Without NHL players, much of the shine and hype has worn off the men's hockey tournament at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. It might be easier to approach this tournament with apathy, but the quality of the games and the number of notable players still in the tournament probably gives enough hockey fans reason to set their alarms for the unfriendly start times.
Perhaps the biggest reason to tune in is to get a good look at some of the NHL stars of tomorrow. Top draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin of Sweden is the big attraction. At only 17, he's already drawing comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Leetch, the latter coming from Lidstrom himself. But he is hardly alone among young players.
The U.S. team has four U.S. collegiate players who will be looking to make bigger names for themselves among a smattering of former NHL players and more obscure European pros. Finland has a pair of 2017 first-round draft picks who have already earned their way to big roles at the national team level, and the Russians have a number of future NHLers at several positions.
Beyond the young talent, there are also some stars from the not-so-distant past, including Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk from Russia, who will make you ask your hockey fan friends, "Hey, remember him?"
Although the talent in the tournament lacks name recognition, the absence of NHL players should make things a little more competitive across the board. The Olympic Athletes from Russia, as they are officially recognized, have the best roster on paper. They should be favored everywhere, but countries such as Finland, Sweden, Canada and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. and the Czech Republic could very well contend for gold here.
Here's a look at the top prospects to keep an eye on and some of the more familiar names that might make you a little more eager to tune in.
Hopes are not particularly high that this U.S. squad will come away with a medal. The Americans haven't really gotten much of a chance to play together, with just a handful of practices and no exhibition games before they take on Slovenia on Wednesday. Fifteen players on Team USA have prior NHL experience, but only one has previously played in the Olympics. Led by coach Tony Granato, the Americans have an uphill battle but will be playing with extra purpose after the untimely and shocking death of general manager Jim Johannson.
Prospects to watch
Troy Terry, LW, Denver (Anaheim Ducks): Known by USA Hockey fans as the shootout hero in last year's world junior championship, Terry continues to take steps in his development. After winning gold at the WJC and a national championship his sophomore season at Denver, Terry has become a driving force for the Pioneers' offense. Among the most skilled forwards in the NCAA this season, he is the youngest player on Team USA's roster in Pyeongchang at 20 years old. Terry has 32 points in 28 games for Denver, slightly off his scoring pace from his incredible sophomore campaign.
Ryan Donato, LW, Harvard (Boston Bruins): With 21 goals in 23 games, the Harvard junior is tied for the national goal-scoring lead in the NCAA. He is a shot machine, averaging 5.74 shots on goal per game. Donato does it a variety of ways, too. He has the skill and release to score from distance, but he also can drive the net and get greasy goals. The U.S. is looking for him to make an offensive impact despite his youth. His high-end hockey sense should give him a chance to do just that.
Jordan Greenway, C/W, Boston University (Minnesota Wild): Team USA is expecting Greenway to be the dominant presence he was at the 2017 world juniors. Although he'll be playing against older, stronger competition this time, Greenway checks in at 6-foot-6, 227 pounds. He's been playing center at Boston University this year and could for Team USA, as well. The big forward has the requisite power elements in his game for a player of his size and is likely to be the net-front guy on the power play. His size and physical strength might be his best attributes, but he also has good touch around the net. He is playing his best hockey of the season with 14 points in his past 11 games with BU.
Will Borgen, D, St. Cloud State (Buffalo Sabres): A shutdown defenseman with good mobility and size, Borgen is likely to be used in a penalty-killing role and should see some tougher minutes. His experience playing on an Olympic sheet at St. Cloud State and at the world juniors in Finland just two years ago should help him make the adjustment more easily than most young North American blueliners could.
Hey, remember him?
Brian Gionta, RW, UFA: Gionta has said he had offers to return to the NHL this season, but when the options in front of him didn't feel quite right for his family, he turned his attention to the Olympics. Gionta has played in three live games this season: two at the Deutschland Cup tournament with Team USA and one with the Rochester Americans on a one-game contract in the AHL. Gionta scored in that game for Rochester and looks as if he still has the wheels to get up and down the ice. There's even a chance he could return to the NHL after the Olympics.
At 39, he is the oldest athlete in the U.S. Olympic Committee's entire delegation in Pyeongchang, and he'll also be one of Team USA's most important players. Aside from the Deutschland Cup, this is the first time Gionta will represent the U.S. since the 2006 Olympic Games, when he had four goals in six games.
Matt Gilroy, D, Jokerit Helsinki: Gilroy appeared in 225 NHL games between 2009 and 2014 but has spent the past four seasons in the KHL. The former Hobey Baker winner with Boston University has been highly productive moving the puck and likely will play a substantial role on the back end for the U.S. He has 27 points in 54 games this year with Jokerit.
Mark Arcobello, C, SC Bern: A veteran of 139 NHL games, Arcobello had an incredible 2014-15 season in which he ended up playing for four NHL teams. Arcobello was always a serviceable player but never really broke through. He has had two exceptional seasons in the Swiss pro ranks with 100 points over 94 games the past two seasons. He was also arguably Team USA's best forward at the Deutschland Cup, picking up a goal and an assist.
Ryan Zapolski, G, Jokerit: In the midst of what will likely go down as his best professional season, the 31-year-old goalie is mostly anonymous among U.S. fans. Zapolski leads the KHL with nine shutouts and is among the leaders with a .932 save percentage in 38 appearances. He is expected to be Team USA's starter.
"My career has been a lot different than these guys'," Zapolski said during a pre-tournament teleconference. "I wasn't a top recruit in college, and I've been overlooked quite a bit. I always had to work harder for every opportunity. This is another great opportunity."
Olympic Athletes from Russia
The odds-on favorite to win, the Russian team has a deep bench of talented forwards. It also has three goaltenders who are as good as any in the tournament. Led by Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, this is going to be a tough team to match up against.
Prospects to watch
Kirill Kaprizov, RW, CSKA (Minnesota Wild): Perhaps one of the most skilled players among prospects who have yet to reach the NHL, Kaprizov is expected to play a big role for the Russians. With 40 points in 46 games for CSKA Moscow in the KHL this season, he is a threat pretty much every time he is on the ice. Kaprizov also had nine goals and 12 points in just seven games at last year's world juniors. Although he won't dominate pros the way he did then, he's a big reason the Russians will be so difficult for teams to match up against.
Igor Shestyorkin, G, SKA (New York Rangers) and Ilya Sorokin, G, CSKA (New York Islanders): I'm combining these two because they're two of the best goaltending prospects in hockey and are on the same team. We don't know when or if they will ever come to North America, but the country continues to produce high-end goalies at a ridiculous rate. Both are 22, and both have .930 save percentages in the KHL this season. Still, we're not sure whether either will end up being the starter. Standing in their way is 34-year-old Vasily Koshechkin, who has a .931 save percentage for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and was lights-out during the team's pre-Olympic competition. It looks as if it could be the veteran's net to begin the tournament.
Nikita Gusev, LW, SKA (Vegas Golden Knights): His rights were acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but we're not sure whether Gusev will ever cross the pond. The 25-year-old is an exceptional playmaker and sits second behind Kovalchuk in the KHL scoring race by one point. He has 62 points in 53 games, including a league-best 40 assists.
Hey, remember him?
Ilya Kovalchuk, RW, SKA: With his best shot at an Olympic gold medal, a motivated Kovalchuk should be among the leaders for the Russians. Slated to play on the team's top line, Kovalchuk could be a force. With 63 points in 53 games, he leads the KHL in scoring. He also has 14 points in 23 career Olympic contests. Don't forget that Kovalchuk is also mulling a return to the NHL.
Pavel Datsyuk, C, SKA: If you've missed Datsyuk, these Olympics are probably your last, best shot to see the Magic Man on North American television. The 39-year-old surefire Hall of Famer will captain the Olympic Athletes from Russia. By the way, he's still got it. Datsyuk has 35 points in 37 games for SKA in the KHL.
Sweden should be able to challenge for a medal, possibly even gold. The Swedes have three solid goaltenders, a good amount of skill up front and a mobile blue line highlighted by a 17-year-old wunderkind. Coach Rikard Gronborg has been highly successful at the international level, having led Sweden to gold at the world juniors in 2012 and at men's worlds in 2013 and 2017.
Prospects to watch
Rasmus Dahlin, D, Frolunda (2018 eligible): The youngest player in this year's hockey tournament is also probably going to be the most watched. Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick for the 2018 NHL draft. Most scouts agree that he is among the best defensive prospects to come along in at least a decade, perhaps longer. The Frolunda star has pro size and elite mobility, and his skill level is off the charts for a defenseman who can play well at both ends of the ice. This tournament is going to be the biggest challenge the teenager has faced yet after excelling at pretty much every level he has played so far.
Hey, remember him?
Joel Lundqvist, C, Frolunda: You probably know Joel's twin brother, Henrik, a little better, but the "other" Lundqvist has carved out a pretty nice career. Three SHL championships, two Champions League titles and five world championship medals, including three gold, fill Joel's trophy cabinet. This will be the 35-year-old's first Olympics, and he'll enter Pyeongchang as the team's captain. Lundqvist played 134 games in the NHL after being drafted 137 spots ahead of his Vezina Trophy-winning brother in 2000. Lundqvist is a dependable two-way center these days and probably won't put up a ton of points.
Linus Omark, LW, Salavat Yulaev: Always supremely skilled, Omark never really could find a way to stick in the NHL. He played 79 total games in separate stints with the Edmonton Oilers and the Sabres, scoring eight goals and adding 24 assists before heading back to Europe. He has been a high-end playmaker in the KHL and continues to dazzle with his creative shootout moves.
Viktor Stalberg, LW, EV Zug: A Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, Stalberg almost played for the Cup again last year with the Ottawa Senators. Now in Switzerland, he's opening things up offensively with 47 points in 43 games.
A nation that has always relied on structure and team defense, Finland is always a threat at the Olympics. With medals in each of the past three Winter Games, there's a deep desire to keep that streak alive. The Finns should rely on solid goaltending and will have to work for every goal they get. Always tough to play against, Finland is a dark-horse gold-medal contender.
Prospects to watch
Eeli Tolvanen, RW, Finland (Nashville Predators): At just 18 years old, Tolvanen is expected to be a top-six scoring threat for Finland. It's not a big surprise, as he's been a high-end scorer for Jokerit in the KHL all season. In fact, he recently surpassed Evgeny Kuznetsov's KHL record for most points by a player under the age of 19 in a single season. He also shined brightly in senior international events earlier this season and was a top performer for Finland's world juniors team despite some bad puck luck keeping his goal total down. Selected 30th overall in the last draft, Tolvanen has already ascended to among the very best drafted prospects outside of the NHL.
Miro Heiskanen, D, Finland (Dallas Stars): The No. 3 pick in last year's NHL draft, Heiskanen is the second-youngest defenseman in the tournament behind Dahlin. It was no surprise to see him selected for this team based on how well he has played in the Liiga this season for HIFK. With 19 points in 25 games, his per-game rate (0.76 points per game) is the best by a U19 defenseman in 40 years. Additionally, Heiskanen is logging nearly 25 minutes per game, second most in Liiga this season. It is uncertain just how large a role he'll play for Finland in the Olympics, as he still has some physical strength to build, but based on skill and hockey sense, he belongs here and should contribute.
Hey, remember him?
Mikko Koskinen, G, SKA: Unless you're a hardcore New York Islanders fan, you probably don't remember Koskinen. Aside from a cup of coffee in the NHL with the Isles in 2011, Koskinen has been solid in Europe. The 6-7 netminder has been sharing starts with Shestyorkin in the KHL and has a .940 save percentage in 28 appearances. He'll battle Karri Ramo (hey, remember him?) for starts in Pyeongchang.
Sami Lepisto, D, Jokerit: Finland will be leaning heavily on Lepisto, who will be playing in his third Olympics. Lepisto appeared in 176 NHL games over a relatively brief career before taking his talents to the KHL. His deep international experience, which includes a gold medal at worlds, makes him an asset for a team that could very well challenge.
With an average age pushing 31 years old, Canada is going to lean heavily on players with a lot of experience at the NHL and international levels. There is not a single player on the roster who qualifies as a prospect at this point, though a few could eventually return to the NHL as free agents. Led by former Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins, Canada should still be able to challenge for a medal, but it won't be easy.
Hey, remember him?
Derek Roy, C, Linkoping: Roy put up 524 points in 738 NHL games. The 34-year-old now plays in Sweden, where he has 33 points in 39 games. He is part of Canada's leadership corps and likely has a pretty big role to play.
Chris Kelly, C, Belleville Senators: A Stanley Cup champion with the Bruins in 2011, Kelly will serve as Canada's captain in Pyeongchang. The 37-year-old had just two assists in 16 games with Ottawa's AHL affiliate.
Ben Scrivens, G, Salavat Yulaev: After appearing in 15 games with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015-16, Scrivens has spent the past two seasons in the KHL. Scrivens played in seven games for Canada during pre-Olympic tournaments this year and posted an .885 save percentage. He'll still likely be the starter, with Justin Peters and Kevin Poulin serving as the alternatives.
Wojtek Wolski, RW, Metallurg: One of the best stories of the Olympic men's hockey tournament, Wolski was named to Team Canada's roster one year to the day after having surgery to repair a broken neck. It was a miracle that he was able to return and play at all, and now he'll be playing in the Olympics. Wolski appeared in 451 NHL games in his career and has been a quality player in the KHL since leaving. Wolski has 39 points in 44 KHL games this season between Metallurg Magnitogorsk and the Kunlun Red Star, with whom he started the season.
Linden Vey, C, ZSC Lions: One of the few players on Team Canada who might yet get another shot at the NHL, Vey has had an interesting season overseas. The 26-year-old forward had 52 points in 50 games for Barys Astana in the KHL. He is still among the top five scorers in that league despite joining Zurich in the Swiss pro league a few weeks back. He already has five points in seven games for ZSC.
Other players to watch
Martin Erat, RW, Czech Republic: Best known these days for the trade that brought Filip Forsberg to the Predators, Erat is nearly a point-per-game player in the Czech league at 36 years old. He will be playing in his fourth Olympic Games and led the Czechs in scoring during pre-Olympic action.
Dominik Kahun, C/W, Germany: Kahun was never drafted in the NHL, but he might be on some teams' radars based on what he's doing in the German league. At 22 years old, he's averaging nearly a point per game with 40 in 41 for Munich. That leads all players under the age of 24 in the league. It is pretty rare to go from the DEL to an NHL contract, but he's an interesting player nonetheless.
Matt Dalton, G, Korea: One of a few North Americans naturalized as a Korean citizen, Canadian-born Dalton was once part of the Bruins' organization. He had some very impressive starts for Korea in pre-tournament play, posting a .923 save percentage while facing a barrage of shots. He's the team's X factor.
Ladislav Nagy, LW, Slovakia: The 38-year-old had a pretty decent run in the NHL with 311 points in 435 games. Despite some moderate success, Nagy never cracked an Olympic roster until now.
Jan Mursak, C, Slovenia: He appeared in 46 NHL games for the Detroit Red Wings and was part of Slovenia's Olympic team in 2014. After struggling in the KHL this season, he has nine points in nine games after joining Sweden's Frolunda last month.
Vincent Praplan, C/W, Switzerland: The 23-year-old never got drafted into the NHL, despite giving it a shot by coming to the Ontario Hockey League in 2013-14. Since then, Praplan has had some solid seasons in the Swiss pro league. He also led the Swiss in scoring with seven points in eight games at last year's world championship.
Ludvig Hoff, LW, Norway: The Norwegian team has a few former North American pros and some familiar names, but it's also the only European country to dip into the American college ranks. Hoff, a 21-year-old sophomore at the University of North Dakota, is more of a two-way forward with limited offensive upside. He's been invited to NHL camps in the past, so he remains a potential college free agent down the road.