The World Cup may not mean the world to established superstars, but it can mean everything to rookie hopefuls, unsigned free agents and breakout youngsters.
Write the World Cup off as inferior to the Olympics if you want to. Laugh it up at the gimmick teams like North America and Europe. Scoff at the players pulling out with injuries. But don’t call this tournament meaningless. It carries plenty of weight, especially to certain types of players. The obscure guys have a lot to gain.
Dennis Seidenberg looked more hitman that hockey player at World Cup Media Day Thursday, with a shaved head, perfectly imperfect facial growth and chiseled physique. He practically just walked off the set of The Transporter. And that should be encouraging news to NHL teams looking for a veteran depth defenseman. Seidenberg, 35, was bought out by the Boston Bruins this summer. He battled major knee injuries and a herniated disc in his back, all of which required surgeries, in recent seasons, so Boston decided he wasn’t worth keeping around two more years. Now, representing Germany on Team Europe, he has a chance to show he still has plenty of useful, gritty hockey left in him. He says he’s drawn interest from multiple teams already, but that they want to wait and see how their rookie camps play out and what holes they may have on their depth charts.
“I’ve played in the league a while now, so teams know what I can do and can’t do, but nevertheless, they want to see what shape I’m in, how I look in this tournament against a good level of players,” he said. “You could say it’s an audition. But at the end of the day I just have to play my game and not worry about anything else.”
It’s not just veteran free agents looking to use the World Cup as a springboard. A cluster of international players hope to crack their NHL teams. Dallas Stars prospect Esa Lindell, Toronto Maple Leafs hopeful Nikita Zaitsev and Chicago Blackhawks import Michal Kempny made the bluelines of Team Finland, Russia and Czech Republic, respectively, so they have a lot to play for on the big stage.
It seems Lindell, 22, has the best shot of that trio. Stars GM Jim Nill told me last month Lindell has as good a chance as anyone from the young group including Jamie Oleksiak, Julius Honka and Patrik Nemeth to make the team. It appears Stephen Johns has already done so, and Lindell is a logical choice to join him. He brings great size at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds and has already excelled as an offensive defenseman at the AHL level. He got a four-game taste of the NHL last year and singled out Swede Johnny Oduya as a Stars teammate who really taught him a lot, especially about defensive zone coverage. Lindell says his goal is to make Dallas’ top six this year. You’d think he’d profile as Finland’s No. 7 defenseman at the World Cup based on age and relative inexperience, but this is one young D-corps. At 25, Sami Vatanen is the team’s second-oldest D-man. So Lindell has a real shot to make a meaningful splash.
“I’ll try to play the same game as in the AHL, but of course now I can see how good I can be playing against the best,” Lindell said Thursday. “If I play well here, it’ll give me confidence to play in the NHL, too.”
Kempny and Zaitsev are much tougher to forecast. Kempny is painfully shy about his English despite speaking it better than he realizes. But he acknowledges a good tourney should up his odds of making the Blackhawks this fall. As for Zaitsev? He’s a unique character coming over from the KHL, where he earned the praise of ex-NHLers like Ryan Whitney. Zaitsev seems almost irritated with the idea of hype and just wants to get playing. He prefers to focus solely on Team Russia and avoid distraction. He hasn’t mentally moved onto the idea of playing for the Leafs yet, though he says Nikita Soshnikov, who arrived in Toronto last year, said to expect an instant life change the moment he debuts with the team on the ice. People will start recognizing him on the street, Soshnikov told him.
“I’m really excited, of course,” he said, with a what-do-you-expect-me-to say aura. “I’m 24 years old. It’s my first year in the NHL.”
Even some more established players have World Cup agendas. Full marks to Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck for not taking the easy way out when I asked him about being a late edition to Team North America. He could’ve played it safe and refused to acknowledge having a chip on his shoulder after an initial snub, but he went the honest route.
“When you hear about an under-23 team and you have the opportunity to play for them, you obviously want to,” he said. “This is a big tournament, and it’s an honor to be here, so when it was first announced I was disappointed. But when I found out I was going to come I was just excited.
“You do have to prove yourself. Whenever you’re a guy who’s added late, people are pencilled into spots already, so I’ve got to come in and prove my worth to the team.”
And anyone paying attention to Trocheck down in Florida last year can understand why he was initially miffed. The man caught fire down the stretch with 26 points in his final 27 games. He feels he gets the credit he deserves in his own team market, at least, and the Panthers rewarded him this summer with a six-year, $28.5-million extension. He’ll be an interesting name to watch in the tournament. He’s not afraid of Team North America’s elite competition. He has a swagger to him, with his left arm completely decked out in tattoos. A lot of them have personal family ties, but the most prominent one depicts a lion. To him it represents the king of the jungle and a warrior spirit. That’s what he brings to North America.
On the flip side, the tournament also includes the other type of unappreciated guy, the one uncomfortable with acknowledging what opportunities the World Cup brings. That’s Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray, Team North America’s probable starting netminder. Despite tying an NHL rookie record with 15 wins in one post-season and backstopping Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup, he’s slated for a timeshare with Marc-Andre Fleury to start 2016-17. It’s only natural to assume a dominant World Cup would help Murray’s chances of fully usurping Fleury. But Murray wasn’t having it Thursday.
“While I’m here I’m focused on winning games in this tournament, and I don’t know if that has any impact on anything,” Murray said. “It’s two separate ideas. I’m not here to be trying to prove to anybody that I should be playing games for Pittsburgh. I’m here to try and win games for North America.”
Murray’s saying the right thing. That’s OK. We’ll focus on it for him. It’s one of many interesting storylines to watch in this tournament. There are plenty to find at the World Cup. We just have to look past the gloss.
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