This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.
When the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament gets underway Wednesday, it will look very different from what we were expecting just a handful of months ago.
Back in September, everyone was excited about seeing NHL players on the international stage again, after a deal that was struck between the league, the players’ association and the International Ice Hockey Federation to carve out space in the schedule for the league’s best to compete in Beijing.1 But the NHL left itself an opt-out clause if COVID-19 outbreaks “materially impacted” the 2021-22 regular season — and that’s exactly what happened when the omicron variant tore through the league in December. On Dec. 22, commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the NHL was pulling its players out of the Olympics, instead using the gap in the schedule to reshuffle games that had been postponed because of the virus.
The move left players frustrated over dashed gold-medal dreams, and probably deepened the existing divide between the NHL and international hockey. But it also completely unsettled the Olympic rosters for the presumed favorites — whose players predominate the NHL ranks. And in the process, it radically shifted the odds of who might win in Beijing.
Team organizing committees had not yet finalized their rosters at the time of the NHL’s announcement, but there was plenty of speculation about who would fill out each team — and the star power for some countries was positively blinding. Our ESPN colleagues Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski picked hypothetical lineups using NHL players, which we can use as a proxy for how much talent was lost when the NHL pulled out of the Games. For example, here’s the veritable All-Star team they picked for Canada, along with those players’ stats from the past three NHL seasons:
|Pos||Player||team||Games||Pts/Gm||SV%||MPS* per 82 Gms.|
Added together, that roster has generated 184.1 Modified Point Shares2 per 82 games over the past three seasons, which would have made the Canadians the most fearsome of all hypothetical Olympic teams on paper. A potential U.S. team led by Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, Adam Fox and goalie Connor Hellebuyck would not have been far behind, with 174.4 MPS per 82. And Sweden (129.0 MPS/82), the Russian Olympic Committee (120.4) and Finland (114.1) would have rounded out the best of the rest in terms of likely roster talent with NHL players on board.
The betting markets largely reflected similar trends. An average of odds and rankings3 from before the NHL pullout implied that Canada was a strong favorite for Olympic gold, with about a 35 percent chance of winning with its NHL-led talent base, followed by the U.S. (17 percent), the Russian Olympic Committee (14 percent), Sweden (12 percent) and Finland (10 percent).
Canada is never a bad gold-medal pick for anything hockey-related, of course. While its grip on the sport has loosened over the decades, Canadian-born athletes still account for 48 percent of all goals and points scored in the NHL this season. And during the Olympic cycles in which NHL players participated, Canada won three out of a possible five men’s gold medals, with Sweden and the Czech Republic splitting the other two. But if Canada was the biggest beneficiary of NHL players joining the Olympics4 (and would have been the biggest juggernaut of 2022 under those circumstances), it also appears to be the nation most disadvantaged by NHL players now being absent from Beijing.
Taking the same average of odds from after the NHL pulled out of the Olympics, Canada’s gold-medal chances took more than a 23 percentage-point hit with the announcement, falling from nearly 35 percent to just over 11 percent. No other country was hurt more by the absence of NHL players; the U.S. took the second-biggest dip, falling 10 percentage points.
|Country||MPS per 82 (w/ NHL)*||w/ NHL||w/o NHL||Change|
|Russian Olympic Committee||120.4||14%||32%||+18%|
At the other end of the spectrum, the Russian Olympic Committee was the clear winner of the NHL’s decision to pull out. After that announcement, the ROC’s odds soared by 18 percentage points to 32 percent — making it the favorite for gold over Finland (16 percent) and Sweden (14 percent), with Canada (11 percent), the Czech Republic (9 percent) and the U.S. (6 percent) finishing out the group of top contenders. Because the ROC can freely stock its roster with players from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, which is widely regarded as the world’s best non-NHL league, its drop-off in talent without NHL players was not nearly so steep as it was for Canada and the U.S. In fact, the “OAR” (Olympic Athletes from Russia) roster from 2018 was made up entirely of KHL players, and it outscored opponents 27-9 en route to gold in South Korea.
It isn’t as though the Canadian and American rosters will be totally devoid of recognizable talent in Beijing. Canada’s captain, Eric Staal, has scored more than 1,000 career NHL points and may make the Hall of Fame someday — though at age 37 he is very much past his prime. Many of the top players taken in recent NHL drafts will also be present, including both of the top two picks in 2021 (Canada’s Owen Power and Matthew Beniers of the U.S.). Other former NHL names in the tournament include David Krejčí of the Czech Republic, who scored 730 points in a 15-year career with the Boston Bruins.
If there is a silver lining, the NHL’s decision to back out of the Beijing Olympics will open up opportunities for an exciting young generation of players to show off on a global stage. But that won’t fully make up for most of the world’s best players not being present. While Canada and the U.S. could always surprise, they went from favorites to also-rans without their NHL talent bases — and in their place, the Russian Olympic Committee picked up the torch of the favorite once again.