Entering the 2010 Olympics the underground buzz heading into the tournament was that a 24-year-old Czech named Roman Cervenka would burst onto the scene on his way to eventual NHL stardom. Well that didn't quite happen but what did happen was that a 22-year-old Norwegian hobbit named Mats Zuccarello Aasen took over the spotlight and inked an NHL contract with the Rangers a few months later. It's taken a few years but MZA is the Rangers leading scorer this year on pace for a 60+ point season. Not bad for a guy that we all could have scooped up for nothing in pretty much every league.
It happens every year at the World Championship, players impress on the world stage under the watchful eye of NHL scouts & GMs and convert that small sample size into a shot at the show. In addition to MZA, guys like Damien Brunner, Viktor Fasth, Antti Raanta, Anton Belov & Michael Raffl are examples from the last few years.
So with the Olympic tourney about to begin let's take a look at who in this year's field could become the next MZA.
Reto Suri, RW, SUI - Tampa tried to extract him from Europe last summer after he led (tied) the Swiss in goals at the 2013 WC (5+3=8 in 10 games). The deal got kiboshed due to redtape but it seems all but official that he'll make the move to join Tampa for next season. The Lightning have had some nice success turning nuggets into gold lately (ie T.Johnson, Palat, Kucherov, etc.). Suri is having his best season in the Swiss league (top 10 in league scoring with 12+24=36 in 46 games) and showed some nice finishing ability during last year's playoffs.
Denis Hollenstein, LW, SUI - There was talk during last year's WC that NHL teams were hovering over the pesky winger. He showed well for the surprising silver winning Swiss side with 4+4=8 in 10 games but nothing came of it. He is only 24, has two years of OHL experience, is scoring nearly a point-a-game in the NLA this year (10+23=33 in 37 games) and is not afraid to mix it up as he was top five in the league in PIMs last season (89 in 48 games). Let's see how he does in Sochi and where he goes next. Also with the Swiss, after leading the Swiss in scoring at the last Olympics, a then 24-year-old Roman Wick tried to land a gig with Ottawa but ended up spending the year in the AHL instead. He returned to Switzerland after one season but who says he won't try it again as his stock can't get much higher due to leading the Swiss league in scoring right now (22+24=46 in 44 games). What's that? You want some Hollenstein & Wick highlights? Done, Hollenstein here (can't embed), Wick below...
Bernhard Starkbaum, G, AUT - After posting a .933 sv% in 46 games with MODO last year, he's continued his impressive SHL play with a .931 in 15 games with Brynas this season. Don't be too quick to dismiss a goalie just because he's from a non-traditional country as goalies come from all over. Let's see how he looks against the World's best.
Lehtera has been known to get a little cheeky as well...
Petri Kontiola, C, FIN - 29-year-old Finn is coming off a season where he led the KHL in playoff scoring and was named the Top Forward at the WC after leading the tourney in scoring. He had no trouble producing in the AHL during a two year stint from 2007 to 2009 in the Blackhawks system and while he's unlikely to give NA another shot, he's worth keeping an eye on. While you're watching Finland, also keep tabs on Juhamatti Aaltonen, a top euro-sniper, Juuso Hietanen, a small offensive dman, and 25-year-old Sakari Salminen, who is enjoying a breakout season in the KHL (top 10 in league scoring).
Viktor Tikhonov, RW, RUS - Former 1st round pick of PHX was rushed into the NHL as a 20-year-old and never adapted to the North American game. He broke out with a KHL leading 10 playoff goals last year and he has more goals than Kovalchuk for St.Petersburg this year. Can we all agree that PHX could use this guy now? Still with Russia, don't forget about Alexander Radulov, who could be a top NHL player if he wasn't a total headcase, and Ilya Nikulin, a personal favourite who I would have loved to see in the NHL but at 31, that ship has sailed.
Tomas Zaborsky, LW, SVK - Spent three seasons in NA (OHL/AHL/ECHL) but has really honed his sniping ability since returning to Europe in both SM-Liiga and the KHL. The Slovak's are not bursting with talent these days, so Zaborsky should get some offensive reps and could shine.
Martins Karsums, LW, LAT - The hard-nosed Latvian has some NHL experience from a few years back and excelled in the Q & A before returning to the K. He leads Dynamo Moscow in both goals & PIMs this year and at 27 I don't see why he wouldn't give one last kick at the NHL can.
I enjoy watching Karsums play, here's some highlights...
Jakub Kovar, G, CZE - A Flyers pick from 2006 spent one season in NA (OHL in 2007-08) but his game has really grown while playing in the Czech Extraliga over the past five seasons. The 25-year-old made the switch to the KHL this year and was named the Goalie of the Month for December & January as he sits with a .934 sv% through 44 games. Would somebody in the NHL please give this guy a shot, I beg you! If it's not Kovar shining for the Czechs then it could be Alexander Salak (lord knows it won't be Ondrej Pavelec). Salak has shown that he can dominate in all the major European leagues and would probably be in the NHL right now if it wasn't for bad timing and some sticky goalie situations (had stints with FLA & Chicago).
Sondre Olden, RW, NOR - Maybe the next Zuccarello will get some help from the current Zuccarello as the next big thing out of Norway could be the former Leafs 3rd rounder. He's just 21-years-old and is having a breakout season in the Norwegian league with 22+26=48 in 34 games (2nd in league scoring). Patrick Thoresen is another to watch on the Norge as he could probable put up some points in the NHL, given the right situation, but at 30 he's likely had enough of people busting his balls (literally).
Luka Gracnar, G, SLO - If this guy sees the ice for Slovenia, he's likely going to get shelled. With that ringing endorsement out of the way, let's give some props to the kid as he's the youngest goalie in the tournament at just 20-years-old. He's working on his second straight impressive season in the Austrian league but should be in line for a promotion after this year.
Enjoy the games!