtime win against Florida was his most Zidlicky-like game yet. For all of his foibles, avoidable penalties, and lax coverage, the puck-dealing gambler has provided a lot of good to the Devils. In addition to eight goals and 16 assists, he's been good for possession to go with his shots. He's also been shooting more; he's now caught up to Eric Gelinas for the most on the team among defensemen with 74. After lamenting for years that the Devils lack offensive defensemen, Zidlicky has been exactly that this season. If only he'd take fewer penalties and be more aware of where he is in his own end.
Will He Be Important for the Czechs? Look at that roster from the Czechs again. It's pretty obvious that he'll have to be the main man for offense from the back end. Again, he's been more productive in both points and shots than any other Czech defender. The only defender who has averaged more minutes than Zidlicky is Jan Hejda, who is also not going to Sochi for reasons I don't know. In terms of Corsi percentage, only Michal Rozsival has been better and he plays for the best team in hockey. Their blueline really could use Hejda and Jakub Kindl, but even so, Zidlicky is the best attacker of the bunch. Expect to see a lot of him on power plays and other attacking situations.
What's the Concern?: For Zidlicky personally, it's how much risk he takes. When Zidlicky makes a risky play and it turns out well, then it tends to go really well. But when it goes awry, it can be rather costly. In a short tournament, someone who takes plenty of penalties (like Zidlicky) or passes up opportunities (like Zidlicky whenever he pinches in) can make a difference between advancing or not. It'll be on himself as well as the coaches to keep it simple, don't overthink a play, and play smart.
The Olympian: Patrik Elias
Does He Deserve to Go?: Elias has only continued to be the straw that stirs the drink for New Jersey. Of course he goes - if he's healthy.
Is He Important to the Devils?: He's only been an important part of the team since, what, the 1998-99 season? While the Devils have generated plenty of shots, this offense (and defense) does miss the strong two-way, play-driving performance Elias puts in night-in, night-out.
Will He Be Important for the Czechs? What I wrote for Jagr applies to Elias. Elias has been an all-situations player for the Devils and could be one for the national team. The good news is that the team does have enough talent where he doesn't have to take up the majority of the minutes. At the same time, his experience and leadership will likely mean he plays significant minutes. The fact that the Czechs took three guys out of the league instead of three guys doing rather well only puts more pressure on Jagr, Elias, Plekanec, etc. to perform well.
What's the Concern?: Essentially, will it be too soon? Elias skated lightly on Sunday per this Tweet by Tom Gulitti. He did not travel with the team on this road trip, but getting on the ice does help. Hopefully, for the Devils, he's able to return at 100% sooner rather than later. Would travelling all the way to Sochi to play stacked competition be too much too soon? Could it risk another injury if he's not fully recovered? I think that depends how much he plays before the tourney.
The Olympian: Damien Brunner
Does He Deserve to Go?: There are only three Swiss forwards in the NHL. It's not like there's a better choice out there.
Is He Important to the Devils?: Well, not quite. At the beginning of the season and in the week or so before he got injured, Brunner was playing rather well. He wasn't just productive on the scoreboard, but he was firing a lot of shots on net. But when he was slumping, he wasn't good at all. It got to a point where Brunner was a healthy scratch for Mattias Tedenby, and it wasn't a bad decision. Should Brunner return to his former form before the knee injury, then he can be very useful for a team lacking in both shots and offense. If not, then he won't be. Overall, that doesn't make him an crucial part of the team's lineup.
Will He Be Important for the Swiss? To the Swiss, Brunner is a Big Deal. Again, there are only three Swiss forwards in the NHL right now. Prior to signing with Detroit, he was an ace scorer in his local league. It's not enough for him to be named to the roster, it is expected that he contributes plenty for this his team. For all the notion of the Swiss being a hard working, disciplined team, goals still need to be scored to win games. Brunner, among others, will be called upon to provide that effort. Short of someone else getting hot, it's imperative that the Swiss NHLers - from Brunner to Jonas Hiller to Nino Niederreiter - play up to the spotlight they'll likely be given.
What's the Concern?: As with Elias, will it be too soon? Brunner has not yet skated, though he's begun his recovery as per this post by Rich Chere last Tuesday. Brunner may be able to get healthy prior to the Olympics and get some of the rust off with New Jersey. But he's going to have to get it off quickly if he's able to perform before February. I think he will go, but who knows what kind of performances can be expected out of him? From a Devils standpoint, it's to the team's benefit that he comes back in good spirits and good condition.
Overall, the Devils are sending players to play important roles. They aren't going just for depth. As much of an honor that truly is, it also may want to make me want to hope the Czechs and Swiss don't go too far into the tourney. Of course, I want the Americans to do well so that hope would be there regardless. The perfect scenario is that Jagr, Elias, Zidlicky, and Brunner all play well enough to feel good about what they've done, they don't get hurt, and they don't play too much. This way all four come back and can go back to contributing towards a potential playoff push. Will that happen? We'll find out about a month from now.