By Joseph Justice
The upcoming World Cup of Hockey will mark the third iteration of the international tournament. In the two previous events, representatives from eight hockey playing nations fielded rosters. This year’s tournament comes with a twist, or perhaps more appropriately described, a gimmick, ok two gimmicks: Team North America and Team Europe. Team North America is made up of young players from, well, North America. Team Europe, or the Anze Kopitar Traveling All-stars, is made up of European players born outside of Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Russia. It is a gimmick, and in this case the gimmick is great because this tournament is not exactly filled with time honored traditions, and the two teams it replaced combined to win a single game in all the prior tournaments (1-11-0 with a -34 combined goal differential). With that in mind, all hail team gimmick.
Why root for team North America? Well who didn’t grow up desperate to play for the honor of their home continent? It is only natural for every man, woman, and child to grow up hoping to represent the geographic formation on which they were born. Ok so that part of the concept is silly, but putting the top young talent in the NHL together for a tournament is a great idea. A showcase of freak athletic ability, the hunger of youth, and the chance to showcase your talent to the “big clubs” in the tournament should have these kids eager to prove themselves in this tournament. So who is suiting up with pride for the greatest continent on Earth?
Sean Couturier: An elder statesman on the team, Couturier will be expected to fill in as the team’s primary defensive center. As a member of the Flyers he has had plenty of practice squaring up against cross state, and now cross continent, rival Sidney Crosby.
Jonathan Drouin: The comeback kid. In the midst of a drama filled season in Tampa, Drouin was left off the initial World Cup Roster. His massive turnaround to end the year earned him one of the final spots and he has been practicing on the team’s top offensive line. This will be his chance to showcase his highly regarded playmaking abilities.
Nathan MacKinnon: Former Junior hockey teammate of Drouin, the first former first overall pick has been an NHL player from day one. He is practicing out of position at wing in the tournament as there is so much offensive depth, but he could unseat Jack Eichel for the second line center position depending on how the tournament goes. His skating will be a major asset across from fellow speedster Dylan Larkin.
Connor McDavid: Expectations for this kid are pretty low, he is only expected to become the best player in the NHL over the next couple seasons. He will be the main draw for the team despite being its second youngest player. He may not be named the Captain, but he will be the focal point for both the media and other team’s top defensive players.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: In normal situations one NHL team sending two first overall draft picks to an international tournament at the same position would be a sign of a bright future. But these guys come from the Oilers. Nugent-Hopkins will be expected to contribute solid two-way play. A veteran of five NHL seasons it is almost hard to believe he is still young enough to qualify for the team.
Mark Scheifele: Combining with McDavid and Drouin to complete the team’s top line, Scheifele will bring size and power to fill out the line. Touted by teammates as a natural leader, look for him to keep teams honest and lead by example on the ice. Fun fact: Scheifele’s ultra-high exertion skating style gave him a reputation for falling down quite a bit during shifts. Because of this, Winnipeg Jets fans gave him the nickname “Bambi.”
Jack Eichel: Drafted second overall behind Connor McDavid he is currently occupying the role of second line center for the team. He is more of a shooter than many of the other centers on the team so look for him to pull the trigger more often. Especially while playing alongside a puck magician like Gaudreau.
Johnny Gaudreau: Affectionately referred to as “Johnny Hockey,” he is coming off the best offensive season of anyone on the team. While he is the smallest player to suit up for the group, expect him to have one of the biggest impacts. Gaudreau is known for his gift at driving the play on zone entry. Against the stiffest defensive competition, look for him to be the guy to generate offense.
Dylan Larkin: Coming off an eye opening rookie season with Detroit, Larkin slowed down a bit as the season wore on. Larkin will be one of the fastest players on the tournament, and is currently slotted into the third line. If all goes well, the MacKinnon-Nugent-Hopkins-Larkin line may be like a more talented version of the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line that drove the Penguins to this year’s Stanley cup.
Auston Matthews: probably the most difficult player on the roster to project. Matthews is going to play in this tournament before he ever suits up for an NHL game. He is expected to have all the tools of a franchise first line center, but this will be a huge jump in competition. If he makes a big impact, it will be an added bonus for the team.
J.T. Miller: Miller is coming off the best season of his NHL career. He is expected to play alongside Couturier on the team’s defensive line. With 20 goals last season, he can put the puck in the net, but look for his offensive production to be more on the opportunistic side.
Brandon Saad: More than anything else, Saad brings great experience to the team. That’s no slight to his strong offensive ability, but Saad has Stanley Cup and World Junior Championship victories under his belt. As the oldest member of the squad, expect to him to provide a mature presence regardless of the situation. He is also the third member of the team’s all American second line.
Vincent Trocheck: Raise your hand if you knew Trocheck was American? Ok well now that we have that settled, he is from Pittsburgh. He also, stop if you have heard this before, brings blazing speed to the team. At this point, it would be worth the price of admission just to see Team NA line up for a fastest skater competition. Trochek is coming off a strong campaign with the Panthers and is currently rotating in the lineup with Auston Matthews.
Aaron Ekblad: If you sent scientists into a lab to create the ideal defenseman, he would come out looking like this guy. Ekblad has size, speed, and a heavy shot. Ekblad is actually the youngest member of the D corps, but expect him to log major minutes for the team.
Ryan Murray: What can you say about Murray, well not much. In Dmen though, that isn’t a bad thing. Expect Murray to provide a solid defensive partner to whoever he is paired with. Right now that looks to be his teammate from Columbus Seth Jones.
Colton Parayko: Just completed his first NHL season and wowed with his mature play. A right hand shot with enormous size, he is being partnered with the feisty Morgan Reilly at the moment. Don’t expect a ton of offensive production from him, but he will bring some grown man strength to the back end.
Morgan Rielly: Already a veteran of three NHL seasons, Reilly brings a hard-nosed but talented presence to the blue line. Look for him to be paired with genetic freak Ekblad to start the tournament.
Shayne Gostisbehere: The only player with his own emoji following, the ghost bear is a major weapon for team North America. Perhaps the most offensively gifted of the blue liners, Gostibehere should drive the transitions and help the team use its speed against opposing groups. He also seems to have a supernatural ability to just make good things happen for his team.
Seth Jones: A big bodied right hand shot, Jones has tremendous talent. He began his career in Nashville where he apprenticed alongside fellow world cup Dmen Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. Jones should be a constant presence on the back end and wont be overwhelmed against top competition.
Jacob Trouba: Trouba will bring a physical presence to the blue line. Perhaps the biggest hitter on the team, he will need to make sure he plays a consistent game to log major minutes. Expect him mostly paired with Gotisbehere and used in more opportunistic situations.
Matt Murray: Goaltending is probably the biggest question mark for Team North America. They do have the good fortune of having the Stanley Cup winning puck-stopper just fall into their laps though. Murray proved he can thrive in a high pressure situation, but his overall lack of experience makes him a wildcard.
John Gibson: Looking at the initial roster, Gibson would be expected to be the top choice as starter (who knew Murray would go on to be such a dream destroying presence after the selections were made? No one). Gibson has the most NHL experience and has very good stats as an starter for the Anaheim Ducks. Gibson is also one of the youngest players to ever record a shutout in his NHL debut. Expect Murray to get the initial nod, but don’t be surprised if Gibson logs more minutes.
Connor Hellebuyck: A top NHL prospect, he has limited playing experience at the highest level. He has shown his previous ability to thrive under pressure in an excellent, but brief, NCAA career. It is hard to imagine he will see a start if things are going well.
The biggest asset this group has is speed, and do they have a lot of it. There are a lot of players on here that would compete for the title of fastest skater in the NHL so the goal is going to be playing fast. The forwards are clearly the strength of the team, matching up well against anyone other than Canada. The D corps are actually much better than people would guess with more experience than would be expected at first glance. They should be able to transition and skate with anyone even though they will be a good bit behind the groups assembled by Canada and Sweden.
The Goaltending will be a make or break part for the group. If they get solid performances from this group, they should be able to score some goals. Matt Murray may need to be a concerned about how much of his magic powers he wants to use up before he wins a starting NHL gig though.
The boys from North America drew a favorable seed. Slotted into group B, they will play the initial round robin against Finland, Russia, and Sweden. Finland has a history of outperforming expectations, but this is a winnable matchup. Russia has a number of question marks on the back end, and the team speed could really shine against that group. Sweden has a defense that should be able to lockdown anyone on the planet (seriously that group isn’t even fair), but this will be the final matchup, so Sweden may also be guaranteed a slot before the game is played. It will not be easy, but Team NA could do some damage in the tournament.