Despite all the players withdrawing, the World Cup could be highly useful for a handful of players. Who has the most to gain?
Not a good look so far, World Cup.
A tidal of wave of player withdrawals isn’t the best way to convince fans they should care about this tournament. Gone are Jamie Benn, Duncan Keith, Jeff Carter, David Krejci, Tomas Hertl, Frederik Andersen, Henrik Zetterberg, Alexander Steen, Sean Monahan, Robin Lehner, Radko Gudas and…is that all of them? I’m sure someone else has pulled out in the time it took to type these words.
Is every one of these injuries bad enough that it would keep the players out of NHL games? Doubtful. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The regular season obviously takes priority over the World Cup. Still, it doesn’t help the tournament shake off the naysayers’ claims that it’s a mere cash grab, a gimmick and not all that important.
The tournament, though, isn’t a total waste. Not by a long shot. It will still feature most of the world’s best players. And, for certain participants, it offers a lot to gain. Youngsters can cut their teeth against elite NHL competition. Goalies in position battles on their NHL teams can assert their claims to the thrones. And those unsigned or on the trading block can demonstrate their value.
Here are five players with a lot to gain by playing – and playing well – in the World Cup tournament.
Matt Murray, North America
Winning the Stanley Cup and tying an NHL rookie record with 15 playoff wins may not have even solidified the starting role in the Pittsburgh Penguins crease for Matt Murray. General manager Jim Rutherford did not strike a Marc-Andre Fleury trade over the summer and now has the enviable problem of choosing between the Stanley Cup hero and the franchise’s all-time wins leader. A timeshare is the most likely result, at least for the start of the season.
But what if Murray stands on his head at the World Cup? He’s North America’s No. 1 goalie to start the tourney, as GM Peter Chiarelli conceded. A dominant performance in a deadly group draw against Sweden, Russia and Finland would make Murray’s relatively small sample size stand out more – and may force the Penguins’ hand in choosing a starter for 2016-17.
Patrik Laine, Finland
Laine, the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, doesn’t need the World Cup to prove his immediate worth to the Winnipeg Jets, but it certainly helps. He dominated at the 2016 world juniors, earned playoff MVP honors playing pro with Tappara of the Finnish league and impressed against men at the 2016 World Championship. If Laine can light up the scoresheet against the best of the best at the World Cup, Jets coach Paul Maurice will have an awfully hard time keeping Laine out of Winnipeg’s top-six forward group. Maurice has already indicated Laine will get a major opportunity, so a dominant tourney could cement that for Laine.
Keep in mind it isn’t a certainty Laine makes the Jets. Since he never played major junior, he’s AHL eligible at 18, unlike Jets teammate Nikolaj Ehlers, whose only option two years ago was returning to QMJHL Halifax. Of course I expect Laine to make the team, but a good World Cup would enhance his already-strong odds.
Steven Stamkos, Canada
‘Stammer’ no longer has to worry about unrestricted free agency. He’s signed for eight seasons with the Stanley Cup-contending Tampa Bay Lightning. The only real hurdle for him to climb is health. He returned from a blood clot scare in time to play just 11 minutes in one playoff game, the deciding Eastern Conference final tilt with Pittsburgh. Now’s his chance to show he’s really healthy, that the clots are behind him, that he can return to 40- or even 50-goal heights. Extra reps alongside elite teammates at the World Cup can help him get his legs sooner in game situations.
And a major Stamkos renaissance isn’t out of the question. It may feel like his Rocket Richard Trophy days are over after 43- and 36-goal campaigns, but he’s only 26. Alex Ovechkin’s prime looked finished in 2010-11 and 2011-12 after he slipped into the 30-goal range two straight years. His age after that stretch: 26. He’s since won four straight goal-scoring crowns.
Thomas Greiss or Jaroslav Halak, Europe
Denmark’s Andersen goes down and, once again, Germany’s Greiss and Slovakia’s Halak get locked in a battle for playing time, just as they are in the New York Islanders crease. Greiss has the edge in terms of recent health and performance, as he took over for injured Halak last winter and backstopped the Isles to Round 2 of the playoffs. Halak has the edge in terms of experience and, uh, money. He carries a $4.5-million cap hit to Greiss’ $1.5 million. The Brooklyn gig feels like a dead heat. How about Isles coach Jack Capuano uses the World Cup as a tiebreaker? Whoever plays more and/or better for Team Europe gets to start the regular season opener.
Jacob Trouba, North America
Still no contract for Trouba, a restricted free agent. The big blueliner and the Jets are reportedly still far apart on money and term and Trouba’s usage. If Trouba wants a longer, more lucrative deal, a big World Cup would help. Especially if he can shut down Russia’s deadly forward group, which includes Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeni Malkin. Doing so would also support the theory that Trouba’s perceived regression since his rookie season is the result of playing with inferior ‘D’ partners such as Mark Stuart. If Trouba looks like a world beater and does so alongside a Morgan Rielly or a Shayne Gostisbehere, maybe that tips the scales in the Trouba camp’s talks with the Jets. Maybe it attracts a trade suitor or offer sheet, too.
But first, Trouba has to crack North America’s starting lineup. Early reports had him as the seventh defenseman.
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