By Martin Iheke
As your Dallas Stars enjoy the nice Olympic break, there are three players from the squad that have not because they made the Olympic team for their respective countries. That would be Captain Jamie Benn for Team Canada, rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin for Team Russia, and goalie Kari Lehtonen for Team Finland. For a team like the Stars that is looking to re-establish themselves as one of the best in the league, sending three players over to the Olympics is a huge deal.
What does it mean to their respective countries?
Personally, I think it is huge. Keep in mind that Jamie Benn is still 24 years old and is still getting better as he reaches his prime. The season he is having so far has been tremendous and as the captain for the Stars, Benn has completely excelled in that area. Adding him to an already stacked roster for Team Canada is nothing but a plus. For Valeri Nichushkin, this is probably the player fans of Team Russia should be looking forward to watching. This kid is a Calder Trophy candidate (rookie of the year) with his amazing play on both ends of the ice. He leads the team in +/- rating of 16 and is seventh in the league in points amongst rookies. By the way, he is only 18 years old. This is the first time he has played over here in North America barely speaking any English. That is pretty impressive. Just imagine once he gets used to the way the game is played here and with more experience the type of player he can be. Former Dallas Star Jaromir Jagr believes he can be the best player in the world very soon. That is some high praise coming from an icon like Jagr. I know there was some dispute within the front office of Team Russia on whether he should have been selected and I do not why because if they have seen this kid play for the Stars this season, it should have been a no brainer. Last but certainly not least, Kari Lehtonen. He has been one of the best goalies in the league for the last few years, but has not had to show it in the playoffs because the Stars have not been good enough to reach the postseason. Team Finland is stacked at the goaltender position and the fact that they choose Lehtonen means a big deal for both the team and him.
How much are they expected to contribute?
At the start of the tournament, it was not expected that all three of them would contribute a whole lot. After a couple games, that was not the case. Jamie Benn scored the game-winning goal in his Olympic debut against Norway as Canada won, 3-1. He did not see a lot of ice time but when he played, he was huge on both ends of the ice. Valeri Nichushkin was not expected to play at all in the tournament, but was inserted in the lineup at the last second in Russia’s first game against Slovenia. He scored the goal that pretty much clinched a victory for Russia as they won, 5-2. Kari Lehtonen was supposed to serve as the backup goalie for Finland but after Tuukka Rask had a rough outing against Team Austria, he was called on to start against Norway and give a better performance in net for Finland. That is exactly what he did with 20 saves in a 6-1 win. He even had two assists in the game.
Will this affect the Stars when they return?
The Stars are hoping if they do get the opportunity to play for their respective countries that they play well and not get hurt. They also hope that the experience they gain from playing in a playoff-type atmosphere would bring a positive effect to the Stars when the regular season resumes and helps them reach the postseason for the first time in six years. I hope this is the case as well.