Joe Thornton between Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly looked like an afterthought compared to Canada’s star trios. Instead, it’s been the tourney’s breakout line.
TORONTO – Canada has the most star-studded team at the World Cup, bar none. But sometimes, at a tournament in which every team ices some of the game’s greatest players, it’s depth that really kills. And a trio that looked like an afterthought relative to the Canucks’ other lines entering the event took over in Tuesday night’s 4-2 round-robin victory over the Americans.
Matt Duchene played for Canada in Sochi, so he always had a decent chance to crack Canada’s roster. He had an inconsistent 2015-16 on a bad Colorado Avalanche team, however, drawing the ire of now-departed head coach Patrick Roy, and made the World Cup roster only when Canada announced its final seven members in late May.
Joe Thornton’s days as an elite Canada contributor seemed over when he failed to make the 2014 Sochi squad. He played with the 2010 Vancouver gold-medal outfit but, as he was well into his mid-30s and not particularly fleet of foot four years later, it seemed his game wasn’t as suited to international affairs anymore. Then, coming off his best NHL campaign in six years, which culminated in a top-four finish in the scoring race and Stanley Cup final berth, ‘Jumbo’ Joe played his way back into the conversation. It helped that the World Cup, like the Vancouver Winter Games, would be played on an NHL-sized rink, too. And Thornton earned his spot among the final seven selections. He’s an elite two-way player, dominant in possession, perhaps more appreciated today than he was a couple seasons back now that analytics has gone almost mainstream.
Lastly, there was the final edition to Team Canada, Mr. Ryan O’Reilly, brought in as an injury replacement for Tyler Seguin. O’Reilly doesn’t have the flashy skill or offensive ceiling typically associated with Canada in best-on-best tournaments, but he’s an underrated scorer who can play in any situation on any line.
Mike Babcock put this trio together to form what amounts to Canada’s fourth line. That would easily be a No. 1 unit on any NHL team, but, hey, compared to Marchand-Crosby-Bergeron, Tavares-Getzlaf-Stamkos and Couture-Toews-Perry, it’s pretty clear which line was No. 4 on the depth chart.
And yet, the ‘Other Guy’ unit, comprised of three players who weren’t locks to play in this tournament at all, has been a crucial contributor through two games.
“We’re all expected to do big things when we’re on the ice,” Thornton said after Tuesday’s win. “Every line expects to do big things when they’re on the ice. It’s no shock when we do.”
Duchene opened Canada’s scoring at 5:51 of the first period Tuesday night and scored Canada’s third goal with a beautiful move in tight to undress USA goalie Jonathan Quick, open his five hole and tuck the puck through it. Duchene, Thornton and O’Reilly only played 11:05, 11:37 and 12:43 apiece but made their ice time count. They also took the pressure off the Crosby unit, which didn’t have to play massive minutes. Crosby played 15:31 after playing 13:04 against the Czechs on Saturday. Both those games were pretty much clinched after two periods, meaning Babcock could preserve his star. And, Tuesday, it was largely because of what the fourth line accomplished. Babcock was especially happy with Duchene’s ability to bail the team out of trouble.
“Dutchy could just flat out skate tonight,” Babcock said. “I probably should’ve played him more. We were 29 percent after two periods in the faceoff circle, so we spent a lot of time chasing. But a guy like ‘Dutchy’ can really skate. That’s why we have him in there, because of his good speed, and he answered the bell tonight.”
The World Cup provided an easy enough reunion for Duchene and O’Reilly, teammates in Denver for six seasons before O’Reilly got traded to Buffalo at the 2015 draft. And Duchene was determined to be more driver than passenger in his second tournament with Babcock as his coach. Duchene told reporters after Tuesday’s game he felt he was actually playing to win the World Cup this time, whereas in Sochi he was playing simply not to lose.
But Thornton, a masterful passer, creator and protector of the puck, is the catalyst. He fed Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the bank-shot that led to Duchene’s first goal, and nothing Thornton does seems to surprise his linemates when asked to describe why he’s is so impactful.
“That’s easy: that’s Joe Thornton, right?” O’Reilly said. “I grew up watching him, and he was one of my favorite players, the way he creates. He’s just so intelligent out there. The way he moves, the way he communicates, just the little details make such a big difference, create so much space. It’s easy for ‘Dutchy’ and myself to move and find the areas and possess the puck with him. And going forward we have to provide that puck possession and play the right away every shift.”
And that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the World Cup field: a group of superstars that also manages to bring a lunchpail mentality to every game, roll four lines like a real hockey team and do everything fundamentally right. That’s why no team has proven remotely able to hang with the tournament favorites thus far.
“Any given night, we’re going to have one line step up, or even two lines,” Duchene said. “It was a great night for our line, and it will be somebody else’s turn next game. We have four huge weapons in terms of lines, and we showed it tonight.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin