No National Hockey League participation and a COVID-halted World Juniors have lent a mix of desperation and release to the men's hockey competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
To be sure, most of the athletes currently on the rosters of traditional powers Canada and Team USA would've been reading tea leaves and context clues regarding the NHL's plans to release their players for a mid-season trip to Beijing.
On Sept. 3, NHL players received the green light for a regular-season break and trip to China only to see the league change its mind after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the rescheduling of more than 50 games.
That was Dec. 22, but international hockey still had its young bucks headed to Red Deer, Alberta, for the World Junior Championship. That lasted... all of four days.
Mix of experience provides uneven, intriguing medal field
Make no mistake about it: the World Juniors is a massive deal in the hockey world and the peak of many players' careers. There's no perfect comparison in team sports but calling it the NCAA basketball Sweet Sixteen if the teams were grouped by nationality isn't terribly far from the mark.
So look at Team Canada, who would've been able to boast two or three different rosters of medal contenders were they allowed to use NHL players. World Juniors stars Owen Power and Mason McTavish arrive from their college and junior teams, respectively, with leftover ambition from Red Deer. They're joined by NHL vets Eric Staal and Daniel Winnik, their days in the world's top league all but done.
The showcase is also serving as a bit of a shop window for the NHL, too, as drafted players and draft-eligible players go shoulder-to-shoulder with grown men.
Look no further than 17-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky, who tied for the tournament lead in scoring after getting "goosebumps" bagging two goals on debut, and Slovakia's coach Craig Ramsay -- an NHL legend -- is comparing the kid to New York Islanders legend Clark Gillies.
The man tied with Slafkovsky for the tournament lead in goals is Lucas Wallmark, who is 26 after bouncing around the NHL for a few years. Tournament-leading point-getter Sean Farrell is a 20-year-old Montreal Canadiens prospect on break from Harvard. The two men a point back -- Finland's Sakari Manninen and Teemu Hartikainen -- are 30 and 31, respectively, and perhaps raising an eyebrow or two abroad after no (Manninen) or little (Hartikainen) NHL careers to this point.
Slafkosky's draft stock has rocketed up the board and 17-year-old teammate Simon Nemec is also being closely watched by scouts.
But there also those who are up for a renewed shot at international glory, something that may serve as the capstone on long careers that included NHL careers.
Consider that a number of players -- Vladimir Sobotka, Staal, Tobias Rieder, Dominik Kahun, Michal Frolik -- who wallowed on the last-place Buffalo Sabres over the past few years now see an Olympic medal as a distinct possibility. They are joined in the tournament by two players viewed to be part of a future Buffalo team that could, you know, actually be good: Power and Devon Levi.
Such are the contrasting futures of the men's hockey teams at the 2022 Games in a tournament that, ironically, the NHL players are watching closely during their regular seasons on the other side of the world.