Olympics: NHLers help Germany, Norway and Slovenia qualify for PyeongChang 2018
Kopitar, Zuccarello and Draisaitl will be in PyeongChang if the NHL decides to participate
We don't know if the NHL will be releasing their players for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, but NHLers were a big part of this week's Olympic qualifying tournament at three different European sites. Germany, Norway and Slovenia each topped their groups in the round-robin format to solidify their spots at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Slovenia, led by Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar, defeated host Belarus in a shootout to clinch a spot in the Olympics for the second straight cycle. Kopitar and Rok Ticar scored in the shootout while ex Montreal Canadiens forward Andrei Kostitsyn was stuffed on Belarus' final attempt to seal the dramatic win for Slovenia.
Kopitar finished the tournament with a team-best five points as the Slovenians went 3-0 in a group that also included Poland and Denmark.
In Oslo, New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello helped lead Norway back to the Olympics after missing out on Sochi. The Norwegians got a tie-breaking goal from Mattias Norstebo with 2:29 remaining in regulation to earn a 2-1 win over France.
Zuccarello led all players in the group with six points, including a goal in the win over France, in three games. Italy and Kazakhstan were also part of "Group F."
Germany, with numerous of NHLers past and present, earned a 3-2 win over Latvia to prevent their hosts from a repeat trip to the Olympics. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl scored early and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl notched the late game-winner to send Germany back to the Olympics.
Draisaitl tied for the group lead with five points in the qualifying tournament. Japan and Austria were the other two teams competing for 2018 spots in Latvia.
The field is now officially set for PyeongChang. Slovenia's reward for advancing to the Olympics is a spot in the exact same group they had in Sochi, competing alongside the United States, Russia and Slovakia. Meanwhile, Norway and Germany will slot into the same group as Sweden and Finland, the silver and bronze medalists from Sochi, respectively.
Reigning gold medalists Canada certainly will not be shaking in their boots with their group in PyeongChang. They'll be slotted alongside the Czech Republic, Switzerland and host South Korea.
Still the big question hanging over the Olympics is, will the NHL will be participating at all? The league has allowed its players to compete since 1998. The financial benefit is essentially non-existent for the league, while the risk of injury to the biggest stars of the game is pretty high. Additionally, the time difference for PyeongChang and North America is bad news for television times and the exposure the Olympics typically affords. As of right now, the chances the league allows its players to compete appear slim.
That said, based on the fact that so many NHL players ended their offseasons early to participate in this tournament, with several of them also obligated to play in the World Cup of Hockey for Team Europe starting in two weeks, it shows how much the Olympics means to the players. And that's why their respective NHL teams let them play in it.
Kopitar is about to start the first year of a 10-year, $80 million contract. You think the Kings wanted him to take that risk in the first week of September? No way, but as one of the biggest sports stars in his country, and with his father having helped build up the Slovenian national team, it's hard to say no.
Contracts are insured for these things, but as we've seen the risk is very real. Denmark goalie and new Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen was flown back after sustaining an upper-body injury in the Olympic qualifier.
The players are going to be a big factor in the Olympic conversation. Most of them seem to want to go despite the hassles that come with it. There is plenty of time for negotiations, but the clock continues to tick.
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