Six Players to Watch at the Olympics

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Six players worth watching at the Olympics to understand their NHL fantasy futures.

This article examines six hockey players who have an opportunity during the 2014 Olympic tournament to give us greater insight into their NHL fantasy futures.

The players considered are not yet NHL stars, but are already fantasy relevant or one-to-two years away. If you're in a keeper league, these are the kind of players who may be borderline keepers, deadline-deal trade-bait, or next year's draft targets. If these guys are too mainstream for you, our very own Cam Collingwood did an excellent piece examining eleven guys I have never heard of. Draft them all next year and blow everyone's minds with your in-depth knowledge of international prospects.

For fantasy GMs, the Olympics presents an opportunity to observe a given player performing under a different coach, in a different system, and with different linemates. It may also allow us to evaluate players in expanded or diminished roles, or against tougher or weaker competition, depending on the team they play for. While we have to be careful when extrapolating information from a short tournament on international ice, contextual observation can give us a more nuanced assessment of a prospect's potential for NHL success, and more importantly, fantasy production.

Let's consider some guys with an opportunity to show us more than they have shown in their careers to date.

1. Sami Vatanen, Defence, Finland

Bio
5'10" 174 lbs, 22 years old, drafted 106th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2009.

What we know
- Posseses a great breakout pass, and presumably for that reason often shares the ice with the Getzlaf and Perry line.
- Put up 45 points in 62 games as a rookie with the Norfolk Admirals (AHL) last season.
- Has a somewhat disappointing 6 goals and 8 assists this season, his rookie year.
- Has suited up for only 41 games, due to two demotions to the Admirals and a few healthy scratches.
- Playing 17:07 per game, and 2:22 on the powerplay. His minutes have been limited by the emergence of rookie rearguard Hampus Lindholm, by Cam Fowler finally living up to the lofty expectations set in his rookie year, and by head coach Bruce Boudreau's blatant sizeism.

What we might see
Finland's defence is led by Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo, who will probably eat up most of the power play time. Other than perhaps Timonen, Vatanen is the best puck-mover on the team and may see some secondary powerplay time, depending on whether Finland uses one or two defenceman. If Finland's coach is less size-biased than Bruce Boudreau, we can also expect to see Vatanen play more than 17 minutes per game. On the big ice, his ability to move the puck could really stand out. He's definitely one to watch.


2./3. Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar, Forwards, Slovakia

Bio
Jurco: 6'2", 193 lbs, 21 years old, drafted 35th overall in 2011 by the Detroit Red Wings.
Tatar: 5'10", 186 lbs, 23 years old, drafted 60th overall in 2009 by the Detroit Red Wings.

What we know
- Despite sharing first names and total number of consonants and vowels in their surnames and playing for the same Detroit Red Wings, sources confirm they are in fact not the same player.
- Lately they've played together on the third line and second powerplay unit with Riley Sheahan.
- Tatar marinated with the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) for a full four years, fairly consistently scoring around .8 points per game. This year, technically his sophomore year with the Red Wings, he has 24 points in 49 games.
- Jurco put up good-but-not-incredible numbers in the QMJHL, scored 28 points in 74 games last season as a Griffins rookie, and now has 7 points in 19 games as a Red Wings rookie. The fact that he did not complete the Red Wings' usual four-year tour of duty in the AHL suggests either he's exceptionally good, or the Wings have been exceptionally beat up this year. Likely both.
- Tatar represented Slovakia in the World Junior Championships in 2009 and 2010; Jurco in 2011 and 2012.
Dobber has Tatar as the 13th-ranked fantasy prospect; Jurco 27th.

What we might see
Tatar and Jurco's respective roles on this team will reflect their development so far and, to a lesser extent, their potential. Slovakia, by my count, boasts only four other NHL forwards (with Marian Gaborik on the shelf). Early line projections have Tatar on the first line with Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus, while Jurco plays the second line with Tomas Kopecky and someone incredibly not also named Tomas (fun fact: the Slovaks have seven players named Tomas on their roster, and six of them are forwards. They could ice two full lines of Tomases!). No doubt the lines will be shuffled, so watch who ends up on the top line and who earns top powerplay time.


4. Aleksander Barkov, Forward, Finland

Bio
6'3", 209 lbs, 18 years old, drafted second overall in 2013 by the Florida Panthers.

What we know
- Selected ahead of highly-touted prospects Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones.
- An "8.5 C"-rated prospect according to Hockey's Future.
- Currently sits fifth on the Panthers with 24 points in 54 games, already playing on the top line against tough opposition.

What we might see
What we can most look forward to in the Olympic tournament is seeing Barkov play with actual NHL-quality talent, instead of Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes. He's slated to centre the Finns' top line between Teemu Selanne and Mikael Granlund. With Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula injured, I wouldn't be surprised to see Barkov finish the tournament as the top Finnish scorer.


5. Kristers Gudlevskis, Goaltender, Latvia

Bio
6'3", 189 lbs, 21 years old, drafted 124th overall by Tampa Bay in 2013.

What we know
- Numbers from his first season with the Syracuse Crunch (AHL) don't jump off the page: 11-8-2 with just a .900 save percentage.
Moustache is the envy of 13-year-olds everywhere.
- Youngest player on the Latvian team, and apparently pretty chill about it:


What we might see
Edgars Masalskis started Latvia's first game and gave up just one goal on 39 shots in the loss (in the final ten seconds, too). So we may not see Gudlevskis at all. In any event, he's worth looking out for.

Here's what Bob MacKenzie says about Gudlevskis:

6. Ondrej Palat, Forward, Czech Republic

Bio
6'0", 180 lbs, 22 years old, drafted 208th overall in 2011 by the Tampa Bay Lighting.

What we know
- Has 34 points in 58 games in his rookie season.
- Last season, he was nearly a point-per-game player with the stacked Syracuse Crunch of the AHL.
- Since being promoted to the top line with Martin St. Louis and Tyler Johnson, his production has skyrocketed. In October and November combined he scored seven points. In December, eight points. In January, 16 points!
- Late charge has led to some mild Calder rumblings (though maybe that's just me, and so far I don't get to vote).

What we might see
The Czech Republic team has no shortage of offensively-minded players. In their first game against Sweden, Palat played with Jakub Voracek, David Krejci, Petr Nedved, and a host of others as the Czech coaches searched for the right combinations. I was surprised to see Palat finish with only 13 minutes of ice time, because he seemed to be all over the ice.

Palat is not likely to see more ice time or better linemates with the Czechs than he currently sees in Tampa Bay. If anything, the reduced role he'll play with the Czech Republic is more indicative of his future role in the NHL as a strong second or third-liner. If he really does have the ability to carry a line on his own and his recent success isn't largely owing to playing with Martin St. Louis, now is the time for Palat to show it.

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Anyone else you're looking forward to watching in a different situation from their usual NHL role? Let us know in the comments.

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