Last chance for first Olympics?
by Lucas Aykroyd|12 JAN 2021
For St. Louis Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly (right, with Brendan Gallagher), a two-time IIHF World Championship gold medalist and 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, 2022 will likely be his final shot at representing Canada at the Olympics.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
share
The clock is ticking down toward the start of the new NHL season. But there’s also another ticking clock for some famous NHLers.

On 10 July, 2020, the NHL and NHLPA ratified a four-year extension to their Collective Bargaining Agreemen, which includes participation in the 2022 and 2026 Olympics. Provided that an agreement is finalized with the IIHF and IOC, fans are looking forward to seeing NHLers make more hockey history in Beijing (4 to 20 February, 2022).

It’ll be the first time the NHL takes part in the Winter Games since Sochi (2014) and the sixth time since the original “NHL Olympics” in Nagano (1998). It could also be the last chance for certain stars to make their Olympic debut.

We’ve identified 10 standout players who are on the bubble for Beijing. Barring injury or a huge dropoff in performance, all should receive serious consideration for 2022. Yet due to either their age or their country’s exceptional depth, it’s improbable that any of them will suit up in 2026 in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Going in alphabetical order, let’s take a closer look.

1) Mikael Backlund (SWE)

At 31, Mikael Backlund comports himself like an all-around leader. The veteran centre provides a conscientious two-way game alongside fellow Calgary Flames assistant captain Matthew Tkachuk, consistently makes himself available to media post-game, and was even voted the club’s best-dressed player in a recent poll by The Athletic. The Vasteras HK product is coming off a 2020 post-season with four goals, including one game-winner versus both the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars, and two assists.

Backlund’s regular-season numbers in 2013-14 (18+21=39 in 76 GP) were similar to his numbers in 2019-20 (16+29=45 in 70 GP). However, he wasn’t chosen to play for Swedish coach Par Marts in Sochi.

Currently, Backlund boasts four IIHF World Championship medals in five tournaments, including captaining Tre Kronor to gold in 2018. Still, he’ll be in tough for the 2022 Olympics, with pivots like Elias Pettersson, Mika Zibanejad, and Nicklas Backstrom ahead of him on the depth chart.

2) Brent Burns (CAN)

Bad luck, bad timing, and big-time Canadian blueline prowess. Those factors are why Brent Burns – the active points leader among all NHL defencemen (694 career points in 1,113 games) – has never represented Canada at the Olympics. Concussions hampered Burns in 2010. In 2014, even though he hit new personal bests with 22 goals and 48 points for the San Jose Sharks, it wasn’t enough to get him on the golden Mike Babcock-coached squad that allowed just three goals in six games.
At 35, the 195-cm, 104-kg Burns – a four-time World Championship participant –  is still a monster. Granted, the Sharks had a disappointing season last year and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Yet Burns’ 2017 Norris Trophy and 2019 NHL First Team All-Star berth with a career-high 83 regular-season points aren’t exactly ancient history.

However, if the man who earned his second IIHF Best Defenceman title when Canada won the 2015 Worlds doesn’t go to Beijing, it’s safe to say his Olympic aspirations are over.

3) Claude Giroux (CAN)

In 2017-18, with 102 points, Claude Giroux was the NHL’s leading scorer among players not named Connor McDavid. Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Flyers captain picked the wrong season to have a career year IIHF-wise, since the NHL skipped PyeongChang.

Despite his longtime magical chemistry with Jakub Voracek, this playmaking native of Hearst, Ontario wasn’t full value in 2019-20 (21+32=53). Giroux was on pace for 38 assists over 82 games, which would have represented his lowest total in a full season since 2009-10 (31 assists). He had one goal and seven assists in 16 playoff games.

Giroux, who celebrated Worlds gold in 2015 and captained Canada to silver in 2017, needs a significant bounceback to punch his ticket to China.

4) Taylor Hall (CAN)

It feels like eons since Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy as the 2018 NHL MVP with the New Jersey Devils. Never known for his defensive acumen, the 29-year-old left wing, who starred in Canada’s last two World Championship gold medal runs (2015 and 2016) with 13 goals and 21 points, must now prove his Olympic doubters wrong.

The former #1 overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers was snubbed for Canada’s 2014 Olympic squad even though, interestingly, Hall totalled the same number of NHL points (80) as the U.S.’s Phil Kessel, who was named Best Forward and a tournament all-star in Sochi. In 2018-19, knee injuries hobbled the explosive left winger. Getting traded to the Arizona Coyotes in December did little to revitalize his prospects. Hall finished with 52 points in 65 regular-season games and added six more playoff points.

After betting on himself with a one-year, $8-million deal with the Buffalo Sabres, Hall could use a monster year alongside Jack Eichel to pique Hockey Canada’s interest again.

5) Ryan O’Reilly (CAN)

If Ryan Smyth was “Captain Canada,” Ryan O’Reilly deserves to be “Assistant Captain Canada.” The 29-year-old centre, who was named the new captain of the St. Louis Blues last month, wore an “A” at the last three (2016-18) of his six World Championships.
O’Reilly won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy with Buffalo in 2014, but wasn’t even invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in Calgary the preceding summer. He defined himself as a passionate big-game player and faceoff circle demon with two World Championship golds (2015, 2016) and a silver (2017).

That set the Blues veteran up for a dream run in 2019, winning the Selke and Conn Smythe Trophies and his first Stanley Cup. In 2020, you couldn’t fault him for St. Louis’s playoff exit against the Vancouver Canucks, as he led the way with 11 points in nine games. But will O’Reilly celebrate his 31st birthday in Beijing? In April 2020, TSN’s Craig Button projected him as Canada’s 13th forward.

6) Pekka Rinne (FIN)

Since the NHL first went to the Olympics in 1998, Pekka Rinne is one of just three Vezina Trophy winners who have never participated. (The other two are Canada’s Braden Holtby and Jose Theodore.) Whether the towering 38-year-old Finn will even be in the mix come 2022 is an open question.

Named to the IIHF’s Men’s All-Decade Team thanks to his brilliant 2014 and 2015 World Championship performances, Rinne recorded the weakest numbers of his Nashville Predators career in 2019-20 (3.17 GAA and 89.5 save percentage in 36 games). Juuse Saros, 25, played more regular-season games than Rinne for the first time since joining the franchise in 2015. More tellingly yet, Saros  got all four starts when Nashville fell to Arizona by a 3-1 series deficit in the Stanley Cup qualifiers.

With one year left on his deal, Rinne must rediscover the confidence he showed en route to the 2017 Stanley Cup final to snag a spot for 2022.

7) Rickard Rakell (SWE)

Not that long ago, Rickard Rakell was on the fast track to Beijing. The Anaheim Ducks forward recorded seasons of 33 and 34 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18 respectively. Making his World Championship debut in 2018, he dazzled on Sweden’s top line in Copenhagen with Mika Zibanejad and Mattias Janmark. Rakell had 14 points as Tre Kronor reaped its second straight gold medal.
However, like the Ducks, Rakell has declined over the last two years. He had 15 goals and 27 assists last season. The three-time World Junior participant, who won gold in 2012, will be 29 when Beijing rolls around and must pick up his game. Other prospective first-time Olympians like William Nylander, Filip Forsberg, and Elias Lindholm are currently outpacing him.

8) Tyler Seguin (CAN)

It might be unfair to dub Tyler Seguin the “Chris Kontos of the IIHF World Championship,” but it kind of fits. Kontos had nine goals and no assists for the L.A. Kings in the 1989 playoffs. Seguin did the same for Canada at his lone Worlds in 2015.

Since winning the 2011 Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, Seguin has put up five seasons with 30 or more goals, including his 40-goal peak in 2017-18. However, even though Jamie Benn’s longtime partner in crime led the Dallas Stars with 50 points in 2019-20, it was well off the pace most observers anticipated when the gifted centre signed an eight-year, $78,880,000 extension in 2018.

Seguin, who was limited to 13 points in 26 games during the Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup final against Tampa Bay, is out until April after hip surgery to fix a torn labrum. He is an Olympic long shot.

9) Steven Stamkos (CAN)

If Steven Stamkos doesn’t play in Beijing, it will truly be a sad quirk of fate. Hockey historians will wonder: “How could the most dangerous sniper of his era after Alexander Ovechkin never play at the Olympics?” In terms of NHL goals per game, the 30-year-old Lightning captain (422 goals in 803 games = 0.526) is second only to Ovechkin (706 goals in 1,152 games) among active players.

Historically, Canada has favoured veteran talent at the Olympics, and Stamkos paid the price in 2010. At 20, Tampa Bay’s one-timer specialist wasn’t picked for Vancouver despite winning his first of two Rocket Richard Trophies with 51 goals. Then Stamkos was named to the 2014 team, but couldn’t go to Sochi due to a broken right leg.
Admittedly, it was a touching moment when Stamkos returned from injury in Game 3 of the 2020 final to score a goal in just 2:47 of ice time in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 win over Dallas. If healthy, he’s still elite, but time is running out, and he will be 36 in 2026.

10) Keith Yandle (USA)

The last time Keith Yandle wore American colours, T.J. Oshie scored three times in a shootout. However, this wasn’t like what Oshie famously did to host Russia in Sochi. The date was 18 May 2010, and the U.S. finished 13th at the Worlds with a 3-2 relegation round win over Italy.

Yandle, 34, was named the NHL’s funniest player in the NHLPA’s annual player poll, but it’s no laughing matter that the Florida Panthers defenceman – a veteran of 976 games – has never gotten to represent his native country outside of those 2010 Worlds. He’s coming off a solid 45-point season and  added three points in four post-season games. However, his skill as a power-play quarterback does not guarantee him a spot on the deep U.S blueline in Beijing.