Josi, Switzerland aiming high at Olympics
Among the various issues that have plagued the Nashville Predators this season, one was the early loss of defenseman Roman Josi to a concussion.
Josi, 23, was coming off the 2013 IIHF World Championships last spring, where he was named the tournament's most valuable player, its best defenseman and an all-star in leading his native Switzerland to a silver medal, its first medal in 60 years.
All of that momentum hit the brakes when Josi was injured in the season's second game. He sat out the next 10, and when he returned, he had a minus rating in five of his first six games – minus-7 in total. By all accounts, it took him about 10 games to get back into form.
Named recently to the Swiss national team, which will carry higher expectations entering the 2014 Sochi Olympics based on the finish at the Worlds, Josi is back in top form. At 25:45 per game in time on ice, Josi ranks sixth in the NHL. In the 21 games starting on Nov. 30, Josi has averaged nearly 27-and-a-half minutes per game, twice topping the 32-minute mark.
Josi is most noticeable when he jumps into the play offensively. He has four goals and 10 assists with a minus-16 rating in 37 games while partnering with Shea Weber (minus-15), the two-time Norris Trophy finalist.
Predators general manager David Poile said he also likes Josi's defensive game. In the offseason, Polie re-signed Josi to a seven-year, $28-million contract.
"I think he's good," Polie said. "Shea and Roman's plus/minus don't speak to what I'm going to say, but I think he's just a really good all-around player that can play all situations. But I do think the offensive part of his game is going to grow even more as he establishes himself.
"He's got a really good shot, really good vision, hockey sense. I think statistics-wise I think you're going got see him put up some bigger numbers offensively."
Poile saw that first-hand at the world championships last year, when Josi had four goals and nine assists to lead all defensemen in the tournament. Poile, who is the GM of the 2014 United States Olympic team, served on the committee that helped to pick the U.S. entry for the world championships and watched Josi continue on what was a strong NHL season (five goals, 13 assists and only eight penalty minutes in 48 games).
"We had a great tournament," Josi said. "We played really well. We'll see. The Olympics is a whole different tournament. It's a bigger stage with all of the best players there, but still it gave us a lot of confidence."
One interesting twist for Switzerland will be the addition of more NHL players. It had two at the Worlds, Josi and Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter. Six more will play in the Olympics: Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller (who has won 14 straight games), Calgary Flames goalie Reto Berra, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Mark Streit, New Jersey Devils wing Damien Brunner, Montreal Canadiens defenseman Raphael Diaz and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Yannick Weber.
Clearly, the strength of the Swiss team is goaltending and defense. By putting those assets to good use, the Swiss have become one of those teams greater than the sum of its parts. The Swiss are coached by Canadian Sean Simpson, who played his major junior hockey under one of the game's great all-time coaches, Brian Kilrea of the Ottawa '67s.
"I think they've incorporated a lot of the North American style with their players," Poile said. "…They're a tough out. If you remember four years ago in Vancouver, the game was just right there and we had to get a late goal, if my memory [serves], to beat them.
"That was probably our hardest game, really [until the gold medal game]. They're becoming very competitive at all levels and they're starting to crank out some top players. Hiller in goal. Mark Streit's been a good player for a long time. I think you're going to see some more and better Swiss players in future years."
That quarterfinal game was scoreless through second intermission. Zach Parise scored a power-play goal at 2:08 of the third but the United States did not ice the game until 12 seconds remained when Parise added an empty-net goal. In the preliminary round, Switzerland took eventual gold-medal winner Canada to a shootout and lost 3-2.
"We're trying to get as many guys over here as we can and that's how we're going to build a hockey country," Niederreiter said.
In Nashville, the Predators have endured a season in which No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne has missed almost three months with an infection in his hip and the offense has struggled. Yet Predators coach Barry Trotz sees Josi's game rounding into top form.
"He always has an effect on the game," Trotz said. "I think he's skating really well. He's distributing the puck really well. He's picking his way through the offense, through the neutral zone really well. He's been really effective in that."
All of which is good news for Switzerland, for which a quarterfinal appearance would be a nice accomplishment.
"I mean, the expectations are obviously a little higher after the world championships," Josi said. "People expect a little more. Our goal is – obviously, we're underdogs, we are a small team – but you don't go to the Olympics or even the world championships just to play there. You want to reach something and do something."