The odds changed a bit when goaltender Matt Murray led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup last June, don’t ya think?
Up to then, it seemed like Team North America’s Achilles heel at the World Cup was between the pipes. How could the group of 23-and-under players possibly compete against their older and more experienced competition if they didn’t have a capable goaltender?
Well, just ask veteran Marc-Andre Fleury how capable Murray is. The 22-year-old Murray stole the crease from Fleury and refused to give it back. He was a strong contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP that was eventually won by his teammate, Sidney Crosby.
When you factor Murray’s emergence along with the fact John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks shared the William Jennings Trophy with then-teammate Frederik Andersen, suddenly Team North America doesn’t look too shabby in net. Emerging Connor Hellebuyck will likely be third on the depth chart when training camp opens. Who knows where it goes from there.
As the 2016 World Cup of Hockey draws near – it will begin in less than a month – I find myself totally intrigued by the kids’ chances. I wouldn’t dare downplay the amazing feat of the 1980 Miracle On Ice team from the United States that shocked the hockey world and stunned the Soviet Union with its storybook victory at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, but there are some similarities.
Compared to their opponents, Team North America will be relatively inexperienced. (Thanks Captain Obvious!) On the other hand, team organizers Peter Chiarelli of the Edmonton Oilers and Stan Bowman of the Chicago Blackhawks have the luxury of being able to choose some pretty special young players.
Start with Connor McDavid. The future captain of the Oilers is a generational star – a freak of nature – who was born to be in this type of event. McDavid will easily take his place among the best players in the game and, for my money, should have been named the NHL’s rookie of the year last season. He finished third in voting, many of those doing the selecting penalizing him for missing 37 games with a shoulder injury. I feel 45 games is a big enough body of work to judge a player against his peers especially when you finish third in the NHL in points per game at 1.07, courtesy of his 16 goals and 48 points.
Then there is Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, behind McDavid, who is also an advanced player at this stage of his career having finished second in Buffalo Sabres scoring last season with 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games.
The skill level beyond those two young stars is very high: Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, Natahn MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Jonathan Drouin, who finally hit his stride late in the season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, splendid Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, Sean Monahan of the Flames and Brandan Saad of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The list goes on.
A wild card for Team North America is center Auston Matthews. The top pick in the 2016 draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs looked right at home playing professional hockey against men (24 goals and 46 points in 36 games) in Switzerland last season and again at the World Championship with the United States. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, this man-child has the potential to make an immediate mark on the hockey world, beginning with the World Cup.
Defensively Team North America will be challenged. Indeed there are some very good young players led by the hulking and mature Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers. Like McDavid, this kid has captain written all over him and he backs down from nobody.
Morgan Rielly of the Maple Leafs also has a maturity about his game thanks to three years of NHL experience and Seth Jones has the size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) to handle many of the big forwards he’ll be matched up against.
Much of what unfolds will have a lot to do with how veteran coach Todd McLellan handles this group of youngsters. Can he convince them, as Herb Brooks did with the 1980 American Olympic squad, that they are worthy opponents? Can he keep them relaxed if things start to go off the rails in a game?
Certainly the kids have nothing to lose. Their opponents, however, are in a no-win situation. If they beat the kids, well, they were supposed to win. If they lose, they look like bums.
How will Team North America do in the World Cup? I am guessing better than many expect.
Do you believe in miracles?