- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2016

In the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, Team Canada is the sure favorite.

With unmatched foward depth (Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews and Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux play on the third and fourth line, respectively) accompanied by the consensus top goaltender in the world in Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, anything short of a championship would be viewed as a complete failure.

But, not so fast. With seven other teams in the tournament, including two ragtag teams in Team North America (comprised of Canadians and Americans under the age of 23) and Team Europe (comprised of Europeans not from Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic or Finland), there are certainly other contenders that could swipe the crown away from Canada.

Here are three teams that have a realistic opportunity to take it all.

Sweden



The pre-tournament exhibition games have been pretty rough for Sweden. The 2014 Sochi Olympic silver medalists split a two-game series against Finland before dropping an ugly 6-2 loss to Team Europe.

“We need to just regroup here,” Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom said following the Team Europe loss. “We need to make sure we reset here and go from zero. We got to step it up a notch.”

But, on paper, Backstrom and his fellow Swedes are one of the most technically sound teams in the tournament.

In the backend, New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will be the goaltender reponsible for the Swedes, and that’s a reliable player to have. According to Corsica, Lundqvist’s .937 save percentage at even strength, was the greatest save percentage among goaltenders with at least 45 games played last year. On top of that, Lundqvist’s .824 save percentage on high-danger shot attempts — shots taken directly in front of the goalmouth and in the slot — was good for fifth in the NHL.

But teams are going to have a difficult time getting to the high danger areas against Sweden. Sweden boasts one of the deepest blue line groups in the entire tournament. Led by Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Swedes have an incredible mix of offensive skill and defensive technique. Including elite blueliners Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, Sweden’s average defenseman scored 45 points last season.

But that depth extends to their forward grouping as well. With Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, Backstrom and Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, the Swedes are riddled with playmakers on virtually every line. Pittsburgh Penguins winger Carl Hagelin will provide the speed in the bottom six, while Patrik Berglund of the St. Louis Blues and Marcus Kruger of the Chicago Blackhawks will provide Sweden with solid two-way play.

Team USA

In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Team USA underwhelmed, failing to medal as they lost a disappointing bronze medal match against Finland 5-0.

But this team returns with an identity. Yes, they have playmakers and scorers in Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, who led the NHL last season with 106 points, San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski and Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty, but what the United States has that few teams can match is size and grit.

That’s not normally associated with winning in hockey, as possession of the puck tends to reign over wins. But, in a short tournament like the World Cup of Hockey, it may prove to be a decent strategy. If Team USA is able to muscle the opposition off the puck and get under the skin of their opponents with a physical game, they could end up bullying their way through the tournament.

With that mix evident in both the forwards and the defensemen, as well as the best goaltending group in the tournament, the United States does not have a clear weakness to their game.

“I think we got a great team,” Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “I think we got all of the bases covered. It’s just up to us.”

Kane, Pavelski and maybe even Blake Wheeler will power the way offensively for the United States. Pavelski finished his last season with 38 goals, the fifth-most in the NHL last season and trailing USA leader Kane by seven goals. Wheeler, a winger from the Winnipeg Jets, is kind of an under the radar-type player, but the 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward finished 8th in the NHL in scoring.

Wheeler isn’t the only one with size up front or plays with a bit of bite to his game. Boston Bruin David Backes, Anaheim Duck Ryan Kesler and Columbus Blue Jacket Brandon Dubinsky all play with a bit of sandpaper in their game.

But the key factor is Dustin Byfuglien, perhaps the most physically-imposing player in the NHL and stands at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. Byfuglien has been utilized both as a forward and a defenseman for Team USA, and with a booming shot, he’ll be counted on during power play opportunities. He drastically changes the dynamic of the unit he’s assigned to. Will he be a forward or a defenseman for Team USA?

USA hosts a respectable blue line, but expect Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers and Carlson to eat up the majority of the minutes. Carlson will likely be relied on as the quarterback of the power play.

But the true strength of Team USA is the goaltending unit. USA head coach John Tortorella has already chosen Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick as his primary man, but it won’t be a problem if either one of Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop or New Jersey Devil Cory Schneider suit up. Both Bishop and Schneider finished with greater save percentages than Quick this past season.

Team North America

Team North America is either going to be a great success or bomb miserably.

With five of the last six first-overall picks on the roster and a slew of young playmakers, Team North America can simply out-dazzle any team they face. What they lack for in experience, they make up for with speed.

“I think everyone has kind of had us pegged as the underdogs, and we’ll happily take that,” Edmonton Oiler center Connor McDavid said. “But, I think we are going to surprise some teams. We got a lot of speed and skill, and hopefully we can put something special together here.”

McDavid will be the premier player on North America. Limited to just 45 games last season after breaking his collarbone, McDavid was one of just four players to average more than a point per game (Kane, Pittsburgh Penguin and Team Canada center Sidney Crosby and Dallas Star Jamie Benn were the others). McDavid has otherworldly speed, and a unique blend of hand-eye coordination.

The 2016 first-overall pick, Toronto Maple Leaf Auston Matthews, brings a bit of size and skill up front. But between Tampa Bay Lighting winger Jonathan Drouin, Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, Red Wing winger Dylan Larkin and Calgary Flame winger Johnny Gaudreau, the name of the game will be playmaking and pace.

(Larkin literally broke the record at the All Star Game as the fastest skater in the NHL).

The blue line consists of multiple two-way players that specialize in certain factors. Toronto Maple Leaf Morgan Reilly is the leader of the group. Florida Panther Aaron Ekblad will eat up a lot of minutes. Philadelphia Flyer Shayne Gostisbehere will provide a bit of offense and both Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues will provide a bit of physicality and size.

The main question mark belongs to the goaltending group. Team North America will lean on Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Murray, who powered his team to a Stanley Cup. Murray only has 33 total games of NHL experience. But 21 of those came during high pressure Stanley Cup playoff situations.

Murray is used to playing behind a Penguins team that possessed the puck and played primarily in the offensive zone. If North America gets pinned in their own end, and Murray gets peppered with shots, can the young goaltender hold on?

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