Alex Ovechkin won’t be playing during the Winter Olympics, but here’s what his team could have looked like. (Chris Young/Canadian Press/Associated Press)

The Winter Olympics will lack NHL players for the first time since 1998. Instead, college prospects, AHL veterans, various players from the European leagues and even former NHL players will try to bring the gold home to their respective countries. While that may add some feel-good stories to the fabric of the Winter Games, it will deprive the world of watching the best athletes in the sport. And it will considerably shake up expectations for which teams should take home medals.

It’s a particularly tough break for Team USA, which could have perhaps fielded its most competitive national team in years. Phenoms Auston Matthews (26 goals, 10th in the NHL) and Johnny Gaudreau (66 points, second), plus veteran Phil Kessel (65 points, tied for fourth) would have skated alongside Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson on a gold medal-contending squad.

Team Canada will be significantly affected, too, as it will lack the services of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and former MVP goaltender Carey Price. Russia, Sweden and Finland are also forced to send players with less talent than those we have seen in past Olympics.

Ah, what might have been. But using a blend of traditional metrics (goals, assists, points, ice time and save percentage, if applicable) and advanced stats (shot percentage, expected goals, penalties drawn, etc.) for the 2017-18 season, we’ve crafted rosters for each nation that include the NHL’s stars and simulated the medal round games to project the winners.

Here’s a look at what might have been in PyeongChang. (Note: Since this is fantasy anyway, we’re not accounting for injured players.)

Team USA

Forwards

Top line: Johnny Gaudreau — Auston Matthews — Phil Kessel

Second line: James van Riemsdyk — Jack Eichel — Blake Wheeler

Third line: Max Pacioretty — Vincent Trocheck — Patrick Kane

Fourth line: Anders Lee — Tyler Johnson — Brock Boeser

Extras: T.J. Oshie, Jason Zucker

Matthews is a deserving centerpiece on the top line. The 20-year-old who was born in California and grew up in Arizona had 66 goals in his first 128 games as a pro, good for 10th most since 1987-88, the first year individual game data is available on Hockey-Reference’s website. Alex Ovechkin, by comparison, had 81 goals during his first 128 games in the NHL.

Boeser, a 20-year-old rookie, gets the honor after a solid debut this season. His 26 goals and 48 points rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among rookies in 2017-18.

On the power play, van Riemsdyk would have been a monster. His 6.6 expected goals per 60 minutes — derived by taking into account quality and quantity of shot attempts — is by far the best in the NHL this season, and almost 2.7 expected goals per 60 more than Wayne Simmonds, who ranks second.

Defensemen

Top pair: Jacob Trouba — Seth Jones

Second pair: Ryan Suter — John Carlson

Third pair: Jaccob Slavin — Charlie McAvoy

Extras: Dustin Byfuglien, Cam Fowler

With Trouba on the ice, the Winnipeg Jets put 53 percent of even-strength, high-danger scoring chances — those shots in the slot or crease — in their favor and outscore opponents. Byfuglien, his teammate, leads all blue liners in total high-danger chances created this season (25).

Carlson ranks third in points (44) while skating almost 26 minutes a night, including 2 minutes 51 seconds per contest on the penalty kill and nearly four minutes per game with the power-play unit.

Goaltenders

Starter: Jonathan Quick

Backups: John Gibson, Ben Bishop

Quick stopped 132 of 143 shots faced (.923 save percentage) during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and has been consistent between the pipes for the Los Angeles Kings since earning the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the NHL team with the goalies with the fewest goals scored against, in 2013-14: His save percentage has never dipped below .915 over that span.

Gibson is in the midst of his third season in a row with a save percentage better than .920, and Bishop has the highest save percentage against high-danger chances this season (.902).

That leaves out Devils netminder Cory Schneider, a deserving candidate (.913 save percentage this season), but you’ve got to make cuts somewhere and Bishop’s work against tough shots gets him the nod.

Team Canada 

Forwards

Top line: Taylor Hall — Connor McDavid — Nathan MacKinnon

Second line: Brad Marchand — Sidney Crosby — Patrice Bergeron

Third line: Steven Stamkos — John Tavares — Mark Scheifele

Fourth line: Jamie Benn — Sean Couturier — Tyler Seguin

Extras: Jonathan Toews, Logan Couture

Only McDavid could knock Crosby off the top line. The 21-year-old reigning NHL MVP has 23 goals and 66 points in 55 games in addition to a league-leading 86 high-danger chances created at even strength, 15 more than van Riemsdyk, who ranks second. Crosby, meanwhile, is on pace for 89 points, a match for last year’s total. A head-to-head comparison shown in the chart below makes it clear McDavid deserves the nod. (Numbers represent the percentile into which a player falls in each category, higher is better.)

Defensemen

Top pair: Duncan Keith — P.K. Subban

Second pair: Marc-Edouard Vlasic — Drew Doughty

Third pair: Morgan Rielly — Alex Pietrangelo

Extras: Brent Burns, Shea Weber

Some might be surprised to see Subban on the top pair, but he is having a solid year: 15 goals and 43 points in 54 games despite starting a career-high 59 percent of his even-strength shifts requiring a faceoff in the defensive zone. That makes it much harder to put up points, but Subban is producing anyway.

Pietrangelo, meanwhile, leads the position in high-danger scoring chances created on the power play (eight).

Goaltenders

Starter: Corey Crawford

Backups: Carey Price, Braden Holtby

Since 2015-16, Crawford has posted a save percentage of .923 in the NHL with six out of every 10 of his games resulting in a quality start, awarded for an above-average performance in net. In addition, his save percentage at even strength over that span (.931) is higher than we would expect after taking into account the quantity and quality of shots against (.918). Only Russia’s Sergei Bobrovsky (.932 vs. .919) has a better delta between the two.

Team Russia

Forwards

Top line: Alex Ovechkin — Evgeni Malkin —  Vladimir Tarasenko

Second line: Vladislav Namestnikov — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Nikita Kucherov

Third line: Artemi Panarin — Artem Anisimov — Alexander Radulov

Fourth line: Ilya Kovalchuk — Pavel Datsyuk — Nikolai Kulemin

Extras: Pavel Buchnevich, Evgenii Dadonov

Best active goal scorer in the NHL? Ovechkin. Second-best goal scorer this season? Malkin. Third-best goal scorer since 2015-16? Tarasenko. And that’s just the top line! Plus, Kucherov ranks fourth over the past three seasons with 98 goals in 205 games; he has 30 goals already this season.

The third line has combined for 28 goals, 36 primary assists and 123 high-danger chances at even strength, production that would make them the fifth-best trio in the NHL this season.

And just for the fun of it, NHL legends Datsyuk and Kovalchuk have 11 goals and 31 points between them all-time in the Olympic Games, giving Russia enough firepower to hang with any of our hypothetical squads at PyeongChang.

Defensemen

Top pair: Ivan Provorov — Nikita Zaitsev

Second pair: Dmitry Orlov — Alexey Marchenko

Third pair: Alexei Emelin — Dmitry Kulikov

Extras: Andrei Markov, Slava Voynov

The defense isn’t a team strength, but Toronto’s Zaitsev knows how to create the most of the Maple Leafs’ opportunities. When he skates, the Leafs have a plus-17 high-danger scoring-chance differential and outscore opponents 20 to 13 just on those high-quality shots alone.

Provorov has 16 goals and 57 points in 138 career NHL games for the Philadelphia Flyers and Orlov skates well, can score (8 goals in 55 games in 2017-18) and draw penalties (10, most by a Capitals defenseman).

Goaltenders

Starter: Sergei Bobrovsky

Backups: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Semyon Varlamov

As mentioned earlier, Bobrovsky leads all netminders in the difference between his actual and expected save percentage over the last three seasons. In addition, he has the highest save rate against shots in the slot and the crease (.845) among 57 qualified goaltenders playing since 2015-16.

Team Sweden

Forwards

Top line: Filip Forsberg — Nicklas Backstrom — Viktor Arvidsson

Second line: Daniel Sedin — Henrik Sedin — Rickard Rakell

Third line: Mika Zibanejad — Mikael Backlund — Jakob Silfverberg

Fourth line: Gabriel Landeskog — Alexander Steen — Patric Hornqvist

Extras: Henrik Zetterberg, Loui Eriksson

Finally — Forsberg and Backstrom  get to play together. Forsberg, a former first-round pick by Washington in 2012 before being traded to Nashville, is on pace to set a career high in goals scored (0.4 per game) and points (0.95 per game), making the 23-year old a building block for Team Sweden for years to come.

Hornqvist might be slotted on the fourth line here, but he will certainly be a mainstay on the first power-play unit. Known for being a pest to opposing goaltenders, his quality of shot carries an expected goal scoring rate of 3.4 per 60 minutes, the eighth-best in the NHL this season.

Defensemen

Top pair: Victor Hedman — Erik Karlsson

Second pair: Mattias Ekholm — John Klingberg

Third pair: Oliver Ekman-Larsson — Anton Stralman

Extras: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Adam Larsson

This is a better collection of blue-liners than you would find in a fantasy league if you used your first eight picks on just defensemen. According to point shares, a catchall stat that attempts to factor in everything a player does on the ice and translate it to wins, Hedman, Karlsson and Klingberg are the third, fourth and fifth most valuable defensemen, respectively, in total point shares accumulated over the past three years. Ekholm (34th) and Ekman-Larsson (37th) are not too far behind.

Goaltenders

Starter: Henrik Lundqvist

Backups:  Robin Lehner, Jacob Markstrom

Sweden doesn’t have many options in net, but Lundqvist, 36 years old in March, has a .919 save percentage this season with 27 quality starts out of 48 games played, making him a fine choice for his fourth Olympic Games.

Team Finland

Forwards

Top line: Teuvo Teravainen — Aleksander Barkov — Patrik Laine

Second line: Mikael Granlund — Mikko Koivu — Joonas Donskoi

Third line: Mikko Rantanen — Erik Haula — Sebastian Aho

Fourth line: Artturi Lehkonen — Valtteri Filppula — Joel Armia

Extras: Markus Granlund, Henrik Haapala

Laine debuted in the NHL last season, tallying 36 goals and 28 assists in 73 games for the Winnipeg Jets. This year he is on a similar track (0.8 points per game). His teammate and countryman, Armia, is less of a scoring threat (22 points in 53 games in 2017-18) but does tilt the ice in Winnpeg’s favor, with the Jets gaining a 213-to-182 scoring chance advantage at even strength with him on the ice.

Defensemen

Top pair: Olli Maatta — Rasmus Ristolainen

Second pair: Esa Lindell — Sami Vatanen

Third pair: Markus Nutivaara — Julius Honka

Extras: Markus Nutivaara, Jyrki Jokipakka

Maatta skates over 19 minutes a game for the Pittsburgh Penguins, giving his team the edge in shot attempts (53 percent), and scoring chances (51 percent). He is, however, struggling to convert on those chances, but that appears to be a team-wide phenomenon. The Penguins rank last in the NHL at converting high-danger scoring chances,  with just 9 percent finding the back of the net at even strength. The league average is 12 percent, so it’s possible Maatta would have success on Olympic ice if given the chance.

Goaltenders

Starter: Pekka Rinne

Backups: Tuukka Rask, Antti Raanta

Rinne has his highest save percentage (.926) in eight years, a season in which he finished third in the voting for best goaltender and seventh in the MVP race. Rask (.925) isn’t too far behind, and Raanta (.917) is above average, giving Finland three reliable puck-stoppers between the pipes. Their combined save percentage of .923 in 2017-18 would be the second-best this season if they were considered an NHL team, with more than 63 percent of their games featuring a quality start.

The results

The 2018 Olympic format has three groups of four teams competing in round-robin fashion to determine seeding, followed by four rounds of elimination games. Each group winner receives a bye into the second round, along with the highest ranked of the remaining teams.

Group A: Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland, South Korea
Group B: Olympic Athletes from Russia, United States, Slovakia, Slovenia
Group C: Sweden, Finland, Germany, Norway

Eight teams will then be whittled down to four in the quarterfinal round, with the winners of the semifinals playing for the gold medal and the losers playing for the bronze. Based on the expected scoring rates for and against for each Olympic team, we can simulate the games 1,000 times and see which teams will make it to the podium. Canada, Olympic Athletes from Russia, United States, Sweden and Finland had their scoring rates estimated from their NHL experience adjusted for playing time. For example, top-six forward would see more ice time (18 minutes per game) than a one in the bottom six (13 minutes). Same for a top-pair defenseman (23 minutes) as opposed to the bottom-pair duo (17 minutes).

With that in mind, Team Canada, scoring an expected 4.7 goals per game, would be the gold medal winner almost a third of the time (29 percent). Just behind would be Team USA (4.1 expected goals per game) and the Olympic Athletes from Russia (3.9).

2018 Men’s Olympic hockey team Chance at gold medal
Canada 29%
USA 26%
Russia 19%
Sweden 11%
Finland 10%
Other 6%

But rather than watch what would likely be riveting, high-caliber hockey, we’re going to have to settle for something entirely different.

Read more Post coverage of the PyeongChang Olympics:

‘I’m here to put it down’: Shaun White gives his all in intense halfpipe qualifying

Marcel Hirscher dominates tough course for gold, silencing 9 million Austrians

U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team can keep Statue of Liberty goalies’ masks

‘I’m America’s sweetheart’: Adam Rippon won bronze, but he’s a gold-medal talker

Chloe Kim’s ‘buddy’ Arielle Gold joined her on the halfpipe podium, as bronze medalist

Gold medalist Chloe Kim wins Twitter, too

Barry Svrluga: Ice cream-loving teen or dominant gold medalist? Chloe Kim is now both.