The 23-and-under squad might be good enough to win the Stanley Cup right now, if there was enough ice time to go around for all its stars.
Thank you, a million times thank you, Slovakia, for allowing your national team program and development model to fall into utter disrepair. Switzerland, hey, what can we say? You looked for a while there like you were going to challenge on the world stage, then stagnated. Mighty big of you. And Germany, keep doing what you’re not doing.
Because if the organizers of the World Cup of Hockey had been able to find more than six countries that can play this game at a world class level, it would not have been forced to come up with the gimmicks known as Team North America and Team Europe. While you’re sitting back reading this blog, consider the following. Should the North Americans beat Russia and Team Europe take care of the Czech Republic on Monday, the tournament novelties will be responsible for sending the first two teams home from the World Cup.
Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jim Devellano, who has been around the game for more than 50 years, said between periods of North America’s 4-1 dismantling of Finland Sunday night that the 23-and-under squad would win the Stanley Cup within two years and is better than 20 teams in the NHL right now.
He might want to rethink that statement. This team might be good enough to win the Stanley Cup in 2016-17. They certainly looked like champions against Finland, a team that has been producing its own prodigious young talent of late. But this wasn’t even close. Team North America, led by the skill of Connor McDavid, the elan of Auston Matthews, the very, very sick mitts of Johnny Gaudreau, and an instant chemistry, tore Finland to shreds.
They fired 43 pucks at the Finns, with Matthews and Dylan Larkin leading the way with five each. Every one of the skaters who dressed had at least one shot. They hit posts and had a goal taken away and didn’t allow it to bother them one bit. And they managed to do something almost no hockey country has been able to do lately. They made Finland quit.
“We did some really good stuff,” said McDavid, who assisted on the first goal of the game. “We generated chances and we gave up almost nothing.”
North American coach Todd McLellan praised his team’s play away from the puck in the game, because that’s an area of the game where the kids were supposed to be deficient. Only one problem. We have no idea because they spent almost the entire game with the puck on their sticks. Perhaps the most telling stat of the game was that Team North America blocked just four shots. Not because they weren’t selfless or lacked courage. It was because they had the puck so much. The kids killed the Finns in the Corsi rating by a margin of 77-40.
“Yeah, it’s great to have the puck,” Gaudreau understated. “We want to keep the puck for most of the game. We don’t want to play in the defensive zone. But when we are back there, our ‘D’ does a great job and (goalie Matt) Murray does a great job back there in net, too. When we’re in our zone, we do a great job there and we get the puck up to our forwards and we play in the offensive zone as soon as possible.”
Gaudreau, who happens to be a human highlight film, to the surprise of nobody provided the highlight of the night on the second goal. Taking advantage of another Finnish turnover, defenseman Colton Parayko shot the puck on net. Gaudreau jumped in the air and tipped the puck between his legs past Pekka Rinne.
“You work on little things after practice, whether it’s tips or screening the goalie or getting shots on net,” Gaudreau said. “And they’re little things, but they help you win games.”
What has probably been the most astonishing about this group is how poised it is for its age. The skill level and speed are breathtaking, but there seems to be a steely resolve in this group that betrays the dates on their birth certificates. McLellan pointed out that it has a lot to do with the fact that when it comes to playing in pivotal games, these kids have already been groomed for the big stage in under-17, under-18 and World Junior Championship tournaments. So they’re not fazed by any of this stuff.
As for winning the Stanley Cup within two years? Well, McLellan has a lot of respect for Devellano, his old boss with the Red Wings. And as fun as it is to coach this group for a short tournament, he’s not too sure it would work over the long haul.
“It would be awfully hard to keep this group together,” McLellan said. “If we tried to run 82 games with these guys, we’d probably have a few trade requests, whether it’s the agent or the player himself. There’s just not enough minutes to go around, and they like to go. I looked at Connor’s minutes, whatever he had, 14-something (14:44) – 14-something would be a really bad night in Edmonton.”
But it was a really, really good night in Toronto. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.