Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jonathan Toews - One of many 2010 Olympic players shining in Western Conference Final


There is an interesting storyline developing in the NHL's Western Conference Final between the San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks. Of the many match-ups in this year's playoffs, this series provides an interesting look at many of the stars from Team Canada's 2010 Olympic roster, as well as the stars from several Olympic teams. In the Western Conference Final, thirteen players participated in the 2010 Games with five different countries.

One argument put forward by those opposed to NHL players participating in the Olympic hockey tournament is that the compressed NHL schedule will adversely affect the stars of the league; the extra hockey will result in injuries or simply burning out during a long playoff run in the NHL’s second season. While there is no doubt these stars have played a lot of hockey and faced extra pressures this season, the opportunity to represent your country does not come along every year. For some players, the Olympics shone a spotlight on their talents and they have used the pressures to motivate themselves and bring their game to a completely new level.

Take Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews for example. He finished with one fewer point in the NHL’s regular season (69 last season, 68 this year), but improved his plus/minus rating from a +12 to a +22. Before the Games, many wondered why this young star was included on the team. Once the tournament began, the reasons for his Olympic invite became clear. Not only did he lead Team Canada with eight points, he finished tied for third in the Olympic scoring race. He was a key element in Canada’s gold medal and when I asked Kevin Lowe in our post-Olympic conversation for TVOS and Main Street who the surprise of the tournament was for Team Canada, without hesitation, he said that Toews surpassed their expectations with his poise and his offensive and defensive play when the pressure was on. The Blackhawks captain was also named the Best Forward in the 2010 Olympic tournament.

Also of interest in this series, is Team Canada and San Jose’s top line of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton versus Chicago’s top defencemen and former Canadian teammates, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith; add Dan Boyle to the mix and there is a lot of gold medals on the ice at one time! Keith was another pleasant surprise at the Olympics and all of Canada was able to see what Chicago fans have known all along; Keith is a tower of strength on defence. In the Olympic tournament, Keith led all Team Canada defenceman in ice-time, logging almost 21 minutes per game. He also tied for second in scoring by defencemen in the tournament with six points.

While San Jose’s “Shark Attack” line did not dominate at the Olympics, they were key performers in the early games; combining for seven goals and seven assists in the tournament. It is in this year's NHL playoffs that they have begun to excel and overcome the perception that they are not playoff performers; combining for eight goals and twenty-two assists. If the Sharks top trio can solve Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi, San Jose will be the favourite in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The star of the NHL playoffs in the early rounds has been Sharks forward and Team USA member, Joe Pavelski. While he only picked up three assists at the 2010 Games, the silver medallist has emerged as one of the new, young stars in the NHL with nine goals and six assists, leading San Jose in playoff scoring. Fellow Team USA member Patrick Kane has used the Olympic tournament to raise his game to the next level as well. He was a key forward for Team USA, scoring three goals and adding two assists in the tournament and is second only to Toews in playoff scoring for the Blackhawks with seven goals and nine assists.

The performance of these players in this year’s playoffs is a great argument for NHL participation in the Olympic Games; while there are extra pressures in an Olympic year, the tournament can be used as a springboard to stardom and success in the NHL. Imagine the lessons learnt by a player like Toews, playing with Scott Neidermayer, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash and the other Team Canada superstars. It is certainly something to think about...

The thirteen San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks players that participated in the 2010 Olympic Games:

Team Canada: Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews

Team USA: Patrick Kane and Joe Pavelski

Team Slovakia: Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky

Team Sweden: Douglas Murray

Team Russia: Evgeni Nabokov

Photo by Dinur on Flickr.com

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