Team North America will be able to skate and score, but the biggest challenge for the 23-and-under squad will be playing a team game. That challenged was addressed with the first 16 players named to the squad.
Lest anyone think that Team North America will enter the World Cup of Hockey as a cute and cuddly little novelty, Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman have news for you. They are going into this event with the sole goal of winning it and their first 16 selections made that statement in dark black and indelible ink.
Had they wanted the 23-and-under team to live up to its novelty status, it would have loaded it with top-heavy offensive talent that would have been content to get into track meets with its opponents and try to win – but probably lose – every game by scores of 7-6. Instead, they made a bold statement, building a team with a distinct sense of purpose and balancing talent with experience and an ability to play defense. They’ll be able to skate. They’ll be able to score. What they need is a team concept.
Chiarelli was part of the brain trust that put together Canada’s gold medal winner in Sochi and it was that experience that convinced him he needed a well-rounded roster rather than a group of all-stars. “You need the most discipline to play the neutral zone forecheck,” Chiarelli said. “That’s the most boring thing for a kid, especially a young player. It is. They don’t want anything to do with the neutral zone forecheck.”
So instead of using his first wave of picks to choose his own player in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or young offensive dynamos such as Anthony Duclair or Max Domi, or an emerging talent such as Alex Galchenyuk or Mark Scheifele, he named Sean Couturier and J.T. Miller to the roster. Instead of a more dynamic defenseman such as Dougie Hamilton or Shayne Gostisbehere, they went with Ryan Murray and Seth Jones, whose familiarity in Columbus might lead to a more stable environment.
And if John Gibson can somehow lead the Anaheim Ducks on a long and productive playoff run, the youngsters might just have a chance to make some waves in this tournament. “We’ve got to win two of the three in the round-robin and then we’re into a best-of-three and it’s anybody’s series after that,” Chiarelli said. “It’s important that our goaltending is there because the margins are going to be very thin. You have to make three or four plays at this level to win a game and you have to prevent three or four plays and we’re capable of doing that. We’re capable of doing it with the defense, we’re capable of doing it with the forwards on both sides of the puck and, yeah, we can win.”
Neither Chiarelli nor Bowman left any stone unturned, using Scotty Bowman as a de facto advisor on players and giving coach Todd McLellan a lot of input. They also leaned heavily on analytics in looking at potential players, leaning toward players who are facing a higher level of competition at the NHL level and those who are starting in the offensive zone less often. (Auston Matthews, who is projected to be the No. 1 overall choice in the draft, faces an “uphill battle,” in Chiarelli’s words for that very reason.) “There are candidates who have played sheltered minutes,” Chiarelli said. “No disrespect to those candidates, but the guys who are playing heavier minutes are the guys who are more under consideration.”
And that was part of the reason why Chiarelli faced the same agonizing decision Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman faced when he was putting together the 2014 Canadian Olympic team. Yzerman originally left Martin St-Louis off the roster and it was a large factor in him having to trade St-Louis because of the rift it created. But like Yzerman, Chiarelli had to listen to his coaching staff and other advisors and put aside his allegiances as GM of the Oilers. Couturier and Nugent-Hopkins are the only candidates who have played 300 NHL games.
“I think his season has been not as good as we’ve all expected,” Chiarelli said, “but I’m a big fan of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and I want a consensus amongst our group and I told Ryan, ‘Go out and play and you’ll play your way on if you play the way your capable of playing.’ He was disappointed but we talked about his game and I talked about where his game should be with this group. I know for a fact that in Sochi, Patrice Bergeron came within a hair of not making that team and he was one of their most valuable players.”
In the end, there are probably seven players on the North American roster that would either be shoo-ins or serious candidates for the Canadian and U.S. teams if not for the age restriction – Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel, Brandon Saad, Dylan Larkin and Jones for USA and Connor McDavid and Aaron Ekblad for Canada. That’s a third of the roster that would belong in this tournament regardless of age. If North America can get the goaltending it needs, it might just leave tournament organizers scrambling to find an appropriate anthem.
“Dean (U.S. GM Lombardi) and Doug (Canadian GM Armstrong) are jealous,” Chiarelli said.