Drew Doughty became a household name at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver as Canada’s best defenseman on a blue line that featured current and future Hall of Famers such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
The Los Angeles Kings star carried his excellent play from Vancouver into the final stretch of the 2009-10 season and became a Norris Trophy finalist. Fast-forward to 2014, and Doughty is a top-five NHL defenseman, one of the highest-paid players at the position and a Stanley Cup champion.
When men’s hockey begins in Sochi on Wednesday, a lot of NHL stars — both veterans and young guys — will have a chance to have breakout performances and become recognizable stars to fans outside their home market.
Let’s take a look at five players to watch over the next two weeks.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Sweden, Defenseman
The 22-year-old Swede is arguably the best defenseman in the NHL. The only problem is that he plays in one of the worst hockey markets in the league, Phoenix, so he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. If Ekman-Larsson played in Canada or for an Original Six franchise, he might have a Norris Trophy or two at home.
The Olympics will provide the perfect stage for Ekman-Larsson to display his elite two-way skill on one of the deepest blue lines in Sochi. The Coyotes star has the perfect skill set of playmaking ability, a high hockey IQ, fundamentally strong defense and a physical edge. He’s going to log a ton of minutes against opponents’ best forwards and play a major role on special teams.
In a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 1 in which he matched up against Sidney Crosby the whole game (and held him scoreless), Ekman-Larsson proved he embraces the challenge of going up against the world’s best.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson: "It's always a fun challenge to play against top players in this League & it's an awesome feeling to shut them down."—
Phoenix Coyotes (@phoenixcoyotes) February 02, 2014
Valeri Nichushkin, Russia, Winger
Nichushkin is proving to all the teams that passed on him in last year’s draft (he was picked No. 10) that he’s an elite talent and capable of making a positive impact in the NHL right away. He has 13 goals and 15 assists in 55 games for the Dallas Stars.
When Russia’s Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Ovechkin all struggled in the 2010 Olympic quarterfinals against Canada (they combined for one point), the bottom-six forwards didn’t provide any offensive production to help Russia prevent a 7-3 defeat. Nichushkin’s combination of size, speed and skill will give Russia valuable scoring depth on the third and fourth lines.
The 18-year-old played one season in the KHL before coming to the NHL and has plenty of experience competing on international ice surfaces. He’s a superstar talent, and the Sochi Games could be his coming out party.
Olli Maatta, Finland, Defenseman
The next Penguins superstar will play a vital role on a Finland team decimated by injuries.
Maatta ranks second in NHL scoring among rookie D-men with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) and shows the poise of a veteran on each shift. His ability to quarterback a power play, skate his way out of trouble and start breakouts with perfect passes is remarkable. How important is the 19-year-old defenseman to Pittsburgh’s success? The team is 17-0-0 when he scores at least a point.
If Finland is going to reach the medal stand, it needs a stellar tournament from goaltender Tuukka Rask and for Maatta to play like a No. 1 defenseman.
Vladimir Tarasenko, Russia, Left Wing
Tarasenko is one of the most skilled young wingers in the NHL, and his experience playing on international ice (he spent five seasons in the KHL) will help him in Sochi.
Tarasenko will help Russia get the production it needs from its bottom-six forwards. He’ll likely play on the third line, which is where he practiced Monday with Artyom Anisimov and Nikolai Kulemin. As a talented goal scorer with great speed and acceleration, Tarasenko will be a valuable part of the Russian offense on an ice surface that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks.
He has 18 goals and 16 assists in 54 games for a defense-first Blues team.
Cam Fowler, United States, Defenseman
Fowler has emerged as a top-tier D-man for an Anaheim team poised for a Stanley Cup run this season. This is his Olympic debut, but he has three international competitions on his resume, including a gold medal from the 2010 World Junior Championships.
He practiced on the first pairing alongside Ryan Suter during Team USA’s first Sochi practice Monday afternoon. If that pairing is used, Fowler can use his skating and playmaking ability to join the attack while Suter maintains a good defensive position.
Known more as an offensive defenseman, Fowler does have the size, high hockey IQ and defensive fundamentals needed to excel in his own end. If he gets enough ice time, Fowler could become one of Team USA’s most important players as a two-way defenseman whose skill set is perfect for Olympic-sized ice.
Photo via Twitter/phoenixcoyotes