Where do McDavid and Eichel slot in for Team North America? And can Auston Matthews find a spot? Watch out for this sleeper contender.
I’m going on the record right now to say I have no problem with the inclusion of Team North America in the World Cup. Would a tournament featuring nothing but actual hockey nations be better? Sure. But that doesn’t mean Team North America, comprised of players 23 and younger by Oct. 1, isn’t fascinating. This rosy-cheeked group should have a lot to prove. The NHL will want it to succeed and validate the gimmick. But, sheesh, we should rule out the notion of the kiddies being steamrolled with ease by juggernauts like Canada or Sweden. North America is stacked with elite young talents, many of them current Calder Trophy contenders, a few of which would’ve cracked their nations’ rosters if they were eligible. Not only will this team not be a pushover, it also has a chance to contend, especially since its goaltending has improved dramatically in the past year. North America will likely have the most variation, and inspire the most heated debates, among armchair GMs, so let’s get a few reminders out of the way before enraged folk rush to their keyboards: (a) Double check your ages. A guy cannot have turned 24 by Oct. 1, 2016. Jeff Skinner is not eligible. Jaden Schwartz is not eligible. (b) Only North American players are eligible for Team North America. It seems obvious, but I’ve received a lot of questions implying it ain’t. (c) North American players aged 23 and younger as of Oct. 1 are only eligible for Team North America. Aaron Ekblad cannot play for Canada, Johnny Gaudreau cannot play for USA, and so on. With that, here is the roster. Let the screaming and shouting begin.
John Gibson Count on Gibson to get the starting nod. It’s almost a given considering he was named to the Pacific Division squad for January’s NHL All-Star Game. He’s the only North American netminder 23 or younger with a regular NHL gig right now. He also has a sparkling international track record, including a 2013 world junior gold medal, a 2013 world junior MVP award and a stellar showing at the 2013 World Championship.
Connor Hellebuyck The big, confident American is more than good enough to remain in the NHL but is the victim of a logjam among Winnipeg Jets goalies. A healthy Ondrej Pavelec forced Hellebuyck back to the AHL. He’s a highly capable backup to Gibson and, like Gibson, has excelled against elite NHL competition at the worlds in the past.
Matt Murray I spoke with Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford at length about Murray last week. Rutherford made it clear Murray was NHL ready but that it was good for him to keep getting reps at the AHL level, where he has one of the best statistical resumes in league history for his age. He isn’t a household name yet, but he’s a phenom in the making and deserves the No. 3 goalie job.
On the bubble: Laurent Brossoit, Zach Fucale, Jon Gillies, Malcolm Subban
Aaron Ekblad The Florida Panthers’ standout sophomore is already good enough to seriously challenge for a spot on Team Canada’s prestigious blueline. He’ll have to settle for Clydesdale duty with North America. He’ll be their best and most important defenseman by a fair margin.
Shayne Gostisbehere Wasn’t even on the radar for North America a year ago. Now, it’s difficult to picture the team without him. His dynamic, creative puck-moving skill will be a welcome addition to the D-corps.
Dougie Hamilton Hamilton stumbled a bit after his trade to the Calgary Flames, perhaps buckling under the pressure of his fat new contract, but he’s quietly righted the ship of late. He’s big, he’s strong and he can move the puck, so he can handle whatever assignment he’s given.
Seth Jones Jones is still just tapping into his immense and versatile talent. Maybe this type of tournament, in which elite speed and skill will be on display from each team, will launch Jones to a new echelon of play. The Columbus Blue Jackets would love that. If North American coach Todd McLellan prefers to pair his lefties with his righties, it’s tough to see Jones supplanting Ekblad on the top pair. Jones could play on the second or third, though.
Colton Parayko Here’s your seventh defenseman. I gave Matt Dumba, Cody Ceci, Nathan Beaulieu and Ryan Murray long looks, but Parayko brings more brute strength to the table, and the rest of North America’s defense has enough puck-movement ability already. Goalies fight the temptation to duck when Parayko winds up his howitzer.
Morgan Rielly The Toronto Maple Leafs funnel their offense though Rielly more and more with each passing game, week, month and season. He’s an offensive weapon but defends pretty well for an average-sized rearguard, hence the comparisons to a young Brian Leetch.
Jacob Trouba Trouba has developed slower than expected but still offers useful tools for North America. Someone has to keep opposing forwards honest, and Trouba is the blunt instrument to do so. He also flashed high-end scoring ability as a rookie in 2013-14. It’s not too late for him to rediscover it.
On the bubble: Nathan Beaulieu, Cody Ceci, Mathew Dumba, Noah Hanifin, Jake McCabe, Ryan Murray, Darnell Nurse, Brett Pesce, Damon Severson, Shea Theodore
Sam Bennett Bennett was among my toughest calls. I considered Sam Reinhart for the third-line right wing job, not to mention J.T. Miller and even, gasp, Auston Matthews, even though he’s a pure center. Bennett isn’t a natural right winger but has the speed and goal-scoring acumen to make things interesting. Love the way he drives the net with aplomb. He’s a feisty customer.
Max Domi For such a young team, North America should have quite a few strong two-way forwards. Domi, however, is a guy to bring in for pure attacking duty. He’s unpredictable and silky-handed.
Jack Eichel If Matthews and Connor McDavid didn’t exist, we’d talk up Jack Eichel as the best hockey prospect since John Tavares. Eichel is that good. He’s also improving quickly. That’s why I project him to leapfrog Dylan Larkin on the North American depth chart by September.
Alex Galchenyuk North America needs some size and strength, and while Galchenyuk isn’t a giant, he’s reasonably big. He’s also capable of filling a World Cup equivalent of a bottom-six role if needed.
Johnny Gaudreau Introducing the first member of North America’s heavenly No. 1 line, blessed with blinding speed and the ability to make plays with the puck while maintaining that speed. Dangling machine ‘Johnny Hockey’ looks to be already exceeding the ceiling projected for him a couple years ago.
Jonathan Huberdeau Is Huberdeau a bit of a redundant piece with offensive dynamos Domi and Johnny Gaudreau already manning the left wing? Maybe, but in such a high-skill tournament, Huberdeau isn’t a player you leave behind.
Boone Jenner Did I leave off some more skilled players to make room for Jenner? Maybe. But this team needs some versatility. Jenner brings brute force and leadership. Plus he can score goals in bunches. He’d be better on the left wing, but North America needs him for the right side.
Dylan Larkin No way a Larkin leaves a Larkin off the team. Seriously, though, Dylan deserves it. He’s the reigning champion as hockey’s fastest skater, and his stickhandling is electric. He’s good enough to play on any line, but his two-way smarts make him a scary third-line center. Think Jordan Staal on the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins…but better. Don’t be fooled by Larkin’s spot on the depth chart, either. He’d play in all situations and earn as many minutes as any forward on the team.
Nathan MacKinnon This team is so stacked at center that MacKinnon’s wheels and sniping ability play better on the wing. Instructions: (a) place him on McDavid’s right side; (b) place paper towel on table to catch your drool.
Connor McDavid Few centers have the speed and all-around offensive game to keep up with Gaudreau and MacKinnon on the wings, and McDavid is one of them. His once-in-a-generation ability could tip the balance of the World Cup and lead to some upset wins for the North Americans.
Sean Monahan The better Gaudreau gets, the more it seems he elevates Monahan’s game, not the other way around. If Monahan doesn’t play with his Calgary linemate, he might make more sense as a checking-line center.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ‘The Nuge’ earns 13th-forward duty. If needed, he could center any line, even one of the bottom two, as he’s better defensively than he gets credit for despite his smallish frame.
Brandon Saad He has decent size, he’s a great skater, and he’s experienced in meaningful games as a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks.
On the bubble: Sean Couturier, Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Duclair, Robby Fabbri, Bo Horvat, Curtis Lazar, Auston Matthews, Jared McCann, J.T. Miller, Sam Reinhart, Mark Scheifele, Dylan Strome, Ryan Strome, Vincent Trocheck, Jake Virtanen, Tom Wilson
OTHER WORLD CUP ROSTER PROJECTIONS Feb. 17: Team Finland
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-finland/ Feb. 18: Team Sweden
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-sweden/ Feb. 22: Russia
Matt Larkin is an associate 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