Olympics in 2018 showed glimpses of future NHL stars
Connor McDavid could not team up with Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon for Canada. Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel did not get the chance to play alongside Patrick Kane for the U.S. Henrik Lundqvist never got a chance to win a second gold medal with Sweden, this time with Victor Hedman in front of him.
The NHL skipping the 2018 Olympics looks in retrospect like a major mistake, since the world’s best players have yet to face off against each other on the international stage. Turns out, the tournament in South Korea offered a glimpse of what was to come for a handful of players.
Five years since starring for the Russians on their way to gold, Kirill Kaprizov is now a dominant force for Minnesota. He plays with Jordan Greenway who paused his college career to represent the U.S. in Pyeongchang alongside Seattle forward Ryan Donato. Before joining the Kraken and scoring at will this season, Eeli Tolvanen was roommates with Dallas defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who along with then-17-year-old Swede Rasmus Dahlin are among the best at the position.
Few knew about Czech goaltender Pavel Francouz before he beat the U.S. in an elimination shootout in that tournament; now his name is on the Stanley Cup after helping Colorado win it last season.
From Kaprizov to Francouz, the success stories from the 2018 Olympics are now playing out in the NHL.
“It’s a testament to how good the hockey was there,” said Donato, who tied with Kaprizov and Ilya Kovalchuk for the tournament lead with five goals. “You had a lot of guys who played in the NHL for a long time. You kind of got a sense that if those guys could hang around a lot of longtime NHLers, that it would bode well for their career.”
It has for Kaprizov, who was the best player on the ice for those two weeks while still being an unproven NHL prospect. Only one player had more points than Kaprizov and Tolvanen, who knew all about his Russian counterpart from their time facing off in the KHL.
“Since the first game we played against them, I knew that he was going to be a really good player,” said Tolvanen, who had three goals and six assists in five games at the Olympics before turning 19. “There was not much talk in North America at that time about him, but everybody that played in the KHL or played against the Russians at the national stage knew that he’s the real deal.”
Tolvanen and Heiskanen looked like the real deal at the time, too. Heiskanen was the third pick in the draft, Tolvanen went later in the first round and then they were roommates while teaming up for Finland.
Heiskanen is now a standout for Dallas in the NHL Tolvanen languished with Nashville before going on waivers this season. Claimed by the Kraken, he has since scored nine goals in 20 games.
“It seems like it’s really helped him to get to the new place and get some more minutes there,” Heiskanen said. “It’s great to see the success.”
For all their individual successes, Francouz is the only player from the 2018 Olympics to win the Stanley Cup since. The Avalanche became the first team since 1972 to hoist the Cup after two goalies won at least five games each during their run, and they can, in part, thank Francouz’s experience five years ago for putting him on the radar.
“I think the scouts knew me from the KHL, and they kind of knew what my game looked like,” Francouz said. “But I feel like it definitely helped me that they saw me in person at the tournament and saw what I’m capable of.”
Dahlin, now with Buffalo, got into just two games with Sweden; New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin played in one for the Russians; and Rangers Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin was the No. 3 goalie behind veteran national team starter Vasili Koshechkin.
Sorokin said Koshechkin “showed me how he works and plays in very big-pressure games, important games.” Dahlin felt the same way practicing with older Swedes.
“I was enjoying every second,” Dahlin said. “I didn’t play much, but I had a blast.”
Now the Sabres’ top defenseman, Dahlin is playing plenty. Only 2010 Olympic gold medalist Drew Doughty and 2022 Norris Trophy winner and playoff MVP Cale Makar — who turned down Canada’s invite to the Olympics five years ago — are seeing more ice time this season than Dahlin.
Finally seeing quality ice time in the NHL, Tolvanen is thriving with Seattle.
“It kind of feels like back in 2018: that year when I played in the world juniors and the Olympics and KHL,” Tolvanen said. “That was a fun year, and I kind of feel the same way right now.”
Now professionals, Donato, Greenway and Co. look back fondly on the bonds built playing at what Donato called a “perfect storm” Olympics with no NHL players.
“The guys who you did that with and experienced that with, you’ll always have that connection,” Greenway said. “We talk about it. We always will.”
After pandemic-related schedule interruptions kept the NHL out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the plan is for players to take part in 2026 in Milan.
Those who participated in 2018 got enough of a taste to want to go again.
“You see all the other athletes, you see all the buses going around the Olympic village, and you go see other athletes compete,” Tolvanen said. “It’s a dream come true to play there as an 18-year-old, but it’s something that for sure I want to be a part of again.”
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