On Monday, the NHL announced that it was hitting pause on the 2021-22 season through the Christmas break.
On Tuesday, the second piece of disappointing news emerged, as the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement that NHL players would not be participating in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, after such participation had been agreed upon in the latest collective bargaining agreement. COVID-19 has forced a “material change” in the NHL schedule, to the tune of around 50 games having been postponed, and the NHL had the right to use the Olympic break to make up its own games rather than have the players compete in the Winter Games.
This marks the second straight Olympic tournament from which the NHL opted out. It skipped Pyeongchang in 2018 for financial reasons including insurance coverage and a lack of revenue and branding concessions from the IOC.
Much like 2018, we’ll see a similar collection of amateur players and pros from leagues other than the NHL make up the rosters for this year’s tournament. Instead of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid in 2018, the Canadiens had Derek Roy and Rene Bourque, for example.
Without NHL players, who will be on the teams? And have new favorites emerged, given that new player pool?
ESPN reporters Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski are here to provide some insight into those questions and more.
Who is in charge of the Olympic rosters now?
With the NHL not participating, managerial roles change for each country.
Doug Armstrong and Jon Cooper were general manager and head coach for Team Canada; those roles will now fall to Shane Doan and Claude Julien, respectively. Doan and Julien had previously been chosen by Team Canada to helm the Channel One Cup and Spengler Cup teams (although Canada backed out of the Spengler Cup this week).
Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin was just announced as Stan Bowman’s replacement a week ago as Team USA GM, but sources told ESPN he won’t be putting together this new U.S. roster. That task will likely fall to John Vanbiesbrouck, assistant executive director of hockey operations at USA Hockey, who was already working with Guerin and New York Rangers GM Chris Drury in a player personnel capacity.
There’s heavy speculation that former Rangers coach David Quinn, who was set to be an assistant coach under Mike Sullivan in Beijing, will likely take on head coaching duties for the team.
Who will be on the teams?
Countries will look primarily to pull players from minor league teams (like the American Hockey League), NCAA rosters and the European leagues.
That brings up another critical question: Will those players be able to participate in the Olympics on short notice?
The NHL made its non-participation for the 2018 Winter Games known in April 2017, so leagues around the world had plenty of notice. The various European leagues either built Olympic breaks into their schedules (ranging from two weeks to over a month) or didn’t have a set pause but knew players would be leaving and could plan around it.
Another caveat is that in 2018, only AHL players on one-way deals (with no NHL component) had permission to go. The AHL said any such players were free to represent their nations. Whether that will still be the case this time around remains to be seen.
Reached for comment, the NCAA confirms that they have no rules that prevent players from participating in the Olympics.
Here are some players who could be in the mix:
Brian O’Neill, F. He has spent the past six seasons with Finland’s Jokerit, where he’s a point-per-game player in the KHL this season. More importantly, he had four points in five games for the U.S. in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Jordan Schroeder, F. A first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2009, the center played the majority of his six-year NHL career with the Wild. Schroeder has played in the KHL for the past three seasons, including the past two with Jokerit.
Kenny Agostino, F. The 29-year-old winger appeared in one game with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. His longest tenure in the NHL was the 2018-19 season, when he split time between the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils. Agostino has 33 points in 40 games with the KHL’s Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod.
Nick Shore, F. Shore played four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings from 2014-15 to 2017-18, and last saw NHL action with the Winnipeg Jets in 2019-20. The 29-year-old split time between pro leagues in Slovakia and Switzerland last season before moving to Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL, where he has 20 points in 40 games.
Reid Boucher, F. Boucher has spent the past two seasons in the KHL. He’s playing with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl after having an outstanding postseason with Avangard Omsk (17 points in 21 games). The 28-year-old played 82 games with the Devils and last appeared in the NHL in 2018-19 with the Canucks.
Jeremy Bracco, F. Bracco, 24, never broke through into the NHL despite spending three years with the AHL Toronto Marlies. He has played in Finland and Germany over the past two seasons, and is a product of the U.S. developmental program.
Brendan Brisson and Matty Beniers, F. We’ll group these two outstanding young forwards together, as they both play for the third-ranked University of Michigan team. Would they interrupt their season with the Wolverines for a chance to play for the U.S. Olympic team?
Jake Sanderson, D. Sanderson is a standout for the University of North Dakota and has previously represented the U.S. at the IIHF World Junior Championship. But again, would he opt to interrupt his college season for the Olympics?
Brock Faber, D. Another college standout, playing his second season with the University of Minnesota. He’s a product of the U.S. developmental program and has represented the U.S. at the World Juniors.
Brandon Maxwell, G. A member of the 2018 U.S Olympic team in South Korea, the 30-year-old has played for the Fischtown Pinguins in Germany the past two seasons.
Eric Fehr, F. The 36-year-old Fehr played nearly a full season for the Wild in 2018-19, and has already stated he would go to the Olympics if the opportunity were to arise.
Corban Knight, F. Knight’s last NHL experience was with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017-18. The 31-year-old center has been a solid performer in the KHL for three seasons and is averaging a point per game this season for Omsk Avangard.
David Desharnais, F. The veteran center has played well in the Swiss League since 2018 after capping his NHL tenure at 524 games. Desharnais, 35, would bring a dose of leadership and savvy for Canada.
Ryan Spooner, F. A second-round draft pick by the Boston Bruins in 2010, Spooner, 29, played in 325 NHL games with 167 points before heading overseas after the 2018-19 season, carving out a few successful seasons in the KHL.
Jordan Weal, F. Weal has had a productive season with the KHL’s Kazan Ak-Bars (24 points in 30 games) and represented Canada at the Channel One Cup earlier this year.
Philippe Maillet, F. The left-shooting center produced consistently at the collegiate and minor-league levels, and is having a strong first season in the KHL, with 32 points in 39 games for Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Owen Power, D. The 21-year-old Power was selected first overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2021 NHL draft and has already earned international experience with Canada at the World Championships and World Juniors.
Jason Demers, D. The 33-year-old veteran NHL defenseman just signed with Ak Bars of the KHL, and one assumes Team Canada would love a reliable defensive option like this one on the roster — although his best offensive days are behind him.
Brandon Gormley, D. A first-round pick by the Arizona Coyotes in 2010, Gormley played fewer than 100 NHL games before heading overseas in 2017. He most recently played for Canada at the Channel One Cup.
Eric Gelinas, D. A hulking presence (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) on the blue line, Gelinas would bring some grit and physicality for the Canadians. He’s been playing in the SHL since 2018.
Devan Dubnyk, G. The former Wild netminder had been ready to represent Canada at the Spengler Cup; why not channel that preparation into the Olympics?
Vadim Shipachyov, F. The 34-year-old was on the 2018 Olympic roster but only appeared in one game. A KHL veteran who infamously lasted only three games with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18, he has 57 points in 40 games with Dynamo Moscow this season, leading all KHL scorers.
Andrei Kuzmenko, F. The 26-year-old is the second-leading scorer in the KHL this season with 45 points in 37 games with SKA St. Petersburg. He was on the Russian roster at the IIHF World Championships last season. He’s on the radar for NHL teams, and an Olympic showcase could bolster his profile.
Sergei Andronov, F. A mainstay on Russia’s international teams, including in the 2018 Olympics, the 32-year-old plays for CSKA in the KHL.
Mikhail Grigorenko, F. The Buffalo Sabres’ No. 12 overall pick from 2012 left the NHL in 2017 and then returned to play for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. That reunion was short-lived, as he returned to CSKA Moskva of the KHL this season. Grigorenko had four points in six games for the gold-medal-winning Olympic Athletes From Russia in 2018.
Alexey Marchenko, D. Marchenko played over 100 NHL games before returning to Russia in 2017. He won a KHL championship with CSKA in 2019.
Slava Voynov, D. The defenseman played for four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings before being suspended indefinitely by the NHL In October 2014 upon being arrested on misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Voynov’s NHL contract was terminated in 2015, and he has been skating in the KHL ever since, winning a title with SKA Saint Petersburg in 2017.
Igor Ozhiganov, D. Hotly pursued by several NHL teams, Ozhiganov signed with the Maple Leafs in 2018 but fizzled out after only 53 games. He went back to Russia and has been primarily with SKA Saint Petersburg since.
Vasily Koshechkin, G. The goaltender who was in net for Russia’s 2018 gold medal win is 38 years old now. But with the other two goalies from that team — Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin — in the NHL, would they turn back to the veteran?
Jacob de la Rose, F. A familiar name to Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues fans, the 26-year-old has plenty of international experience for Sweden. He currently plays in the SHL for Färjestad BK.
Magnus Nygren, D. A 31-year-old defenseman with Davos in the Swiss League, he recently spoke out about how the Olympic replacements should be given the same respect and safety requirements as the NHLers would have been given in Beijing.
Simon Edvinsson, D. The sixth overall pick in the 2021 draft by the Detroit Red Wings, he has 12 points in 21 games with Frölunda HC. But will the Tre Kronor add an 18-year-old?
Anders Lindback, G. A blast from the past for NHL fans: Lindback was a backup goalie for the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes during his career. The 33-year-old has spent the past two seasons with Jokerit of the KHL.
Sami Vatanen, D. Vatanen had a solid NHL career before joining the Swiss League this season. He brings a nice mix of skill and veteran leadership.
Valtteri Filppula, F. With over 1,000 games of NHL experience to his credit, Filppula would already be an easy selection for Finland. On top of that, the 37-year-old is having a point-per-game season in the Swiss League.
Markus Granlund, F. The 28-year-old spent time with the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and most recently the Edmonton Oilers before moving over to Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL for the past two seasons. He has 32 points in 35 games this season.
Leo Komarov, F. “Uncle Leo” had his contract terminated by the New York Islanders earlier this season, allowing him to sign with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. He has one assist in 12 games. But Finland wouldn’t be bringing him on for his offensive pop.
Who are the new favorites now that NHL players won’t be involved?
If we assume all invited replacement players participate, then Russia could emerge as the true powerhouse.
It beat Germany 4-3 in overtime to win gold at the 2018 Games under the OAR banner. This time, the squad is the “Russian Olympic Committee” — still under penalty by the IOC for that doping scandal. By any name, the Russians could put together a stacked, highly competitive roster of primarily KHL players.
Germany had 10 players over the age of 30 on its 2018 roster but should have its two leading scorers, Patrick Hager and Dominik Kahun, back.
As far as Canada and the United States, the former probably has the better overall talent, but that balance could shift if the Americans get an influx of NCAA players on the roster. Please recall that current NHLers Ryan Donato (21) and Troy Terry (20) were the two leading scorers for the U.S. in South Korea in 2018.
Finally, there’s China. No, it’s not a contender. But with the NHL staying home, the level of potential embarrassment drops significantly for the home nation, given it has Canada, the U.S. and Germany in its group.
Will replacement players be hesitant to go?
The protocols are still the protocols in Beijing. Players know their Olympic experience will consist of spending time in the athletes village, traveling to venues, competing and then heading straight back to their housing. It’s a “closed loop” that takes a lot of the excitement away from visiting the host city. Furthermore, they know there’s a chance that they could get COVID-19 in Beijing, and then enter a quarantine period that could keep them there for weeks.
“We are not as good hockey players, we do not make as much money, we do not play in the biggest league, but the facts remain we also want to play under fair, safe conditions,” said Sweden’s Magnus Nygren. “We don’t want to spread the infection further, we don’t want to be quarantined, either at home or in China.”
But much like they’ll face the same protocols as NHL players, they’ll also face the same conundrum: taking that risk for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent one’s country at the Olympics, in a tournament where anything can happen — something to which 2018 silver-medal-winning Germany can attest.
Is there a chance the Olympics will be postponed?
At this point, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The most recent comment from the IOC was staunchly against seeing these Winter Games moved by a year.
“The answer is no,” Spanish IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch, who heads the commission overseeing preparations for the Games in Beijing, told reporters earlier this month when asked whether the omicron variant could lead to a postponement.
Samaranch went on to say that the Olympic organizers “have prepared for every contingency.”
One concession has been made to the pandemic: No foreign fans will be attending the Games in China.
While the IOC may have believed weeks — or even days — ago that a change in plans was not happening, omicron is unpredictable. The NHL was staunchly against pausing its regular season too, and wound up with too many positive cases to safely continue. It’s not out of the question that the IOC may find itself in a similar spot.