(photo source: Twitter)
Some may not want to admit it, but the top team (in terms of interest) at the World Cup of Hockey is Team North America. Armed with a bunch of kids who only recently were playing video games until 2am in someone’s basement on New Year’s Eve, these young hockey players are fast and furious. Here are five things (plus a little more) we can all look forward to from the young guns.
The tournament kicks off later this week:
- Wednesday, September 14—Team Czech Republic vs. Team North America – CONSOL Energy Center; Pittsburgh. 3:30 p.m. ET – ESPN3, SN, SN1, TVA Sports.
- Sunday, September 18—Team North America vs. Team Finland, 8 p.m., ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports.
- Monday, September 19—Team Russia vs. Team North America, 8 p.m., ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports.
- Wednesday, September 21—Team North America vs. Team Sweden, 3 p.m., ESPN, SN, TVA Sports.
- Playoffs begin Saturday, September 24.
1. How fast are they?
— Team North America (@TeamNA_WCH) September 9, 2016
We know Connor McDavid is a bullet, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to have an extra step this summer. And those are just the Oilers! Johnny Gaudreau is fast as lightning and can stick-handle in a phone booth.
Team North America has ridiculous quality and depth up front, to the point where a player like Nathan MacKinnon might have been overlooked—until the games began, leading up to the tournament. The Colorado Avalanche forwards has been a revelation on this roster, combining power, speed and skill to impact seemingly every shift.
Jonathan Drouin is still an emerging player but he adds to the track meet up front and young Auston Matthews is fast, quick and aggressive in all zones. In fact, you would be hard pressed to name a slow forward among these North American kids. Mark Scheifele’s early scouting reports listed it as an average tool, but he has long since left that criticism behind and emerged as a complete player.
I believe there is a real chance we look back on this forward group four years from now and talk about its awesome impact on the game. Honestly, there isn’t a weak link here, and they lack only the experience that will come in flying sorties during NHL games this winter. It is an awesome group.
2. We want 10!
— Team North America (@TeamNA_WCH) September 12, 2016
As I watch this ridiculous group of talent skate circles around Team Europe (perhaps they should call them Team Old Europe), it occurred to me that scoring 10 goals in a game is possible.
Connor McDavid: “We were up 5-1 after the first period and we lost some of our
focus. We tried to make that one extra
pass and we turned it over.” Source
Team NA scored four and then seven goals in the first two games against Europe, and as Mr. McDavid says it did appear that the team lost the script and began soloing. That allowed the veteran European team back in the game—suggesting at least a chance we could see a high-scoring game at both ends of the ice.
I am struck by the fact that many younger fans who didn’t get to see the 1980s offense may see this North America team as something new and exciting. As an older fan, it feels like 1985 all over again, and is a refreshing reminder about the game we left behind when the goalie equipment increased in size and the coaching became so concise.
Enjoy it, ladies and men. Once NHL camps retrieve these young men, it will return to hard nose the highway hockey across the continent.
3. Will they have to play Team USA?
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) September 11, 2016
Team North America’s style can best be described as ‘catch us if you can’ and clearly the answer from Europe is in (or at least was in during the pre-tournament). Team USA, who are in the other pool, appear to have adopted the mantra ‘no one gets out of here alive’ and that could impact the younger set.
Intimidation is part of the game, but the observer can watch a confrontation between two veterans—say, Shea Weber and Ryan Kesler—and view it as somewhat even. However, a player like Auston Matthews—listed at 6.02, 196—has no NHL experience and could be susceptible to the ‘Torts aggressive’ style of Team USA.
We can talk about hockey players not being intimidated, but that kind of style can put a team—even a veteran one, like Team Canada—off its game and create long periods of ineffective play. If the Americans choose to play the game at the edge and beyond, the speed demon North America team may not have an answer.
One area the club could make Team USA pay? The power play. If the Americans end up in trouble due to an ineffective opposition power play, that can change the game plan in a heartbeat.
4. Can Ekblad play 50 minutes?
— Team North America (@TeamNA_WCH) September 11, 2016
In watching the early action in the lead-up to the tournament, I was struck by how mature Aaron Ekblad looked in the games. A bigger man who is mobile and owns a complete (if not fully developed) skill set, I think Jason Gregor put it very well in a recent article:
Gregor: The more I watch Aaron Ekblad the more I believe he will be the best
D-man in the NHL in a few years. He is so smooth. He has an excellent
shot and he’s physical when he needs to be. He doesn’t turn 21 until
February. He’s becoming one of my new favourite players to watch. He
will make Florida competitive for many years. Source
Team North America has some outstanding young talent on defense, but all are works in progress or not yet established at last year’s levels:
- Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
- Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers
- Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
- Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets
- Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues
- Morgan Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs
- Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets
These are terrific talents who are not yet the sum of their parts. I think coach Todd McLellan is going to rely heavily on Ekblad (and possibly Ryan Murray) in the days to come. Colton Parayko also caught my eye during the pre-tournament.
5. How High Can They Fly?
— Team North America (@TeamNA_WCH) September 9, 2016
I confess: When this entire project started, I pointed at Team North America as being an obvious weak link. Lack of man strength, inexperience, lack of defensive and goalie depth, I had my arguments all in a row.
As we get closer to the event, I find this team the most interesting and have started to believe they could surprise. Consider Scott Cullen of TSN on the subject:
Ranked No. 3: It may very well be aggressive to place the Under-23 squad this high in
the rankings, but the talent is here and they have elite skill players. The notion that these
kids aren’t going to be able to compete against the best may run into
problems when these brilliant young players pick up the pace. Source
I see it in a similar way, although it took me forever to come around to this line of thinking. When we talk about this team of youngsters, the first reaction is to say wait until a bigger, more mature team gets them one-on-one in a physical battle. The counter to that is they are going to have to catch them first, and that may be the greatest challenge of the entire tournament.