Don’t be surprised if the quickest and youngest team in the tournament takes the fast track to a podium finish.
THN is rolling out team previews, twice a day, for each of the eight teams taking part in the World Cup.
- Sunday, Sept. 18 vs. Finland
- Monday, Sept. 19 vs. Russia
- Wednesday, Sept. 21 vs. Sweden
IIHF World Ranking: N/A
THN’s Prediction: 5th
Can Team North America achieve mere respectability at the World Cup? That question is passé. It’s time to ask if Team North America can win the World Cup. That’s how good the roster of 23-and-younger players looks.
No team can match the speed deployed by GM Peter Chiarelli. North America features the reigning all-star weekend’s fastest skater ever in an all-star skills competition in Dylan Larkin. Add Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Drouin, Jack Eichel and Brandon Saad and you have one of the most blindingly fast hockey teams ever assembled.
It’s not as if the North Americans bring all sizzle and no steak. In McDavid, who finished third in the NHL in points per game, they have one of the best players in the tournament. Gaudreau was a top-10 scorer last season. Mark Scheifele was as dominant as any player in the league after the all-star break. Auston Matthews was among USA’s best players at the World Championship. The North Americans boast eight forwards who scored at least 20 goals in 2015-16. That’s as many as the Czechs, Finns and Team Europe have combined.
And how about North America’s blend of size and mobility on defense? Aaron Ekblad is a horse who would’ve cracked Canada’s roster if he were eligible. Shayne Gostisbehere is already an elite puck-mover one season into his NHL career. Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba are towering minute-eaters. Morgan Rielly is a savvy two-way defenseman. Given how fleet this D-corps is, it might be the third best in the field behind Canada’s and Sweden’s star-studded bluelines.
The North Americans’ Achilles heel, the potential embarrassment, was supposed to be goaltending. A year ago, they had no crease candidates even holding down regular NHL gigs. Now, their probable starter, Matt Murray, just equalled a rookie playoff record with 15 wins, guiding the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup. The World Cup stage will be decidedly lower stakes for him. Likely backing him up: John Gibson, who was named to the 2016 All-Star Game and inspired enough confidence in Anaheim for the Ducks to trade Frederik Andersen. Even the third-stringer, Connor Hellebuyck, is a top-drawer prospect, good enough to be the Winnipeg Jets’ No. 1 right now. What was once a weakness looks like a strength.
The closest the North Americans have to a flaw is inexperience. But how much does that matter in a short tournament in which this team has less to lose than any other, save for maybe fellow gimmick team Europe? The kids have a deep, balanced, dynamic roster, packed with high-impact NHLers. Instead of labelling them a sideshow, let’s label them a contender.
JONATHAN DROUIN is a supreme playmaker, but don’t sleep on the Tampa Bay Lightning winger’s ability to shoot, especially on the power play. During his QMJHL tenure, 20 of his 77 goals came with the extra man and he scored five of his 11 AHL goals on the power play. Of the 13 goals he’s scored in the NHL, four have come with the man advantage. Are you noticing a trend? Keep an eye on him when the young stars’ team is on the PP.
Connor McDavid had the third-highest points per game average of any player in the NHL last season and lived up to all the hype. He starts his sophomore season as the leader of Team North America, and could be the difference-maker in tight games between the young guns’ teams and their more experienced foes. McDavid’s ability to control the puck at high speeds is going to torment World Cup clubs who are slow on the back end.