The Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) are in the best position to take advantage of the lack of NHL talent at the Winter Games this year, making them the favorites to win gold in men’s Olympic hockey.

Men’s Olympic hockey tournament
Kirill Kaprizov is one of the many talented KHL stars that will be a part of the OAR roster in the men’s Olympic hockey tournament. (Image: Chris Young/Associated Press)

The 12-team Olympic hockey tournament features a lot of young talent and a smattering of former NHL players. But many of the most experienced players come from teams in other professional hockey leagues. And with Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) being second only to the NHL on the world stage, it’s little surprise that the OAR team still has a large pool of excellent players to draw from.

NHL Opts Out of Olympics

The NHL announced last April that it would not be creating a break in their regular season schedule to allow players to participate in the Winter Olympics, as the league had done since 1998. According to the NHL, most teams were against the idea of participating yet again, and with the International Olympic Committee and other invested parties unable to come up with ways to make the proposal more attractive, the league decided to skip the Olympics entirely.

“I think the realities of Olympic participation are more apparent to our Board now and I think it just leads to less enthusiasm about the disruption,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said last January. “Quite frankly we don’t see what the benefit is from the game standpoint or the League standpoint.”

That means that all the top national teams will be without their most prominent superstars. But in the case of OAR, they’ll still be picking a team from the best KHL talent available. Most of their players are stars in the KHL, and several have prior NHL experience, including center Pavel Datsyuk and winger Ilya Kovalchuk.

Many Countries with Medal Hopes

That’s enough to make OAR an imposing favorite, with Bwin posting them as a +105 favorite. But several other major hockey powers have a legitimate chance to win gold, and all of the “big six” are in the running for the podium, making this a more open tournament then the women’s Olympic hockey competition.

The Swedish team in particular is seen as a squad with the potential to make noise in the tournament. Not only does Sweden (+475) have what could be the deepest crop of goaltenders in the event, but also they have the must-watch player of the tournament — 17-year-old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who is almost a lock to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL draft.

Unsurprisingly, Canada (+525) still has a wealth of talent to draw on even without its legion of NHL stars. They bring one of the most experienced teams to the field, including some former NHL players who could still potentially sign as free agents with teams after the Olympics.

Beyond those three, Finland (+800) is always dangerous thanks to a well-structured defensive team concept, while the Czech Republic (+950) also has plenty of KHL connections to fill out their roster. The USA (+1600) may be hurt most by the absence of NHL players, but the Americans are still bringing some of the top college hockey talent in the country – meaning that it wouldn’t quite be another “Miracle on Ice” if they were to win this year.

“We’ve got guys who have played in the NHL,” Team USA center Jim Slater told USA TODAY. “It’s not an NHL superstar tournament out here, but it’s still NHL, top-tier quality. It’s going to be a heck of a tournament.”