Under International Ice Hockey Federation rules, nine men's teams have already qualified to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics, with the three remaining berths available this weekend in qualifying tournaments being played in Germany, Latvia and Denmark.
The IIHF's complex ranking system has Canada as the No.5 seed in the Sochi Games, with the U.S. No.7 – thanks to some stumbles during the past two world championships. It unexpectedly places Canada in a favourable position for the purposes of round-robin play, the second-ranked team in Group B along with Finland (world No.2), Norway (world No.8), plus an as yet-to-be determined qualifier.
As draws go, it is about as soft as it can get – and it remains to be seen if playing two of its first three games against the minnows of the hockey world is the right preparation for Canada for the pressure-packed playoffs that will follow.
Russia (No.1) is in a far-tougher Group A, along with Slovakia (No.6) and the seventh-ranked Americans, plus a qualifier. The Czech Republic (No.3) leads Group C, which also includes Sweden (No.4), Switzerland (No.9) plus a qualifier.
A brief look at the Sochi contenders, based on their current IIHF world rankings:
After winning silver in 1998, the Russians have failed to earn a medal in the past three Olympics and the pressure on them to succeed is great. Many of the NHL's top Russian players, including Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, say they'll compete in Sochi – whether the NHL participates or not. Russia is deep up front and decent on defence, but will have to figure out who gets the starting nod in net.
Once again, the Finns will feature high-end goaltending – likely from Pekka Rinne, who won a league-leading 43 NHL games last season. With long-time star Teemu Selanne likely out of the picture, the Finns will turn to Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula to lead the offence and Kimmo Timonen and Joni Pitkanen among others to stabilize the back end.
3. CZECH REPUBLIC
The Czechs have a wide range of quality forwards: youngsters David Krejci and Jakub Voracek, along with old standbys Ales Hemsky, Tomas Plekanec, Martin Erat, Milan Michalek, Radim Vrbata and Martin Havlat. The goaltending decision will likely boil down to either the veteran Tomas Vokoun or the emerging Michal Neuvirth.
The post-Nicklas Lidstrom era starts for Sweden, which still has great depth on the blueline, beginning with James Norris Memorial Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, emerging star Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the versatile Niklas Kronwall. With Henrik Lundqvist in goal and the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) up front along with Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Steen and Johan Franson, the Swedes will pose a formidable challenge.
The biggest question mark will be in goal, where the nation's legendary depth tends to thin out a little. Carey Price has been the heir apparent for a while and, as of now, is likely the favourite to be the starter.
Any team with Zdeno Chara to anchor its defence has a chance in every game and the Slovaks, semi-finalists in Vancouver in 2010, gave Canada all it could handle four years ago. Jaroslav Halak's presence stabilizes the goaltending and the Slovaks have a couple of high-end options up front – Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa. Sleeper potential.
7. UNITED STATES
Runners-up in 2010, they came up one overtime goal short of a gold medal, while icing a young third-generation team that should be mostly intact. Depth in goal is a U.S. hallmark – from Jonathan Quick, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner, to Ryan Miller, tournament MVP in 2010, to Craig Anderson, who does nothing but win.
Patrick Thoresen averaged a point a game in the KHL last year, and Per-Age Skroder did the same in Sweden's Elitserien, but Norway is the darkest of dark horses among the teams that have already qualified. Strengths: the opportunity to train together during Europe's regularly scheduled "national team" breaks and the element of surprise. No one's going to have much of a book on the Norwegians going in.
Switzerland's reputation for strong defensive play is likely to continue, with five NHL blueliners at its disposal (Mark Streit, Luca Sbisa, Yannick Weber, Roman Josi, Raphael Diaz). Goalie Jonas Hiller was great in 2010, and is capable of stealing a game. The Swiss are developing young snipers (Sven Baertschi, Nino Niederreiter) who might hit their strides just in time.