The good news? We got a solid look at what this team could look like at the Olympic qualifiers. And realistically? Latvia could surprise people in Group C.
Latvia enters the Olympics as one of the three teams to advance due to Olympic qualification berths. They did so shortly after the tragic loss of Matiss Kivlenieks, honoring their fallen friend in the best way they possibly could. It was a great story, and now Latvia is headed back to the main event after missing out in 2018.
So, how will the Latvians stack up?
The good thing is that the roster should stay relatively unchanged from the Olympic qualification tournament. Latvia has kept a near-uniform look for the past decade, bringing the same talent to each event and keeping many of the players together with the KHL Riga program. That familiarity helps and was a big reason why they shut down the NHL-heavy Canadian team at the 2021 World Championship held in Latvia.
This is a team that’s not going to challenge for medal contention, especially with NHLers back in the equation. They will, however, likely pose a threat to some of the teams in Group C, and could give squads like Slovakia and Finland some headaches along the way. That’s what they did in 2014, nearly beating Canada off of the heels of a performance from a relatively unknown Kristers Gudlevskis. This time, Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins will be the man tasked with starting duties, and considering he’s already one of the best goalies to come out of the country, it should give Latvia a fighting chance to make the playoff round.
Let’s take a look at what this roster can look like.
Each team is permitted a roster of 22 skaters (14 forwards, eight defensemen) and 3 goaltenders.
Ronalds Kenins – Rodrigo Abols – Rudolfs Balcers
Kaspars Daugavins – Teddy Blueger – Rihards Bukarts
Miks Indrasis – Zemgus Girgensons – Lauris Darzins
Martins Dzierkals – Andris Dzerins – Renars Krastenbergs
Roberts Bukarts, Deniss Smirnovs
At the Olympic qualifiers, five players scored at least two goals in the three games, showing a nice balance of offensive firepower. Balcers and Kenins tied for the lead with six points, while Indrasis, Abols, Blugers and Darzins had four points each. This group will make up the main core, with Blugers and Balcers – two Latvian NHL forwards – both playing crucial roles in Riga last month. For the non-NHLers holding the fort, Abols and Kenins have been the top dogs for a while now and will remain so. Bukarts and Daugavins add extra scoring, too.
Fortunately, the team has good shutdown depth, too. Buffalo Sabres forward Girgensons plays a strong defensive center role in the NHL and while he looked a bit rusty after missing all of last season, he showed why he’s been in the NHL so long. Krastenbergs and Dzierkals can bring some speed to the bottom six and Darzins and Indrasis have some skill to work with, so why there isn’t a true difference-maker on this forward squad, there’s something to work with, at least.
Kristians Rubins – Uvis Janis Balinskis
Arturs Kulda – Janis Jaks
Oskars Cibulskis – Ralfs Freibergs
Kristaps Sotnieks – Kristaps Zile
Latvia doesn’t have a big-name player on the blueline, but they’ve shown a tendency to play close games against strong teams. Rubins, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, is part of Latvia’s long-term future and while he typically doesn’t draw up a ton of offense, he has solid speed for his big 6-foot-5 frame. NHL fans will also be familiar with Kulda, an Olympian with Latvia back in 2014 and a mainstay of Latvia’s international team for most of his career. A strong shot-blocker, Kuda has bounced around many different programs over the past decade and while his play is far from his prime, he’ll bring experience and physical play to a shutdown role.
Two defenders coming off of good Olympic qualifier runs are Jaks and Balinskis, 26 and 25, respectively. Neither should produce a ton of points but can still move the puck well enough and help create offense. Latvia’s blueline will focus mainly on playing shutdown hockey because, as the team showcased in 2014 against Canada, all they need to do is slow the game down and they’ll find a way to keep things interesting from a scoring perspective.
Elvis Merzlikins, Ivars Punnenovs, Arturs Silovs
The starting position was never in doubt: Merzlikins is going to be the man tasked with leading Latvia to a quarter-final berth. The Blue Jackets goalie had a tremendous rookie campaign two years ago and while his performance dipped last year, so did the entirety of the Blue Jackets. Merzlikins hasn’t donned the burgundy threads worn by Latvia since venturing over to North America but has almost always been one of the best goalies internationally when representing his country. The Blue Jackets won’t be good again this season, but Merzlikins should give Latvia a fighting chance in tight games.
Punnenovs was tasked with being the main man at the Olympic qualifiers and didn’t disappoint. He had two shutouts and allowed just one goal in three games to help the Latvians advance. He’ll likely get a start in the round robin, but it’s Merzlikins’ net to lose. Silovs, a Canucks prospect, should spend most of the tournament watching from the press box before potentially challenging for a few starts come 2026. Janis Kalnins could also make it as an established pro, but I’m giving Silovs the third spot because it likely won’t make a difference who holds that spot, but it could be a good learning experience for a guy Latvia thinks highly of.