Photo from Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports
After years of rumors, chatter and rising excitement, the World Cup of Hockey is finally upon us. The two-week “international” hockey tournament in Toronto, Ontario will feature six of the world’s best hockey countries and two concoctions that the NHL made up in their offices while nobody was looking. There’s no question it’s one of the more unique hockey events in recent years due to the team listings alone, but it’s certainly an interesting event to get the season started.
Each team has at least one burning question leading into the event. Whether it be injury issues, inexperience or a weak base to build on, it’s tough to truly pinpoint one true favourite because it seems like each team excels in at least one area. Let’s take a look at a question each team will look to answer by the time the tournament concludes on October 1st.
Who will be the starting goalie by the playoff round? It’s not often that a team has a problem where they have too many talented goaltenders. For Sweden, the team has struggled to find someone good enough to eventually take over for Henrik Lundqvist. For the Czech’s, you might as well just throw your hat in the ring because it’s just a gongshow.
But with Canada, the top-ranked IIHF country has the previous two Vezina Trophy winners. Crazy, right? With Carey Price and Braden Holtby, and even multi-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford up in the press box, Canada has an incredible group of goaltenders. But who’s the one to go with? Price, if healthy, should easily contend for another Vezina this season, but Holtby, the most recent winner of the prestigious trophy, has had the most recent success. Holtby’s season was one to remember, and after performing well in pre-tournament action, he could end up being the option along the way. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with either option if they stay healthy.
How much will injuries hurt the Czech’s? Let’s face it, the Czech Republic will likely be one of the first teams out of the tournament. They simply don’t have the star power to do what it takes to win, and having Jaromir Jagr saying no to joining the team before the roster was finalized couldn’t help.
What really hurt the team, however, was losing the likes of David Krejci, Tomas Hertl and Radko Gudas to injuries prior to the tournament. Losing Krejci means they’ll be without one of the best setup guys they have to choose from while losing Hertl could result in a loss of speed and offense. Gudas would have been one of their more effective defensemen, and with a lack of experience back there, losing one of their best options wasn’t what they were hoping for. The Czech’s need a good youth influx if they are to be a strong team internationally for years to come, but their time, especially with their injury list, isn’t now.
Can Europe shake off a terrible pre-tournament? Heading into the tournament, there was quite a bit of intrigue when it came to how Europe’s team would look at the tournament. The team sure had it’s talented options, but how would the mashup of players work together when most of the teams in the World Cup already had chemistry?
Well, the pre-tournament was a disaster. In their first two games against North America, the youngest team in the tournament, Europe was absolutely embarrassed, starting with a 4-0 shutout in the first game. To onlookers, it felt like Europe was a team of old, washed-up players with no motivation in the slightest. Could that actually be the case? There aren’t a lot of people cheering them on, that’s for sure, and they just don’t have the speed or skill to contend. But can they pull off a surprise victory or two and change the whole makeup of the tournament? They’ll have to face off against Canada, the United States and the Czech Republic, so good luck with that.
Can Finland’s incredible 2016 continue? First, they won the World Juniors. Then, they won the Under-18’s. Then, they got the silver medal at the World Hockey Championships. With medals at three of the biggest events of the year, it’s tough to argue that Finland is at the top of their game right now. The country has a great youth movement in recent years, and with some top-tier talent on the roster at the World Cup, they have a lot to look forward to once again.
But will they be able to cap off what has been a tremendous 2016? It will be tough, with other perennial medal candidates such as Russia, Sweden and the ever-so-exciting North America sitting in Group B. It’s easily the most balanced group, and while Finland may not have the extreme offensive depth of Russia or North America, they sure have a very well-rounded team. Whether it be because of their solid goaltending, youthful offense or experienced back end, Finland is going to be a contender for a medal to follow up their silver medal in 2004. But will they actually pull one off? That’s a tough one to answer.
Will experience hurt North America? Sure, North America is one of the most exciting teams heading into the tournament, with the likes of Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid shining throughout the lineup. They’re fast, they’re skilled and they’re one of the favourites to take home the championship.
But, of course, there are concerns about whether or not the team will falter when the going gets tough. For Canada and the United States, both teams have a good majority of players that have played in medal games at the Olympics. Same goes for Sweden, while Finland has some top young stars who have played in multiple major championship games this year alone. Their experience on the back end is lacking and even though Matt Murray and John Gibson have accomplished a lot at a young age, the team is going up against Stanley Cup and Hart Memorial champions, among other award winners. Regardless, they’ll be a major threat and should be a fun team to watch.
Can Russia’s back end hold up? Even without two of the best players in Russian hockey history, Alex Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk, Russia should have no issue finding the back of the net at the World Cup. It’s a good sign when you have Pavel Datsyuk coming into the tournament after a hot start in the KHL, and Alex Ovechkin is still one of the best players in the league, among other big names.
But no matter what event Russia participates in, their defense and goaltending are always a concern. Between the pipes, Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky have struggled in the past few seasons, declining after both being near the top of their game just years ago. And on defense, well, let’s just say it’s nothing to get too excited about. Andrei Markov is an experienced veteran on the roster, but his best years are well behind him. Dimitri Orlov could be the best bet to get a lot of ice time with Nikita Nesterov or Dimitri Kulikov. Still, the goaltending is going to get a lot of action because the defense won’t likely get the job done, so it’ll be up to the offense to take control.
Can the aging stars still have a major impact? In 2014, Sweden made the Olympic finals without Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Backstrom (for the final game). This time, they’ll have two of the three (Zetterberg had to pull out for another injury), and look even better than they did then.
But one has to wonder: how much longer can Sweden’s most experienced veterans prove to be successful at the international stage? Surely, it’ll be tough to beat out North America or Russia with their speed, but with one of the most experienced teams on the roster, with a lot of skill throughout, they may be able to negate some of the negatives. Sweden will rely on the likes of Henrik Lundqvist, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Anton Stralman, but Gabriel Landeskog, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Filip Forsberg are ready to replace the aging guard and fight for a title.
How critical will the American goaltending be? It’s tough to argue that the Americans won’t be a major threat in this tournament. Whether it be having top scoring threats like Patrick Kane and Blake Wheeler or some of the best depth around, the team should have no problem being a top four contender in a tournament with no room for failure.
While Canada has the skill and North America has the speed, the Americans have some tremendous options in net, giving them one of the most talented and balanced trios in the entire tournament. They’ll be able to contend with the best, especially with Cory Schneider and Jonathan Quick showing good progress throughout the pre-tournament. The Americans are not the best in any category, whether it be offense, defense or goaltending, but they’re good enough to stick with the best, and goaltending will be the top focus for the team.
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