It has been announced that NHL players will be heading back to the Olympics. After the last winter games, where there were no professional hockey players I think all hockey fans knew what we were missing. Between not being able to see crazy line combinations of superstars on the big nations or the huge moments everybody remembers like the “Golden Goal” from Sidney Crosby in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver or the shootout between the USA and Russia where TJ Oshie took six shots and eventually won it for the USA in 2014 in Sochi. Everybody wants to see the best of the best competing and we are going to get that. Right, when the report came out I immediately started wondering which Leafs will get the call to play for their nation so let’s take a look.
United States of America
There’s no debate for Matthews. The American superstar scored 41 goals in 52 games as well as 25 assists for 66 goals. Matthews had 3.12 xGF/60 last season which ranked fifth among forwards (all rankings sorted by 500 minutes of ice time) last season and also ranked 12th among forwards with a 3.71 GF/60. Matthews was also pretty good defensively posting a 2.01 xGA/60, there was a lot to criticize Mike Babcock on like his player usage in big moments or the way he managed things in the locker room but something that he did an extremely good job at was developing Matthews into a good two-way player. This skill allows Matthews to be used in pretty much all situations and this will be incredibly valuable when you’re playing against teams like Canada with stars from the first to the fourth line. Matthews is a lock for this team.
Again there’s not a debate with this pick as much as we can criticize Marner over his playoff production he’s the best passer in the league. Last season Marner had a great year in the regular season posting 20 goals and 47 assists for 67 points in 55 games. Marner posted a 2.95 xGF/60 which ranked 24th among forwards and he also ranked 18th among forwards in GF/60 with a 3.66. Marner, like Matthews, is also not bad defensively for a forward posting a 2.05 xGA/60. Forwards that are responsible in their zone is important but it’s even more important in the Olympics when you are playing against top players in the world at all times. Marner’s speed and creativity will also be extremely useful and dangerous for opposing teams as the Olympics are played on a bigger ice surface which will give Marner more time and space to make the spectacular plays we are used to seeing him make.
For Tavares, it isn’t a lock, if he makes the team I think he will probably be a fourth-line centre or an extra. Tavares played 56 games scoring 19 goals and 31 assists for 50 points. Tavares posted a 2.77 xGF/60 and a 2.64 GF/60. Tavares is not fantastic defensively but not a liability either, this year Tavares had an xGA/60 of 2.22 so he won’t be terrible in his end. Tavares isn’t a burner by any means and relies on his hockey IQ to be productive as well as his hand-eye coordination in front of the net. For me, I don’t know if I’d have him as a top-four Canadian centre in the league however I can see him making the team as an extra. Another option they have for Tavares is moving him to the wing and playing him there, I think the Leafs should start thinking about that option for Tavares as most top centres move to the wing near the back end of their career. I hope to see Tavares at the Olympics but we’ll see how the selections go down.
This one is a bit more controversial as Rielly has had two off years in a row. Offensively Rielly was still productive playing 55 games scoring 5 goals and 30 assists for 35 points. Rielly also had an xGF/60 of 2.8 which is pretty solid for a defenceman. Where it gets worse is his defense, this year Rielly had an xGA/60 of 2.28 and this would scare me if I was team Canada. I’m not sure if I’d want him to be playing against a line that has Kane and Matthews on it but there is still a season to play before the Olympics so maybe Rielly can clean some stuff up in his own end this season. Rielly can be an extra defenceman if he can have a good start to the season up until the time of selections, he is more of a long shot than anybody else on this list but it can still happen if everything goes Rielly’s way this upcoming season.
William Nylander will easily make team Sweden unless there is some sort of injury. Nylander played 51 games scoring 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points. Nylander also had a 2.75 xGF/60 as well as a 2.55 GF/60, Nylander was also not bad defensively with an xGA/60 of 2.09. Nylander will probably be a first-line winger on a strong Swedish team. Nylander will be very fun to watch with the larger ice surface as well as more time and space with the puck.
We will most likely see one of the newest signing representing his nation at the Olympics. Mrazek was injured for a lot of the season last year only playing 12 games posting a 0.923 save percentage as well as 4.88 GSAA and an 11.14 GSAx. The 29-year-old goaltender will look to replicate those numbers this year in hopefully a bigger sample size. If Mrazek can stay healthy and post those types of numbers while sharing the net with Jack Campbell this Czech team that does not have a lot of options in net will give him a look and he will probably make the team. I’m excited to see how Mrazek performs this year as he’s a question mark for me in the Leafs roster, the Leafs need both Campbell and Mrzaek to stay healthy and perform if they want to have a successful season.
I talked a lot about health with Mrazek and this is an even bigger problem for Kase. In the last two seasons, Kase has only played 58 games. Last season Kase played 3 games without a point, in the 2019-20 season he played 49 games for the Anaheim Ducks scoring seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points. Kase was traded to the Boston Bruins that season where he only played six games posting one assist in those six games. Kase has shown he can produce if healthy but that’s been a very rare occurrence for him, in the 2017-18 season he played 66 games scoring 20 goals and 18 assists for 38 points. The Leafs need to have the training staff with him and maybe help him get back to playing at least 60 games this season because if he does I think he will be an effective player and get a look from the Czech National Team in the upcoming Olympics.