Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group D

Full of geographic curiosities by congregating the two Iberian countries (Portugal and Spain) and two of the nations that comprise the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), Group D may ultimately fail to deliver much in the way of drama since the strongest sides are expected to bully the two debutants. Consequently, it’s entirely up to Portugal and injury-ravaged Scotland the task of spoiling the pre-written narrative.

England

Despite having previously reached the final at the Euro 2009, England’s campaign at the 2015 World Cup – where they overcome Germany to secure bronze – has been considered the dawn of a new era for the “The Lionesses”.

A period where England is a full-fledged candidate for every title in women’s football on the strength of a fully professional national league (FA WSL) backed by the deep pockets of famous English Premier League outfits. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City are heavily represented in the experienced English roster, and with that comes the realisation there’s no reason to acquiesce to anyone but the Queen. The English ladies are going for the European crown, full stop.

Qualification: Group 7 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearances: Eight

Best Performance: Finalist (1984, 2009)

Head Coach: Mark Sampson (WAL)

Star Player: Karen Carney (Chelsea FC)

The Birmingham native is one of the longest serving players in the English roster since she prepares to take the field in a fourth European Championships, and it’s fair to say she never had so many good teammates to cooperate with.

England’s midfielder Karen Carney prepares to launch a long pass across the field

Usually deployed on the left side of the midfield, Carney perfectly personifies the gritty mentality the English love for her zeal looking to recover the ball, yet she also possesses the skill to manufacture offense in waves. Right footed, the Chelsea winger regularly strays from the flank to take her chances inside the opposing block, looking to disentangle defences with her trickery, propensity to play one-twos with the forwards and smart passing.

A bold, energetic style that betrays her old struggles with depression, an illness that almost put an end to her career precociously. England fans are certainly glad that story also took a turn for the best.

Player to watch: Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal FC)

Limited to a single appearance at the 2015 World Cup due to injury, the time has finally come for Jordan Nobbs, a former standout for England’s youth teams who has yet to shine in a major senior international competition.

A lithe midfielder of exquisite technique who loves to shoot from distance and play balls over the top, “Nobber” is utilized as a right midfielder by Mark Sampson so that she can overload central areas and expose her superior playmaking skills, which significantly boost the fluidity of England’s game in the final third.

Capable of lighting up a game with an extraordinary long-range howitzer or a superb assist, it’s time Jordan Nobbs’ name surfaces across the continent when mentioning the best midfielders around.

England’s Jordan Nobbs attempts to keep the ball in play

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): K. Bardsley; L. Bronze – S. Houghton (C) – M. Bright – D. Stokes; J. Nobbs – J. Moore – J. Scott– K. Carney; T. Duggan – E. White

The 4x4x2 is almost as ancestral as the sport in England, and Mark Sampson respectfully hasn’t deviated from it even if there’s a nuance worth mentioning.  Both Nobbs and Carney aren’t the usual line-hugging wingers and love to move inside, therefore the width is mainly provided by the overlapping runs of the full backs, especially the marauding Lucy Bronze.

Regarding the lineup, in comparison with the team that made history in Canada the fresh faces are center back Millie Bright (Chelsea) and midfielder Jade Moore (Reading), who seem to have usurped veterans Laura Bassett and Fara Williams, respectively. In attack, Toni Duggan is close to untouchable, but Ellen White faces a lot of competition from Jodie Taylor, Nikita Parris and diminutive Fran Kirby.

Spain

Verónica Boquete, “la Princesa del deporte rey” has been the flag bearer of Spain’s women’s football for close to a decade.

Verónica Boquete has scored more goals (38) than any other player in Spain’s national team history, including eight at the Euro 2017 qualification phase.

Verónica Boquete, elite level playmaker, played over 30 matches this season for Paris St. German, the UEFA Women’s Champions League Finalists.

Verónica Boquete, 30 years old, is still widely regarded as Spain’s best offensive player.

Verónica Boquete is NOT in Spain’s Euro 2017 roster for “performance”-related reasons, according to Coach Jorge Vilda. Incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, Vero or no Vero, Spain is a deep well of confidence following an imposing qualifying campaign, and there are expectations La Roja is finally ready to enter the conversation concerning Europe’s best teams.

After all, it would simply ride the example established a long time ago by their youth teams, perennial contenders at the U-17 and U-19 level, and more recently by the Spanish clubs, with each passing season gaining traction against their German, French, Swedish and English counterparts.

Qualification: Group 2 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1997)

Head Coach: Jorge Vilda

Star Player: Verónica Boquete Irene Paredes (Paris St. Germain, FRA)

A mainstay of Spain’s backend for many seasons, Irene Paredes Hernández achieved a new level of recognition over the last two seasons by marshalling Athletic Bilbao to an unlikely Primera Division title in 2015-16, and following it up with a high profile move to Qatari-backed PSG.

Irene Paredes rallies her teammates during a World Cup qualifier in Italy

The 26-year-old went on to quickly pick up the reigns of the French defence, and performed at an admirable level on their campaign to the Champions League Final, displaying all the qualities of modern center backs: speed, agility, aerial prowess, assertiveness under pressure, and poise handling the ball and completing the first pass from the back.

Four years after scoring an own goal in Spain’s quarter-final affair at the Euro 2013, she will be looking for redemption with a national team hoping to build on the triumph at the 2017 Algarve Cup, a competition where Paredes was, not  incidentally, named “Best Player”.

Player to watch: Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)

After taking part in consecutive European Championships at the U-17 level, Alexia debuted for the senior team as a 19-year-old and in time to secure a place on the roster that would reach the last eight at the Euro 2013. Four years have passed since then, and her influence on Spain’s and Barcelona’s game still hasn’t stopped growing

A versatile left footer that is comfortable as an interior, winger or supporting forward, Alexia Putellas is one of Vilda’s favourites because she can either act as the main conduit of offense in the center of the park, or provide a dangerous presence out wide, curling balls into the area and attacking the far post. At age 23, and with three Spanish League titles on her résumé, one of the brightest faces of Spain’s ambitious generation is also the key to unlock new heights.

Spain’s midfielder Alexia Putellas (#21, white) has the guile to get out of difficult situations

Probable Lineup (3x5x2): S. Paños; I. Paredes – A. Pereira – M. Léon; M. Torrejón (C) – V. Losada – V. Torrecilla – A. Putellas – L. Ouahabi; J. Hermoso – O. Garcia

Jorge Vilda replaced long-time manager Ignacio Quereda after the fiasco at the 2015 World Cup, and he gradually introduced a backline of three to rip into the tactical DNA of a team that used to run a 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1.

With more elements operating in central areas, the possession-based style was maintained, but the defensive record improved significantly, as Spain allowed just two goals in qualifying and scored 39. A testament to the progresses experienced by many players, including “carrilleras” Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi, whose offensive propensity really shines in this system.

Without Vero Boquete, new Paris St. Germain recruit Jenifer Hermoso – who tallied 35 goals this season – is the major offensive catalyst, while the greatest dilemma is the identity of the starting goalkeeper. Lola Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid pipped Sandra Paños’ Barcelona for the Spanish title, but it’s the latter that seems to hold the inside lane in this race of 24-year-olds.

Scotland

If a very demanding draw and a quarrel between the players and the Scottish Football Association over compensation wasn’t already enough to cast a large cloud over Scotland’s perspectives at the Euro 2017, the last months of preparation brought an additional element: an injury-barrage that all but ends their chances of upstaging England and Spain for a place in the quarter-finals.

Forward Lizzie Arnott and defensemen Jennifer Beattie and Emma Mitchell, all prospective starters, were ruled out in the weeks leading up to the tournament, but those misfortunes fall short of the monumental problem that is the absence of 2016 BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year and Arsenal FC’s star playmaker Kim Little, who suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament rupture in club training.

An untimely injury took Scotland’s star Kim Little out of the competition

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 1 (7W, 1D), inferior goal difference in tie with Iceland

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Anna Signeul (SWE)

Star Player: Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich, GER)

Without the talent of Kim Little at their disposal, Scotland will have to rely even more on the hardworking, resilient nature of most of their players, and there’s no better example to follow than winger Lisa Evans.

Even though she wasn’t blessed with the speed, creativity or flash of many positional counterparts, the 25-year-old has still been able to attract the interest of clubs such as Turbine Potsdam, Bayern Munich and Arsenal  FC because few can match her tactical awareness and willingness to sacrifice individual accolades for the better of the team. Feisty and diligent tracking down the flank, Evans hugs the line to provide width in attack, but can also dash towards the goal or surprise defenders with diagonal runs.

No doubts remain that Scotland will have to stand firm in the face of adversity and take advantage of every offensive transition. That’s where Evans’ versatility and stamina could prove essential.

Player to watch: Caroline Weir (Liverpool FC, ENG)

Caroline Weir proudly wears the No. 10 shirt for Liverpool FC, and such honour serves to bestow the potential of a player Scotland’s managers believe is able to pick up part of the slack left by Kim Little.

Caroline Weir is one of Scotland’s key midfielders

A gritty midfielder that always plays with her head up, Caroline Weir has the vision to deliver passes from afar to center forward Jane Ross or the wingers cutting inside, yet her true strength lies on the ability to slow the game down, hold the ball and wait for the play to develop in front of her eyes.

A feature that she’ll explore at the European Championships, since the 22-year-old is bound to operate a few meters closer to the goal, looking to support the lone forward and make the best of opportunities to hit from long range with her excellent left foot.

Probable Lineup (4x5x1): G. Fay (C); K. Smith – I. Dieke – V. Barsley – H. Lauder; L. Evans – L. Crichton – R. Corsie – C. Weir – Fi. Brown; J. Ross

Scotland’s usual formation is the 4x2x3x1, but against their rivals in Group D expect a much more compact 4x5x1, with striker Jane Ross left to her own luck and no clearly defined creative fulcrum filling the void of Little. The better they can do is deposit their hopes in Lisa Evans and Caroline Weir, who should have green light to take their chances offensively.

As for the other substitutes called to action, center back Vaila Barsley is the most promising. A recent discovery by Scotland’s staff, she’s been exceptional filling in for Jenn Beatie while club teammate Fiona Brown seems to have locked down the left midfield position on the strength of a series of impressive showings.

Portugal

Fifteen of the top seventeen ranked teams at the time of the qualifying group phase draw ended up securing qualification to the Euro 2017. Care to bet who wasn’t supposed to be here?

The Portuguese women, listed on Pot D (26th) but surprise runners-up in Group 2. They upset the Republic of Ireland and Finland (the only finalist in 2013 to miss out this time) to snatch a playoff spot, and then ousted Romania to reach the Finals.

Portuguese players celebrated an historic qualification to the Euro 2017 after defeating Romania

Home to the reigning men’s European Champions, this is a massive step for a country where women’s football has been nothing more than an afterthought outside of a few days every March, when they host a prestigious international tournament in the region of Algarve.

That being said, what’s a realistic target in Dutch soil? Escape alive against England and Spain, first and foremost, and try to squeeze something out of the match versus Scotland.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 2 (4W, 1D, 3L), 11 points behind Spain; defeated Romania in the playoff on away goals (1-1)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Francisco Neto

Star Player: Cláudia Neto (Linköpings FC, SWE)

Portugal’s captain is their only World class player and, it turns out, also the inspirational leader. That much was plainly evident in qualification, when Cláudia Neto’s six goals rescued several crucial points to make the dream come true.

Key figure for Linköpings’s Damallsvenskan success last year, 2016 was truly a banner year for the 29-year-old midfielder, who does so much of the heavy lifting for this Portuguese team. Neto is a transitional force, carrying the ball up the field, a playmaker, recognizing passes others can’t, a pace-setter, a chance-creator and, finally, a goal scorer.

Cláudia Neto’s hat trick against Finland reinvigorated Portugal’s qualifying campaign

A facet instigated by Francisco Neto’s curious decision to slot his most important player as close to the other teams’ net as possible, wagering she could bury more opportunities than her colleagues would with the roles reversed. Until now, it has worked so well that Cláudia Neto is regularly nicknamed CN7, a cheeky comparison to a certain superstar footballer who happens to be a compatriot.

Player to watch: Diana Silva (Sporting CP)

The revelation of the Portuguese League in 2016-17 is expected to come off the bench at the tournament since Francisco Neto values experience to a tee, but be on the lookout for her disconcerting presence up front.

While undeniably raw on her movements and technical gestures, there’s an intriguing potential latent on Diana Silva, a striker that impresses for her quickness and mobility across the front end, yet isn’t afraid to work hard to get the ball back or enter in confrontation with the most rugged defensive players. Moreover, in possession, she can prove daunting to handle with time to accelerate, dribbling past the clumsiest opponents to set up her teammates or try to score.

At age 22, Diana Silva can still be considered a diamond in a rough, and an international career may be in the cards if she finds a way to make the most of her time in the Netherlands.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): Patrícia Morais; Matilde Fidalgo – Sílvia Rebelo – Carole Costa – Ana Borges; Dolores Silva, Vanessa Marques – Suzane Pires, Carolina Mendes; Ana Leite – Cláudia Neto (C);

In the most decisive of moments, the two-legged playoff with Romania, Portugal lined up on a 4x4x2 with a diamond-shaped midfield, and it’s possible things will remain that way for the final tournament in spite of a sharp rise in the quality of the opposition. However, a more rational option would be the return to a stingiest 4x2x3x1, with Cláudia Neto dropping back to partner defensive anchor Dolores Silva or, in alternative, holing up between the lines.

Portugal’s Dolores Silva jumps past the challenge of a Romanian player

Portugal’s main factor of disturbance is Ana Borges, a lightning quick winger adapted to the left back position who loves to charge up the field in possession. Meanwhile, Neto and Dolores Silva are the stalwarts of Portugal’s midfield and Ana Leite a mobile, German-educated forward that is a favourite of the coach.

The rest of the midfield and attack, though, is easily interchangeable, with the likes of Mélissa Antunes, Fátima Pinto, Amanda da Costa, Laura Luís and Diana Silva hunting down an opportunity to start.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group A

Far removed from the glitz and exuberant displays of patriotism that envelop the continent every four years for occasion of the men’s European Championship, the UEFA Women’s Euro is, nonetheless, a tournament attaining important recognition in international football’s calendar by taking advantage of the odd offseason missing major men’s events.

In 2017, for the first time, the competition will feature 16 nations – divided in four groups of four -, essentially doubling the total of participants from 12 years ago, and therefore it will function as another crucial barometer on the evolution and competitiveness of the women’s game at the highest ranks. Since almost a third (5) of the field makes its first ever appearance, UEFA hopes to avoid the watered-down version of play we were all offered during the preliminary stage of the 2016 Men’s European Championship, also recently revamped to accommodate more teams, and if someone manages to topple Germany, winners of the last six editions, the better.

However, regardless of a few one-side encounters that are bound to happen, the Netherlands and its seven host cities (Breda, Deventer, Doetinchem, Enschede, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht) will enjoy the talents of a cohort of superb footballers whose exploits will be broadcasted to football fans everywhere for the next three weeks.

An imperial German side has emerged victorious from every Women’s European Championships since 1995

A group of female athletes and teams you should definitely get to know, and that’s what this series of blog posts is about, as I spent a few dozens of hours researching, canvassing through game reports and watching games to compile this sweeping guide of the competition.

Group by group, I aimed to portrait every national team in the competition, providing some background information and clarity on their pre-tournament objectives, profiling two elements of each squad, their most emblematic performer and a player to watch (you’ll notice I took a broad approach in the definition of this item), and glancing at their tactical set up and plausible formation.

Finally, a quick reference before we make it through the 16 contestants: I won’t pretend to pass by an avid women’s football enthusiast or a profound connoisseur, yet I have followed my fair share of women’s tournaments and deem myself qualified to do this work and hopefully help inform those looking to dive headfirst into the female game and its multiple charms.

Herewith, time to get started. After all, they say you should never leave a lady waiting.

Group A

Encompassing the host nation, a rising influence in the women’s game, and a traditional powerhouse in Norway, Group A boasts clear-cut favourites for the two spots that give access to the quarterfinals, yet don’t sleep on an experienced and well-drilled Danish team, surprise semi-finalists in 2013. Debutants Belgium are outcasts in this skirmish and likely limited to fighting to collect a first point at a major international competition.

Netherlands

Unexpected third-place finishers in their first appearance at a major meeting, the Euro 2009, the female “Oranje” is just now starting to reap the benefits of that landmark achievement. Having advanced past the group phase at the 2015 World Cup, the Netherlands should be considered a sleeper pick for the European crown by virtue of possessing an interesting crop of young, complementary offensive weapons and expectations of flourishing performances backed up by a football-mad nation. The Dutch population has already sold out all of the hosts’ group stage matches, and there’s no better incentive to instigate the ultimate dream.

Qualification: Host Nation

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (2009)

Coach: Sarina Wiegman

Star Player: Vivianne Miedema (FC Bayern Munich, GER)

With 41 goals amassed in just 51 senior caps, Miedema is already just 18 shy of Manon Melis’ top-scoring record for the women’s National team and she’s about to turn…21 years old, believe it or not.

Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema gets ready to celebrate after another goal for her country

Always a precocious goal scoring machine, the Hoogeveen-native made her first appearance on the Dutch League at age 15, tallied an astonishing 41 times in 26 games for Heerenveen in 2013/14, and consequently earned a move to German giants Bayern Munich, which proved decisive to add other dimensions to her game.

As she’s far from an imposing presence in the box, the lanky Miedema relies on smarts to find spaces to shoot since it takes her time to accelerate and the first touch is a work in progress. Shortcomings that slowed her prolific rate when she faced stiffer competition at the Frauen Bundesliga over the last three seasons, but ultimately wouldn’t suppress her superior killer instinct (35 goals in 61 league games).

After conquering two German Championships in three seasons, Miedema will join Arsenal FC for 2017-18, but before she lands in London, the hosts will need a full demonstration of her array of talents filling the net in order to summon an historic campaign.

Player to watch: Lieke Martens (FC Rosengård, SWE)

An important component of the Netherlands’ squad since 2011, the 24-year-old Martens can cement her status as a top-notch player with a cracking performance at the Euro 2017 ahead of her impeding move to FC Barcelona.

An exciting offensive midfielder blessed with quick feet and a dazzling ability to change directions and speed, Martens can slice defences with through balls soliciting the wingers or Miedema, and she’s also a headache for any full-back when cradling the ball close to the left sideline, jumping into the one-on-one or invading interior spaces to triangulate and pounce with the right foot. For all of these, I’m certain you won’t miss her as she powers the Netherlands’s offense at home this summer.

Netherlands’ Lieke Martens traverses an English roadblock

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): L. Geurts; D. van Lunteren – A. Dekker – M. van den Berg – K. van Es; S. Spitse – J. Groenen; S. van de Sanden – L. Martens – D. van de Donk; V. Miedema (C)

For some time the Netherlands has played in a defined 4x2x3x1 with Martens having license to roam behind Miedema and combine with England-based wingers Shanice van de Sande (Liverpool) and Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), yet the injury to central midfielder Tessel Middag (Manchester City) and the emergence of Jill Roord (who recently agreed to join Bayern Munich) may have altered the plans of Wiegman for the middle of the park.

The Dutch have dabbled with a standard 4x3x3 recently, grouping Groenen, Roord and the cerebral van de Donk to improve ball retention in the midfield while Martens gets pushed to the left flank. An option for more balance that can pay dividends in the latter stages of the tournament.

Norway

Besides Germany, Norway is the only other nation to have won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic tournament, yet their status as a heavyweight of the women’s game has been slipping for a few years since they’ve failed to reach the last four at the world scale in the last decade.

Still, they’ve consistently delivered at the Euros, reaching two finals and two semifinals since 2001, and the same is expected this year, especially as the spectrum of the 2013 Final – when they had two penalties denied by German goaltender Nadine Angerer – still looms. In the four years since, the Norwegian endured a tough renovation, with long-time stalwarts like Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Trine Rønning hanging their boots, and the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of two players who were just 18 years old the last time around.

Qualification: Group 8 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearance: Eleventh

Best Performance: Champions (1987, 1993)

Coach: Martin Sjögren (SWE)

Star Player: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The reigning UEFA Best Women’s Player in Europe was already a star in the making when she spearheaded Norway’s attack at the 2013 Euro and, in the meantime, she evolved into, arguably, the most feared striker in Europe. Particularly since her 2014 transfer from Turbine Potsdam to Olympique Lyon, with Hegerberg’s goal-scoring exploits (112 goals in just 97 games) being the tip of the French buzzsaw and the main reason her résumé swelled considerably to now include, for example, two Champions League titles (2016 and 2017).

Ada Hegerberg points the direction of sucess to Norway

Powerful and robust, Hegerberg is a smiling assassin in the box with a knack for finding the ball in premium positions, yet she’s been steadily refining her balance, agility and technique to further improve her play outside the area, where she now uses the body to shield opponents off the ball and connect with colleagues.

Those characteristics will be essential for a Norwegian squad that isn’t exactly suited to dominate possession and play with a high line like most favourites, and if Hegerberg can still lead them on a deep run, she immediately jumps to the front of the pack regarding the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Player to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Absolutely ravaged by injuries since her breakout performance as a teenager at the 2013 edition, Caroline Hansen will be trying to make up for lost time as the hand to Ada Hegerberg’s blade in Dutch land.

An electrifying, free-spirited talent that demolishes defenders in direct confrontation, at his best Hansen is virtually unmatched in women’s football for her ability to sprint with the ball down the flank, break lines in possession and craft deadly passes to put teammates in front of the goal.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen leaves an opponent in the dust in this match against Spain

She’ll have carte blanche to wander all over the final third and opponents would be wise to never lose sight of the skinny No.10 with “Graham” plastered on the back of the jersey. As would every spectator, since she’s that good and incredibly fun to watch.

Probable Lineup (4x3x1x2): I. Hjelmseth, I. Wold – M. Mjelde (C) – N. Holstad Berge – E. Thorsnes; I.  Schjelderup – I. Spord –Andr. Hegerberg; C. Hansen; A. Hegerberg – K. Minde

Norway’s nominal set up is the 4x3x1x2, with Hansen free to roam behind two strikers, but without the ball Martin Sjögren demands they shift to a 4x4x2, with Minde (or Emilie Haavi) dropping back to complete the line of four in the midfield and Hansen joining Hegerberg to form a two-person unit pressing the opponents up top.

This option is partially explained by a relative distrust in the elements manning the operations in the halfway line, which lack seasoning at the international level. None of Schjelderup (29 years old), Spord (23), Andrine Hegerberg (Ada’s big sister, 24), Anja Sønstevold (25), Guro Reiten (22) or Frida Maanum (17) has collected more than 25 international caps and therefore, on occasion, Sjögren may advance captain Maren Mjelde and slot Maria Thorisdottir as a center-back.

Denmark

After going all the way to the brink of the final four years ago in spite of failing to record a single triumph in Sweden, Denmark will conceivably need to wring more out of their group to emulate that run in 2017.

The Danes will have their work cut out trying to deceive the Netherlands and/or Norway, but they certainly won’t fizzle due to a shortage of international experience. The Danish roster comprises plenty of returnees that are expected to assume large roles, and no player expected to start in their crucial tournament opener versus Belgium is under 24 years old.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 4 (6W, 1D, 1L), 2 pts behind Sweden

Finals Appearance: Ninth

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1984, 2001, 2013)

Coach: Nils Nielsen

Star Player: Pernille Mosegaard-Harder (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Denmark’s Pernille Harder makes a run

The Danish captain found another gear in 2015, when 17 goals in 22 games merited the distinction as MVP of the Swedish League, the Damallsvenskan, and she hasn’t looked back since then on her way to become one of the most complete forwards in women’s football and the precious touchstone of Denmark’s national team.

An elusive player that can dodge defenders with deft touches and play in tight spaces, Harder likes to drop back to create and explore the vacant spots between the lines, but she’s also a clinical finisher with a sharp right foot that is a serious threat from set pieces.

After vaulting Linköping to the Swedish title in 2016 on the back of 24 strikes, Harder filled calls from every top club in the World and eventually chose to sign with Wolfsburg in January 2017, providing the final ingredient on their successful attempt to recapture the German Championship. She now has the responsibility of doing similar work for her country.

Player to watch: Nicoline Sørensen (Brøndby IF)

A key performer for Brøndby IF, which recently reclaimed the Danish Elitedivisionen, Nicoline Sørensen is a daring winger/forward on the verge of breaking out for the national team as soon as a position opens up in the forward ranks. At the moment, she’s behind Harder, Nadia Nadim and club teammate Stine Larsen in the pecking order, but the slender 19-year-old will be an important alternative for head coach Nils Nielsen if he finds the need to instil more bravado and speed into his formation during the tournament.

Too talented for the Danish league, Sørensen will return to Sweden after the European Championships, hoping to increment her development at Linköpings FC and amend a fruitless stint as a 17-year-old for rivals FC Rosengård.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): S. Lykke-Petersen; T. Nielsen – S. Boye Sørensen – J. Arnth Jensen – L. Røddik Hansen; S. Troelsgaard Nielsen – L. Sigvardsen Jensen – N. Christiansen – K. Veje; P. HarderN. Nadim

Denmark’s basic structure is the 4x4x2, but they’re not afraid to mix it up with interesting variants. For instance, against Belgium in the first game, don’t be surprised if they showcase an offensive, diamond-shaped midfield, sacrificing Sigvardsen Jensen to post Nanna Christiansen as the only anchor and turn Pernille Harder into the creative fulcrum behind strikers Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen.

The intrusive offensive positioning of right back Theresa Nielsen is a factor of turbulence for Denmark’s opposition

Furthermore, Denmark is also inclined to implement a backline of three when building from the back, pushing right back Theresa Nielsen up the corridor to provide width in the same horizontal line of left wingback Katrine Veje, and allowing Troelsgaard Nielsen to overload interior domains and move closer to Harder.

The Danes conceded just one goal in qualifying and scored 22 – the same total as group winners Sweden – and tactical malleability was one of their secrets.

Belgium

After coming close to reach the 2013 European Championships and the 2015 World Cup, Belgium finally booked its place on a major international tournament for the first time, and did it in comfortable fashion, edging third-place Serbia by 7 points. However, things will now get trickier for the “Red Flames”, who got hosed by Spain in a humbling 7-0 rout just weeks prior to the tournament, and can’t be considered more than outsiders in Group A.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 7 (5W, 2D, 1L), 5 pts behind England

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Coach: Ives Serneels

Star Player: Tessa Wullaert (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Belgium’s Tessa Wullaert controls the ball under the watchful eye of an English player

While not a prominent feature of Wolfsburg’s attack, Wullaert established herself as a useful piece and a regular solution off the bench for the current German Champions since her move from Standard Liège in 2015. The 24-year-old had outgrown the Belgium League and the national team benefitted from the new impulses and learnings picked up by Wullaert in the Frauen-Bundesliga, where she developed into the hard-working, resourceful forward that led the Euro 2017 qualifying phase with 9 assists to add to four important goals.

With Belgium, Wullaert is usually asked to operate across the attacking zone, whip set pieces and take on defenders, but at this tournament she’ll probable fill an even larger role, working tirelessly without the ball to make ends meet against three superior opponents. It’s not the right stage for her to shine, but it’s what a star player needs to do when his team is significantly outgunned.

Player to watch: Tine de Caigny (RSC Anderlecht)

Due to her height and sprightliness, 20-year-old midfielder Tine de Caigny is a noticeable presence on the Belgium lineup, where she uses her stature to win battles and dominate in the air, not unlike fellow Belgian footballer Marouane Fellaini. However, de Caigny lacks the patented, voluminous mane and doesn’t shake the earth when she walks, with her feet and passing already at a decent level for a young athlete that started out as a defender.

Hereby, take the time to seize her up at the center of the park, or stretching up the field to respond to goal kicks and long balls from the defence, all while hoping her resolute activity can afford a breather to the members of Belgium’s backline.

Tine de Caigny in action against Norway

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): J. Odeurs; M. Coutereels – A. Zeler (C) – H. Jaques – D. Philtjens; J. Biesmans – T. de Caigny – E. van Wynendaele – E. van Gorp ; T. Wullaert – J. Cayman

During qualification, Belgium achieved success riding the dangerous forward combination of Wullaert and Montpellier’s Janice Cayman, but Ives Serneels may well opt for a more cautious approach in the Netherlands, harmonizing a 4x4x1x1 that can unfurl onto a 4x2x3x1 in offense.

In this case, Cayman would be the lone attacker bothering the opposing center backs, with de Caigny offering support and an outlet, while Wullaert would drift wide to cover the right flank and Julie Biesmans would tuck inside to help screen the backline alongside Elien van Wynendaele or the more experienced Lenie Onzia.

NHL playoff series digested: Ottawa Senators – New York Rangers (4-2)

While the heavyweights Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were contesting what many revered as the early Eastern Conference Final, Senators and Rangers were left to scrap for the other spot in the third round under much less media attention. Unfortunate ended up being the ones that missed out on the second ever postseason meeting between Ottawa and New York, who did their part to spark the respective fan bases by holding serve at home for the first five matches of the series.

In Game 6, the streak was broken by the visiting Senators and that was all she wrote, as the Canadian side moved on to their first Final Four appearance since 2007, while the Rangers missed out on a third presence in four years and the opportunity to be the first Metropolitan Division team to hoist a banner reading “Atlantic Division Champions”.

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 2: New York Rangers 5 @ 6 Ottawa Senators (2 OT)

Game 3: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 5: New York Rangers 4 @ 5 Ottawa Senators (OT)

Game 6: Ottawa Senators 4 @ 2 New York Rangers

 

New York craters on the road under Ottawa’s late flurries of activity

With the Senators holding home ice advantage to start the series, the Rangers knew the responsibility of stealing a road victory on the other side of the border fell on them, so they went to work on it from the get-go. After surviving a 21-shots first period blitz in Game 1, New York shepherded a 1-1 score into the final minutes of regulation only to fall to Erik Karlsson, who sentenced the match on an extraordinary moment of perception as he sniped the puck off the top of Henrik Lundqvist’s back while stationed behind the goal line and just off the side boards. You can’t prevent moments like that, so the Rangers just shrugged it off and focused on another opportunity coming in two days.

The loss in Game 2 would sting immensely more as the Rangers had the Sens by the horns in multiple occasions and couldn’t close out. Riding two shorthanded tallies, they reached a 3-1 advantage in the second period, and later led 4-2 and 5-3 until center Jean-Gabriel Pageau deflected two pucks past Henrik Lundqvist at the tail end of regulation. Despite the setback, the Rangers regrouped and had their chances to take victory in overtime, yet the game was destined to go down as a memorable affair for the Sens and Pageau, who concluded the proceedings with his fourth goal of the night.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (#44) has just tipped a puck past Henrik Lundqvist (#30) to tie Game 2 in the last minutes of regulation (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York took care of business at the Madison Square Garden to level the series at two games apiece, and consequently booked a return trip to Ottawa for a pivotal Game 5, which would again elicit sleepless nights. The Rangers found their way into two early goals only to be upended, but reacted to secure a 4-3 lead heading into the final seconds. With the other net vacated, they would again crumble to the pressure of Ottawa and Derick Brassard pushed the contest to OT. This time, though, New York couldn’t settle down during the intermission and they were absolutely throttled by Ottawa (13-1 in shot attempts) until Kyle Turris scored the deciding marker just six minutes into extra time.

That goal pushed the “Blueshirts” to the brink of elimination, and they eventually ran out the time to get the job done in Canada since the fourth and last chance would never come.

Senators hit all the bases in Game 6 to reverse the trend

Unlike the Rangers, Ottawa couldn’t even sniff a road triumph in Games 3 and 4 as the Sens were clocked in matching 4-1 bouts that were over way before the final buzzer. The Rangers had raced to 4-0 leads in both matches while facing feeble opposition, therefore all the ingredients seemed to be on hand to force a winner-takes-all Game 7.

Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson makes a save on New York’s Mats Zuccarello during Game 6 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Except the Rangers actually believed they would breeze in Game 6, and came out so flat for a team with the season on the line that Ottawa took notice and found a way to put together the mettle required to finish the job that night. For instance, for the first time in the whole series, the Sens broke the ice when Mike Hoffman redirected the puck just 4 minutes in, and then obtained their first two-goal lead, courtesy of a Mark Stone laser. In between, Ottawa killed a 4-minute, double minor penalty, and they would deny the Rangers’ powerplay twice more later on as goaltender Craig Anderson delivered a great performance to make up for the four consecutive games where he allowed 4+ goals.

Ottawa’s starting goaltender and two of their top forwards had already made huge contributions to the cause, and their captain and best player was about to join the fun. Just two minutes after Mika Zibanejad cut the Sens advantage to one, Erik Karlsson transitioned the puck up the ice, dished it to 7M-man Bobby Ryan and then grazed a soft spot in coverage to receive it back and fire past Henrik Lundqvist.

Erik Karlsson reacts after scoring Ottawa’s third goal in Game 6 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 3-1 stunned the MSG, and not even Chris Kreider’s marker just 53 seconds into the third period changed the narrative, as a bit of luck and a lot of Anderson helped the Sens withstand the impetus of the now desperate Rangers and hold onto the precious lead to snatch victory, the fourth they needed to progress.

Henrik Lundqvist’s age finally catches up to his postseason play

In the first round, New York’s franchise goaltender had outlasted Carey Price in a battle of superstar netminders to showcase he’s still got it, but the Swede isn’t 28 anymore and can’t be asked to carry his team in the same way as he approaches the twilight of his career.

The wild fluctuations in Lundqvist’s level have been the norm over the last few regular seasons, and it was probable they would eventually spill into the playoffs regardless of the rest afforded to him throughout the season. It happened in the series against Ottawa, as the “King” posted a not-so-royal 0.905 Sv% and 2.80 GAA while mixing in great performances (Game 1), efficient outputs (Games 3 and 4) and pedestrian efforts in Games 2 and 5, where he allowed six and five goals, respectively.

A dejected Henrik Lundqvist sits down after allowing Derick Brassard’s game-tying goal late in Game 5 (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

While true that the 35-year-old is not to be faulted for the many deflections his teammates granted by declining to box out opponents or take away sticks in front, the Swede could and should have stopped a few important markers, such as Pageau’s first tally in Game 2 or Kyle Turris’ OT winner in Game 5.

Furthermore, Lundqvist had won 10 of the previous 11 home fixtures when the Rangers faced elimination, however he couldn’t sum up his best in Game 6, surprised by Hoffman’s high tip on the first goal and sharp – but in no way indefensible – releases by Stone and Karlsson later on.

In the end, “Hank” gets flack because his even strength Sv% reads 0.896, and that won’t cut it from a goalie that pulls in 8.5M per year and only had to be average to outperform his counterpart (0.907 sv%, 3.09 GAA) and bail out the team.

Best players in the series

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators)

The 24-year-old put forth the performance of a lifetime in Game 2 by becoming the first player in almost 7 years to score four times in a playoff game, yet Pageau’s overall display throughout the series also merits a host of accolades.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau rushes to celebrate his overtime winner in Game 2, his fourth goal of the night (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

He collected 11 hits and 8 blocks, posted a team-high 58.5 FW% and amassed a 53.84 adj. CF% to back up his all-around chops, while his final tally of six goals in six games – half the sum obtained in 82 regular season appearances – propped up his +/- rating to a series-high +4. Moreover, Pageau wired 20 SOG in 19:03 min TOI/GP, including 3:02 min recorded per game with a man down, a situation where he proved key in limiting the Rangers to a 8.3% (2/24) conversion rate.

Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers)

Last summer Ottawa exchanged Zibanejad for fellow center Derick Brassard, and the Stockholm native don his best suit to the six-game rendezvous to demonstrate the Rangers won the bet even if they didn’t ultimately conquer the series.

Despite scoring just once, on a partial breakaway to pull the Rangers within one in Game 6, the 24-year-old led New York’s forwards with 5 points, all at even strength, and 21 shots on goal in 19:20min TOI/GP. Flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, Zibanejad’s line was the Rangers’ most dynamic offensive unit, and that is expressed on the Swede’s impressive 50.61 adj. CF%, 55.88 SCF% and 68.75 HD CF%.

Mika Zibanejad celebrates with teammate Mats Zuccarello after a NY Rangers’ goal in Game 3 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the New York Rangers return to the playoffs next year? 

Perhaps. The Metropolitan Division seems to improve with each passing week hence even a small dip can bump the Rangers out of the playoff picture in favour of a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, NY Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes.

Nevertheless, so far, the Rangers have done some judicious work this offseason as GM Jeff Gorton cleared cap space looking out for the future. He started by buying out defenseman Dan Girardi, whose contract had grown into a tremendous headache, and then shipped out center Derek Stepan to Arizona to expose an extra 6.5M, giving the Rangers 15.6M to work with and 17-18 spots filled out after extending defenseman Brendan Smith at 4.35M per year.

A crestfallen Rangers team skates off the ice at MSG following Game 6’s defeat against the Ottawa Senators. Changes are in order before they come back for the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That margin leaves the door open for a splash on July 1st, which could be the long-rumoured engagement with prized offensive blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk, or an impact addiction up front, preferably a center to replace Stepan and Oscar Lindberg, who was picked up by Vegas in the expansion draft. If it’s the latter, the names of San Jose’s veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau quickly spring to mind.

Still, the Rangers need to be careful since a few of their players are bound to climb a few rungs up the salary ladder soon, including forwards and 2018 RFAs JT Miller, Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey plus defenseman Brady Skjei. Additionally, they also have to re-sign RFAs Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast in the coming weeks, possibly chipping away as much as half of the available funds, add a couple more forwards, and secure a decent backup that can stand in for 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist with the same composure of previous understudies Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Edmonton Oilers (4-3)

Eleven years after dispatching two Californian teams in route to the Stanley Cup Final, the Edmonton Oilers aspired to rehash history by sending home the Anaheim Ducks following a first round scalping of the San Jose Sharks. They came close, stretching the tie to the limit after a slew of high-scoring games, but capitulated in Game 7 to the Anaheim Ducks, a team that pulled through by exorcizing the demons of recent meltdowns. Here’s how they did it. 

Series Results:

Game 1: Edmonton Oilers 5 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Edmonton Oilers 2 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 6 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 4 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 5: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 4 Anaheim Ducks (2 OT)

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 7 Edmonton Oilers

Game 7: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks

 

Kesler unit oppresses Connor McDavid

Playoff action is all about matchups and it doesn’t get much bigger than seeing the most exciting young player in the World chased unrelentingly by a pesky two-way maven and his two apprentices. In order to advance, the Oilers knew Connor McDavid would have to find a way to duck out Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano and impact the game at even strength, but it simply didn’t happen consistently.

The 20-year-old wunderkind picked up just two 5 on 5 points over the 7-game slate, and spent myriad shifts separated from the puck, unable to break out in transition with speed as the opposition grinded in the boards and Kesler attached himself by the hip as soon as the puck changed hands, limiting McDavid’s touches to a minimum and the strokes of genius to a single dazzling goal in Game 3.

Connor McDavid (#97) and Ryan Kesler (#17) tangled up during Game 4 (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The outcome of such suffocating pressure was a flummoxed, frustrated superstar restricted to uncharacteristic sub-45% totals in adj. CF%, scoring chances for% and high-danger CF% despite a 7-6 edge in goals-for at 5 on 5 while on the ice. More than enough to allow the Ducks’ depth to take over and tilt the series, as Anaheim lumped a 55.69 CF% (2nd best in the second round), 55.1 SCF% and 54.3 HD CF% that sustained a 19-16 superiority in even-strength goals.

Oilers fail to nurse precious multi-goal advantages

For the second consecutive series, Edmonton squared off against a team boasting significantly more playoff experience, and the ebbs and flows of the series would end up ascertaining that can still be a germane factor in determining the victorious side. The youth, callowness and a certain lack of poise were readily evident in the way the Oilers cracked under pressure and conceded three goals in the final minutes of Game 5 to squander a crucial win, but there were a few more moments where things unravelled quickly while not necessarily leading to defeat.

Goal scorer Corey Perry (#10) and teammates Josh Manson (#42) and Rickard Rakell (#67) celebrate victory in the 2OT of Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers left Anaheim with a 2-0 advantage however not without a major dose of fortune, blowing a two-goal lead in a three-minute stretch during the third period of the first encounter only to get bailed out by a lucky banked shot, and barely surviving another third period push in Game 2 where Patrick Eaves and Cam Fowler found the post. And since these things usually even out, it went south for the Oilers on the return home.

In Game 3, the Oilers rallied back spectacularly from three goals down only to surrender all the momentum from McDavid’s amazing goal when fourth-liner Chris Wagner responded just a few seconds later. The Ducks would escape with a 6-3 win, and then overcame a two-goal deficit in Game 4 by striking three consecutive times in the second period before securing victory in overtime.

Edmonton deserves full credit for answering the bell emphatically in Game 6, with their season on the line and the sucker-punch of Game 5 still resonating, but it would again fail to seize control in Game 7 despite being gifted an early lead on a ludicrous bounce, and facing a team that bear the heavy burden of having lost five consecutive Games 7 at home after falling behind.

Ducks’ forward Nick Ritchie reacts after scoring the series-deciding goal in Game 7 (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Todd McLellan never found an answer for superlative Ryan Getzlaf

In nine seasons as a coach on the Pacific Division, the first seven at the helm of the San Jose Sharks and the last two with the Edmonton Oilers, Todd McLellan has faced Ryan Getzlaf and his Anaheim team in more than forty occasions. With that much insight, you would think the Oilers manager had already mastered a way to slow down the Ducks’ captain and major offensive hub, yet the 32-year-old ran rampant for the first four games, hoarding the puck, dishing physical punishment and posting 4 goals, 4 assists and a +4 rating as his group gobbled, chewed and spit out the Ryan Nugent Hopkins line and the Klefbom/Larsson pairing to the tune of +55 adj CF% and +62 SCF%.

Nevertheless, it would take an imperious four-point performance in Game 4 and a series tied at two games apiece for McLellan to act and scramble his lines, shifting the big Leon Draisatl permanently off Connor McDavid’s wing and onto a head-to-head matchup with Getzlaf. Territorially, the difference was slim, as Getzlaf’s scoring chances (+66 SCF%) and possession metrics (+62 adj CF%) actually improved, but, at least, he cooled off on the scoresheet, recording a single even-strength point – a primary assist on Corey Perry’s overtime winner in Game 5 – in the last three games as the series went the distance. Not that it mattered much when the imposing #15 watched from the ice as Nick Ritchie wired the puck past Cam Talbot to pot the series-deciding goal and set his final stat line at five goals, five assists and a +7. Simply superb.

Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf makes a play as Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lags behind during Game 2 (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

This pick requires no further argument as we just dedicated an entire section to the utter brilliance of Anaheim’s top-line center, yet Jakob Silfverberg also played a huge part in getting the Ducks over the hump and merited a few lines of his own.

The Swedish winger matched his Captain’s five goals, tallying once in each of the first four games to cap the streak with the overtime winner in Game 4, but he was thoroughly a force to be reckoned with, finishing with 8 points, 28 shots fired on goal in 19:59 mins of TOI/GP, and a sparkling 59.10 adj. CF% and 58.62 SCF%. All of this while devotedly assisting Ryan Kesler on the Connor McDavid assignment.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers)

The German had already enjoyed tremendous success against Anaheim during the regular season, amassing 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 confronts, and he continued his excellence in the playoffs to justify the sobriquet “Duck Hunter”.

Draisatl notched a four-point performance in Game 1 to kick off the series in style, and he proceeded to make good use of the pockets of ice left available by the Ducks’ option of keying in on teammate Connor McDavid to post monster offensive numbers. In 21:02 mins of action per night, the 21-year-old tallied a +4 rating, totalled an incredible 13 points (5+8), opened the score twice, and banged in a hat-trick in Game 6’s 7-1 demolishing which kept the Oilers alive for a few more days. Not bad for a maiden playoff campaign.

Leon Draisatl shone under the spotlight during the Oilers’ second round series (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Edmonton Oilers return to the playoffs next year? 

Barring a major Connor McDavid injury, the young Oilers will be a playoff team for years to come and perhaps the Pacific Division’s perennial favourite as soon as 2017-18. A luxury afforded by Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre level at age 20 and the presence of a perfect sidekick, Leon Draisatl, the team’s main order of business this offseason.

Loaded with 19M in cap space for 2017-18, the Oilers should lock down Draisatl to a maximum-term extension in the 7-7.5M range, and consequently leave sufficient room to accommodate what should be a preposterous extension for the captain in 2018. McDavid may only settle for upwards to 12M per year, but maybe they can work out a four or five-year pact at around 10M that would mimic the structure of the 2nd contracts signed by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Either way, GM Peter Chiarelli will have quite some time to mull over his options, since he’s already checked off most of what he needed to do this summer.

Edmonton’s players embrace after a goal as hats rain in Game 6. The Oilers will feature prominently at this stage of the playoffs over the next few seasons (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers finally traded winger Jordan Eberle and netted Ryan Strome in return, a 23-year-old center that could slot in the third hole and thrive on a new environment, hopefully making expendable UFA David Desharnais. Depending on production, Strome can earn a fair raise next year as a RFA, and the Oilers may also prepare to compensate Patrick Maroon (1.5M) and Mark Letestu (1.8M) should they build on successful 2016-17 campaigns.

Moreover, it was expected the Eberle trade would land a top-four defenseman but instead Edmonton secured Kris Russell for four additional seasons at a 4M rate, an excessive compensation they may be able to live with for now since Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera are tied up at reasonable figures. Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse, both RFAs in 2018, round out the defensive group after Griffin Reinhart got plucked by Vegas in the expansion draft, therefore leaving forward Benoit Pouliot and his 4M in the books until 2019 and young backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit to cover for starter Cam Talbot.

Mock Expansion draft: Devising the Vegas Golden Knights roster (Part II)

(Part I is available here)

Montreal Canadiens: C Tomas Plekanec

The 34-year-old Plekanec is way past his prime, and his 6M paycheck would be a tough pill to swallow for a budget team, yet, as a veteran center used to match up against the other teams’ best pivots, he can definitely help Vegas in the short term. Moreover, in light of the shortage of alternatives from the Habs, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be losing a lot by going for immediate gratification here.

Still, there’s a good chance they won’t take Plekanec, and the next options are defenseman Brandon Davidson and 22-year-old left winger Charles Hudon, whose three productive seasons in the AHL placed him on the verge of the NHL roster.

Nashville Predators: RW James Neal

You’re not supposed to expose a 29-year-old winger with a 40-goal season on the curriculum, yet Nashville’s surplus of defenseman forced David Poile’s hand and Las Vegas should take advantage. For all the promise behind Colton Sissons and Pontus Aberg, a Stanley Cup Final run tends to build up complementary players and it would be a shame if they passed on Neal only to get left holding a perennial bottom-six performer or a tweener, which is still a possible outcome for the two forwards.

Moreover, if Neal fails to adapt to Las Vegas and doesn’t re-sign, he still fetches a first round pick from a team willing to bet on his ability to fill the net in spurts.

If selected by Vegas, winger James Neal will be counted on to score a lot of goals

New Jersey Devils: D Jon Merrill

At 5M per year for the next two seasons, oft-injured forward Mike Cammalleri wouldn’t be a wise investment for the Golden Knights, but it’s certainly a challenge trying to pinpoint a valid alternative. Maybe defenseman Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout or Jon Merrill can be of use if half the roster gets intoxicated on a night out in Vegas? Is any Golden Knights’ staff member a former coach/GM of Devante Smith-Pelley, Beau Bennett or Stefan Noesen?

I’ll just email Pierre McGuire to find out, but until I get an answer back let’s pencil in Jon Merrill, the youngest, lower-priced defenseman amongst the lot referenced above.

New York Islanders: C Brock Nelson

Garth Snow got super protective of his defensemen, and decided to shield five blueliners and just three forwards before reportedly working out a deal to steer Vegas off a few more players. The various reports diverge on the identity of those – seriously, ponying up to maintain Casey Cizikas?? With that contract??? – so I just picked up the best player remaining, 25-year-old Brock Nelson, who qualifies to ghost a solid “top-six center” rendition by pitching in 20+ goals and 40+ points per season.

Forward Brock Nelson would be a great addiction to Vegas but the NY Islanders may have other ideas

Former 5th overall pick Ryan Strome would also be an intriguing selection for Vegas if they believe there’s a way to unlock his potential, while Calvin de Haan is a RFA in need of a significant raise the Golden Knights shouldn’t be eager to negotiate.

New York Rangers: C Oscar Lindberg

Goalie Antti Raanta is dying to get out from under Henrik Lundqvist’s shadow, but his chances of starring in Las Vegas don’t look promising according to the news emanating over the last few days, consequently drafting him just to trade his rights isn’t the appropriate course of action.

The Rangers have a couple of undervalued forwards lingering around the edges, and I believe Vegas could use a smart, efficient two-way forward like Oscar Lindberg, who not only shores up the lineup but could also grow into a larger role. Jesper Fast fits the same mould but is a winger, while Michael Grabner is flashy but more expensive and a UFA to be in 2018.

Ottawa Senators: D Marc Methot

Dion Phaneuf’s refusal to waive his NTC compelled the Sens to expose Methot, and since experienced, top-four blueliners don’t grow in threes and are always in demand, Vegas should take him and then proceed to explore opportunities to offload his rights. At age 31 and with two seasons to go on his hefty contract, he’s just a strange fit on the Golden Knights roster but his value surpasses any of the other options.

Ottawa’s Marc Methot may be chosen by the Golden Knights but his career could still resume elsewhere

In the improbably case they don’t see a market, nabbing fellow defenseman Fredrik Claesson would make them look clever in a hurry, since the 24-year-old Swede demonstrated during the playoffs that he’s more than ready for regular NHL duty.

Philadelphia Flyers: G Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth’s two-year, 5M pact with the Flyers reeked of expansion draft bait at the time of its signing, but that doesn’t mean the Czech goaltender is not the appropriate selection here. It would obviously depend on the other goalies Vegas will be tempted to elect (Raanta and Pickard, for example), nonetheless Neuvirth is an excellent guy to dangle around teams in need or to assume a backup role if they decide to jettison Petr Mrazek for a sweet package.

If the option is a forward, Michael Raffl should be preferred to 31-year-old Matt Read, yet Vegas may well wager on Jordan Weal, a deft 25-year-old winger with a few productive AHL seasons under his arm who has yet to stick in the NHL.

Pittsburgh Penguins: G Marc-Andre Fleury

Based on every report coming out of Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury is poised to become the first starting goalie of the Vegas Golden Knights, and the choice shouldn’t be censured despite an abundance of younger, cheaper – and maybe even better – alternatives. The 32-year-old is not only a recognizable face the Golden Knights can market, and a veteran that oozes a lively, engaging personality inside a locker room that will need time to mesh, but he’s also a goalie used to carry the load throughout a full season, thus stabilizing the net as the team gets off the ground during its first two seasons.

If, for some reason, Vegas opts for another player, expect it to be 25-year-old Bryan Rust, who hustles past Carl Hagelin in a sprint because he’s not hauling a 4M dollars trailer.

San Jose Sharks: D David Schlemko

My first leaning here was veteran Joel Ward, a proven playoff warrior title contenders would skirmish to land in exchange for an interesting haul, yet David Schlemko is the sensible option as the 30-year-old carries a 2.1M cap hit fitting of a no-frills, consistent third pairing defenseman that can move up seamlessly. Danish winger Mikkel Boedker excelled at the desert before while playing for the Arizona Coyotes, but the 12M left on his deal (2020) would hurt in case he doesn’t turn his game around.

San Jose’s unassuming blueliner David Schlemko may play for the Vegas Golden Knights next season

St. Louis Blues: LW David Perron

St. Louis’ incomprehensible decision to shelter fourth line agitator Ryan Reaves will cost them a forward with real value, and Vegas should take the time to profess the correct call. As an UFA in 2018, David Perron’s price has been plummeting for some time, but he’s still a highly skilled attacker many teams would dig in need of an offensive jolt, therefore he may be the man to watch.

Still, not further back on his trail is 24-year-old Dmitrij Jaskin, a player that craves more ice time to showcase his quality, and a plethora of wingers that were once prized prospects but never justified the hype, including Ty Rattie, Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjarvi.

Tampa Bay Lightning: D Slater Koekkoek

Taking into account Tampa Bay’s head-scratching resolution to shield Braydon Coburn, it’s probable an handshake agreement is already in place to ensure Vegas as the next destination for 32-year-old Jason Garrison, however there are better options on the table they should explore.

Slater Koekkoek, a former 10th overall pick, boasts decent size and an offensive pedigree that’s primed for a top-four role, therefore the Golden Knights should take the leap on the 23-year-old’s potential or simply go after RFA Andrej Sustr, a more valuable commodity than Garrison. Furthermore, fellow young rearguard Jack Dotchin impressed late in the season for his physical presence and may also be on Vegas’ radar.

Slatter Koekkoek is a young rearguard Vegas should target

Toronto Maple Leafs:  LW Brendan Leipsic

With more than two thirds of the Leafs roster either exempt or protected, Toronto’s list lacks clout but still contains a couple of diamonds-in-a-rough Vegas can explore, namely wingers Kerby Rychel and Brendan Leipsic. While Rychel is bigger, a few months younger, and a former first round pick, he’s still in need of more seasoning at the AHL, a league where 23-year-old Leipsic has nothing left to prove.

As a speedy, high-energy, skilled forward, the former Nashville prospect may be able to crack the Vegas lineup out of training camp and carve an important role on a lower line, injecting life into a forward group that will be short in youth.

Vancouver Canucks: C Brendan Gaunce

The Vancouver Canucks pool is a wasteland where even a below-par defenseman like Luca Sbisa stands out – and not only because of his salary – consequently it’s entirely possible Vegas just throws a dart at the board and moves on. I can envision a scenario where they take on Sbisa’s contract just to flip his rights immediately to a team that still regards him and can fit the ticket under the cap, nevertheless Vegas should just nab center Brendan Gaunce, Vancouver’s first round pick in 2012, and hope he graduates into a reliable checking pivot than can chip in offensively.

Washington Capitals: D Nate Schmidt

German goaltender Philipp Grubauer has posted excellent numbers at every professional level and would make for a great selection, but I can’t shake the feeling Vegas would hit one out of the ballpark by acquiring Nate Schmidt, whose potential is bound to be finally realized in 2017-18. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is a smooth-skating, possession-driving defenseman with good offensive instincts that would thrive in a second pairing role, and the expansion side should be the one to offer him the consistent minutes he’s clamouring for. They won’t regret it.

Nate Schmidt’s burgeoning offensive potential could impact Vegas’ blueline for years to come

Winnipeg Jets: C Marko Dano

Unless the Golden Knights have a deal in the offing for veteran defenseman Toby Enstrom, versatile forward Marko Dano is going to be the player plucked off Winnipeg, and Vegas could do much worse than the talented 22-year-old. A prolific scorer for Slovakia’s youth teams at the international stage, Dano has bounced around a bit since crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 2014, but his hardworking, speedy game should eventually translate into consistent offensive contributions at the NHL level.

 

Final roster and considerations

The greatest strength of Vegas’ inaugural roster is bound to be its depth in goal and on defence, and coach Gerard Gallant would be wise to magnify those qualities by instilling a smothering defensive system that relies on the mobility of its rearguards and the two-way acumen of some veterans up front.

On attack, as they struggle to manufacture goals due to the lack of game-breaking offensive talent for the first couple of seasons, Vegas should strive to roll four consistent lines that can check and aim to preserve the puck on the right side of the ice. The forward group colligated should be able to achieve that, while a few younger faces like Karlsson, Gaunce, Dano or Leipsic soak in important minutes that will aid in deciphering what their long-term future in the league will be.

Meanwhile, Vegas blueline looks to feature a one-through-six homogeneity that few NHL teams could match, with adequate amounts of mobility and skill scattered around despite the lack of a legitimate, minute-munching No.1 defenseman. They’ll compile a defensive corps that blends a few names who have experienced the hardships of playing against top players on a daily basis (Methot, McNabb, Vatanen, Schlemko), undervalued athletes looking for room to expand their limits (Schmidt, Dumba) and raw youngsters willing to grow (Oleksiak, Koekkoek), moulding a unit that should be the bedrock of the triumphs they may achieve.

Finally, at the net, despite all the uncertainty, it’s already been established that the expansion draft will allow Vegas to draw up its future while banking on an above-average tandem that may steal a few wins along the way and won’t sink their effort, which is something many bottom feeders can’t escape.

In short, don’t expect the Golden Knights to be the lowest ranked team in the closing 2017-18 NHL standings, and prepare for a possible playoff appearance by Year Three provided their brass doesn’t accumulate miscues and manages to hit on the multiple high draft picks to come.

Mock Expansion draft: Devising the Vegas Golden Knights roster (Part I)

NHL hockey in Las Vegas, Nevada, is getting closer and the last major step before the Golden Knights hit the ice is the selection of their roster by virtue of the upcoming expansion draft, the first in the league since 1997.

After months of anticipation, protection lists were disclosed last Sunday giving the Knights 72 hours to make their picks from each one of the other 30 NHL teams, and allowing for a few days of fun in predicting who they’re going to pry away.

Mock drafts are already trickling down the internet, and I decided to take my swing at the piñata, using the exceptional expansion draft tool provided by www.capfriendly.com to help sort through the requirements regarding positions, contract commitments for next season and salary cap considerations.

The overall philosophy that will be followed by George McPhee and his staff to build their squad is a mystery, but we know they’re looking to ice a competitive team from Year 1. Consequently, in this exercise, I’ll be looking for a mixture of useful veterans and promising youngsters that can jell together, prioritizing contracts Vegas can flip for futures right away or at the 2018 trade deadline, and avoiding long term anchors that can submarine their efforts as soon as the glut of draft picks they’re bound to acquire are ready to enjoy prime time in the NHL.

In this article, I’ll name the player I’m expecting Las Vegas to pluck away from each of their opponents, explain my reasoning, and appoint the other alternatives they may have in mind considering other perspectives of roster building. Furthermore, it has been reported that a few teams – namely Anaheim, Columbus, Chicago and the NY Islanders – have already hammered out deals with the Golden Knights to convince them to lay off from some of their prized assets, so I’ll take that into account too.

Well, enough with the introduction, here’s the future Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft roster:

Anaheim Ducks: D Sami Vatanen

The Ducks weren’t able to trade Vatanen before the roster freeze on Saturday, and are therefore on the unenviable position of having to surrender the Finn or 25-year-old Josh Manson since I’m having a tough time buying the rumours that GM Bob Murray somehow found a way to safeguard both in side deals with LV. However, if he really did, the price should be exorbitant since the remaining options are depressing.

The Golden Knights would probably be looking at a forward so… 23-year-old LW Nicolas Kerdiles, a former U. Wisconsin standout that rode a point-per-game pace in the AHL playoffs? Maybe Ducks’ fourth line forwards Logan Shaw or Chris Wagner? I don’t know, but I’m sure neither will amount to anything relevant.

Anaheim Ducks’ puck-moving defenseman Sami Vatanen is one of the best options at Vegas disposal

Arizona Coyotes: RW Alexander Burmistrov

If there weren’t so many decent defensemen available, my best “bang for the buck” pick would be 27-year-old Kevin Connauton (1M), but we should just burn a forward spot here, so I’m looking at former 8th overall pick Alex Burmistrov, a tough, skilled, versatile forward that showed signs of life in Arizona (14 pts in 26 Games) after never breaking out in Atlanta and Winnipeg. Alternatively, if they’re looking for warm bodies at center, Peter Holland and his 243 NHL games could be of interest, while Jamie McGinn is a respectable bottom-six forward but there are much better uses for his 3.3M until 2019. As for Teemu Pulkkinen, his stock has fallen so much despite decent AHL totals that I don’t see him as a credible option.

Boston Bruins: G Malcolm Subban

The Golden Knights aren’t touching Matt Beleskey or Jimmy Hayes, and, at age 30, defenseman Adam McQuaid isn’t the shrewdest allocation of 2.75M. Thus, Colin Miller, a RFA in 2018, is the obvious option and he could slot right into the top four, but I would roll the dice on young goalie Malcolm Subban. The former 1st rounder has seen his development hindered by injuries, however he would be a good asset, an option to tend the AHL net right away and an intriguing option for the main role down the road.

Young goaltender Malcolm, Subban would be an interesting pick from the Boston Bruins roster

Buffalo Sabres: G Linus Ullmark

Another promising goaltender pilfered from a team that isn’t stocked with appealing options. Vegas should stay away from Zach Bogosian and Matt Moulson – unless they have a John Tavares trade up the sleeve – and I don’t see how 22-year-old William Carrier moves the needle.

Unsaddled by the likes of Tyler Ellis and Johan Larsson, Carrier is young but lacks upside as more than a bruising forward since his scoring record isn’t stellar dating back to junior and the minors. Conversely, Ullmark is another raw, lanky (6’4) Swedish goalie that, with a bit of work, can be polished into something…or not. But I would take the chance.

Calgary Flames: C Matt Stajan

Veteran Matt Stajan could service the Golden Knights in multiple ways

The 33-year-old Stajan will be an UFA in 2018, and therefore a prime candidate for trade deadline fodder yet, in the meantime, he could alleviate the burden down the middle during Vegas’ maiden campaign. Steady pivots that can run a top-three forward line don’t abound in the expansion draft, and Stajan can ultimately provide more value than 2012 first round pick Hunter Shinkaruk, who has struggled to translate his impressive WHL offensive totals into the professional game, much less the NHL. Moreover, Troy Brouwer’s deal is already shaped like an albatross and it won’t get better over the next three years.

Carolina Hurricanes: RW Lee Stempniak

Not much of a discussion in this case, as Stempniak seems bound to don the jersey of an 11th NHL team. The 34-year-old is still capable of collecting 15+ goals on a top-six role and also fits a dual proposition, representing additional trade bait for the 2018 trade deadline. In alternative, I can also understand if the Golden Knights take a look at 25-year-old Joakim Nordstrom or, even, goalie Eddie Lack, especially if they receive some extra incentive.

Chicago Blackhawks: D Trevor Van Riemsdyk

All signs point to a side agreement between Chicago and Las Vegas that would see the Knights take on both Van Riemsdyk and center Marcus Kruger to relieve the Hawks’ cap situation, hence one of the two should hear his name called Wednesday night. However, if that’s all smoke, I believe the right option would be the 25-year-old defenseman, who still possesses a sizable upside. In the unlikely scenario a different names surfaces, we would probably be looking at Finnish blueliner Ville Pokka.

An opportunity in Vegas could do wonders for the career of defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk

Colorado Avalanche: C Mikhail Grigorenko

The first selection announced will hail from the league-worst Colorado Avalanche and we’re in for a hell of a start. In the lamest sense of the word, as the Avs, naturally, are short in any semblance of unprotected impact players.

They covered the likes of Matt Nieto, Blake Comeau and Sven Andrighetto just because they had no one else, and that’s not a great omen for my choice, 23-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, the  12th overall pick in 2012 the Sabres gave up on and the Avs are ready to bail out on too. However, he’s a skilled young forward, and to balance out the choices he’s a better fit than goalie Calvin Pickard, who is too valuable to be a third or fourth string option (like Subban and Ullmark) and not good enough to beat the two starting goalies to come.

Columbus Blue Jackets: C William Karlsson

Reports indicate the Jackets are ready to toss a package including a first round pick and a prospect to retain defenseman Jack Johnson, forward Josh Anderson and goalie Joonas Korpisalo, therefore the Knights should have their work cut out for them. William Karlsson is 24 years old, fast improving, as he displayed in the playoffs, and a good third-line center that I think could bump his way up the ladder if necessary. There’s a world where Vegas chooses Matt Calvert instead, but it’s not this one.

Swedish Center William Karlsson could thrive in Vegas in a larger role

Dallas Stars: D Jamie Oleksiak

Provided there’s no extra motivation to grab a goalie like Kari Lehtonen, the best odds regarding the selection from Dallas’ roster may belong to Cody Eakin, but I’m not sure Vegas wants to get stuck with a third line center making 3.85M per year until 2020, and whose upside is the 40-point range. Instead, I would rather clutch my hands on their collection of young defenseman and snatch either 25-year-old Patrik Nemeth or, preferably, hulking yet mobile blueliner Jamie Oleksiak, ready at age 24 to fill a larger role and capable of firing up a crowd with crushing body blows from time to time.

Detroit Red Wings: G Petr Mrazek

The availability of Petr Mrazek was one of the major surprises of Saturday’s unveiling, yet Vegas can’t overthink the issue and should move swiftly to tag the talented Czech goaltender regardless of the supposed character flaws that may have been the basis of Detroit’s decision. The 25-year-old has shown the ability to carry a team on his back for stretches, and could ultimately get peddled or challenged to usurp the starting job.

Petr Mrazek’s destiny is up in the air after the Red Wing’ surprising decision

In the eventuality McPhee gets cold feet, he has other options: young defensemen Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet are there for the taking and both are capable of cracking their defensive rotation next season.

Edmonton Oilers: LW Benoit Pouliot

Vegas would be doing the Oilers a favour by taking 30-year-old Benoit Pouliot, yet there are a few reasons why they should think about it. At 4M per year, Pouliot is expensive for what he brings to the table but not unreasonably so, he can score, his ability to play up and down the lineup could come in handy, he’s an experienced player but not necessarily in decline and, just as relevant, the other options are nothing to write about. Sure, they can yank another goalie in Laurent Brossoit or take a flyer in a dwindling Griffin Reinhart, but they’ll eventually need solid hockey players and Pouliot could assist in securing a few wins.

Florida Panthers: RW Reilly Smith

The Panthers’ protection list elicited a lot of discussion as a result of some interesting choices and, in turn, provided a lot of fodder for Las Vegas staff, as they’ll have, at least, three excellent players to argue about.

At first, I jumped at the opportunity to select defenseman Jason Demers, but a logjam on defence may be brewing so perhaps it makes more sense to split hairs between forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Coming off a 30-goal breakout season and boasting a trifling 750k cap hit, the tiny Marchessault looks tantalizing but only until you notice he’s a UFA in 2018 and won’t shoot 15.5% forever. Conversely, Smith has a better track record – both from scoring and possession viewpoints – and is signed to a solid 5M cap hit through his prime seasons. He’s the logical choice here.

Florida Panthers’ forward Reilly Smith is one of the best players available in the expansion draft

Los Angeles Kings: D Brayden McNabb

How far down have slid the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Champions? Despite protecting just four forwards, the Kings’ offense leaks nothing of note since the remaining players are old, broken down and signed for too long (Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik), or simply not good enough (Lewis, Nolan, Clifford). I suppose the Golden Knights scouted Nic Dowd (27 years old) and Nick Shore (24), but it’s difficult to anticipate they’ll be able to venture away from the probable path: selecting 26-year-old blueliner Brayden McNabb, a UFA in 2018 who, at times, partnered Drew Doughty, and then see if they feel like searching for a match to work out a trade.

Minnesota Wild: D Matt Dumba

Chuck Fletcher was another GM that spent the last few weeks trying to solve his expansion draft riddle and, as far as we know, he was unsuccessful, since the Wild ended up exposing many players they would definitely like to keep. The good news, though, is that Vegas can only tap one and it won’t be Eric Staal or Erik Haula.

Marco Scandella would be a strong addiction as a 27-year-old, top-four blueliner signed at 4M until 2020, but I just don’t see how you spurn 22-year-old Matt Dumba, a physical, offensive-minded blue liner just scratching the surface of his potential, and someone who can be part of the foundation of this team for the next decade.

(Please click here for Part II)

The Notebook: 2017 Roland Garros (Women’s singles)

The pre-tournament buzz in Roland Garros focused entirely on the wholly unpredictable nature of the women’s event, and two weeks later, pundits couldn’t have been more on point. The clay Major surely could have used the star power of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, but the wide-open tournament ultimately didn’t disappoint in terms of drama, intensity, gamesmanship and self-combusting, captivating narratives until its epilogue with the coronation of a stunning, first time Grand Slam Champion.

Hence, time to dust off the notebook and run through the characters and storylines that dominated the fortnight in the terre batue of Paris.

  • Schedule makers have a way of sensing how to kick off their tournament with a bang and in Paris, once again, we were presented with a crash-and-burn special from a contender in the first hours of action. Not that anyone was expecting anything grandiose from World No.1 Angelique Kerber, who had yet to beat a top-20 opponent in 2017 and accumulated first round exits in the tune-up events, yet getting dispatched without as much as a speck of a fight isn’t the attitude expected from a player of her status. Handed out a tough first assignment in Ekaterina Makarova, a former top-10 player who relishes the big stages, the German failed the test emphatically as she struggled to find her footing, her spirit and her shots in the red clay to become the first women’s top seed to lose in the 1st round of Roland Garros in the Open Era. At the mercy of mathematics and the performance of her closest rivals, Kerber eventually retained her spot but for how long?

Angelique Kerber’s campaign in Roland Garros ended in Day 1 of the 2017 edition

  • Kerber was the main scalp of the early days, but the list of underachieving players that couldn’t validate the established hierarchies encompasses a few more relevant actors. For instance, another woman struggling to re-enact the stellar exhibitions of 2016, Dominika Cibulkova (6th seed), vanquished in round two by Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who went from lucky loser to trailblazer in a matter of days by becoming the first Arab woman to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam. Johanna Konta (7) cruised through the first set against Taiwanese Su-Wei Hsieh and seemed well on her way to a first career win in Paris only to collapse to the World No. 116. Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe (19) dissolved at the hands of another player ranked outside the top-100, Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, the fans she rubbed the wrong way rejoiced and her coach was dismissed. Fellow American Madison Keys (12) stamped an important victory as she gaits on the comeback trail, but then run out of batteries against a qualifier. Agnieszka Radwanska (9) did what she usually does at the Slams: bag a couple of wins, bow out meekly and unceremoniously when adversity, in the form of home favourite Alizé Cornet, stood on her way to greater things.

 

  • Emanating an entirely different vibe while saying goodbye to Paris was Czech Petra Kvitova (15), the heart-warming story of the first week. A surprise participant just six months after the home assault that could have terminated her tennis career, the two-time Wimbledon Champion welcomed back delighted tennis fans with a beaming smile and showed the worst is in the past as her stabbed hand and tendons withstood the challenge. Fighting rust and lacking match fitness, Kvitova defeated Julia Boserup in round one as her dominant left ripped 31 winners, and later succumbed to Bethanie Mattek-Sands after two hard-fought tie-breaks. Nevertheless, the most important had already been accomplished and the 27-year-old is almost ready to resume contender status in Major tournaments, maybe as soon as Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova aknowledges the crowd after her first round victory in Paris

  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (8) is a tough nut to crack as her level fluctuates wildly during the season, especially in the latter part of her career, yet a decent clay-court season and a game relying on smarts and an exquisite variety of spins and slices promised to serve her well as she navigated a draw that lacked a alfa dog. The Russian was my pick for the title, hopefully energized by a golden chance to add another Roland Garros title on the backend of her career, but the 31-year-old never looked comfortable, much less dominant as she saw off Christina McHale in two long sets and then narrowly squeaked by Oceane Dodin and Shuai Zhang in the following rounds. Her campaign would end with a dispiriting effort against Caroline Wozniacki, where she rattled off the unforced errors (41 to 26 winners) and botched successive attempts to nudge the Dane into uncomfortable situations with her serve or net play. All in all, it was certainly a huge opportunity that went to waste.

 

  • Defending Champion Garbiñe Muguruza (4) faced an uphill battle to retain her crown from day one as the pressure of having to hold on to a boatload of points conspired with a mined path ahead, yet the first signs were reassuring towards dispelling notions of fragility. The Spaniard bounced back from an early setback to knock off Anett Kontaveit and closed out straight set wins over former Champion Francesca Schiavone and 2016 QF Yulia Putintseva to reach round four unscathed, however the temperature was about to rise exponentially. Next up was preeminent French hope Kiki Mladenovic to materialize one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament and, unfortunately, Muguruza shrank under the weight of expectations and the antics of the hostile crowd, squandering an erratic serving performance by her opponent to fizzle out in three sets. Intermittent since transforming into a Grand Slam Champion, maybe the cordial 23-year-old can recapture her best tennis now that the memories of Roland Garros are in the rear-view.

Garbiñe Muguruza wasn’t able to glimpse the finish line this time at Roland Garros

  • Players who came out of nowhere to stretch their campaigns into the second week of the French Open: Veronica Cepede Royg and Petra Martic. The 24-year-old Royg made history for Paraguay by reaching the fourth round and her path was far from a cakewalk, ousting former finalist Lucie Safarova and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) – one of the most consistent WTA Tour performers in 2017 – before labouring to push Karolina Plískova to the brink, leading 4-3 in the third before the Czech took over. Meanwhile, the Croatian Martic chained six consecutives triumphs in Paris (including the qualifying), took down 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova, and was frightfully close to shocking Elina Svitolina in round four, leading 5-2, 0-30 in the third until the Ukrainian whipped into a frenzy to nab 20 of the next 24 pts.

 

  • France is still looking for someone to succeed Mary Pierce, the 2000 women’s winner, on the Roland Garros panel of singles Champions, but the 2017 edition left everyone convinced that the ladies are due to break the drought sooner than the men. Caroline Garcia (28) finally took a step forward, trudging into the latter stages of a Slam for the first time at the expenses of countrywoman Alizé Cornet, but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome the stout Plískova in the QFs despite fervent support from the home fans.

 

  • Meanwhile, Kiki Mladenovic (14) endured epic third-set escapades in rounds one (Jennifer Brady) and three (Shelby Rogers), and seemed destined to reach the stars buoyed by a singular ability to embrace and channel the energy from outside until her dream was crushed in the last eight. Her impressive blend of athleticism and shot-making was, at times, exhilarating but lacked baseline consistency to deal with the resourcefulness and variety present in Tímea Bacsinszcky’s display during their bumpy QF encounter. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old Mladenovic will be back next year and probably in an even better condition to challenge for the trophy.

The rapport established between Kiki Mladenovic and the French public wasn’t enough to get her over the hump

  • Elina Svitolina (5) arrived in Paris on the heels of a WTA Tour best 31 wins and four titles in 2017, boasting a wealth of confidence after triumphing in Rome and carrying previous history at Roland Garros she could tap on (2010 Junior title and breakthrough QF appearance in 2015). What she lacked, though, was the experience of being a Grand Slam favourite and the pressure that comes with it. In the first week, the top female players can manage to slip through it but as soon as the schedule dwindles and the limelight shifts and intensifies, mental cracks get amplified and even an unheralded opponent like Petra Martic can augment into a tricky obstacle. In the fourth round, Svitolina was able to patch the fissures just in time and she did it so delicately that for much of the QF blockbuster versus Simona Halep her forehand looked unstoppable, her serve unsolvable and her resolve unbreakable. However, up 5-1 in the second, she relieved the stiches just a bit while daydreaming of a maiden SF appearance and her opponent took the chance to see if there was something else to get out of the match. It wasn’t long before momentum switched for good, the lead evaporated, Svitolina panicked like a novice and balls started to weight tenfold on her racket. One bicycle wheel later, she was off on a devastating ride home.

 

  • Karolina Plískova (2) may be a fish out of water in clay, flopping around the court awkwardly and gasping for air after having to play one, two, three more shots than she’s used to, but the Czech is also a top player with weapons few others possess and she knows that. Consequently, even if her stupendous first serve bites much less, her second serve gets blunted and her flat strokes dulled bouncing on the crushed brick, Plískova realizes the smaller margins of error shouldn’t change her approach or gameplan. In Paris, the 25-year-old stuck to her guns to advance through five rounds with little fanfare and under different degrees of duress, and found herself unexpectedly just one win away from assuming the World No. 1. On the other side of the net lined up a player, Halep, of similar calibre and ambition but considerably more suited for the grind to come than a lanky, machine-like ball striker. And the Romanian won in three sets, naturally, to take the spot in the final and refer Plískova to the grass practice courts, where things will look significantly different and enticing prospects await the Czech.

Karolina Plískova’s serve got her out of trouble multiple times at Roland Garros

  • For a 13-year veteran with undeniable talent, Timea Bacsinszky’s résumé is sparse in honours, counting just four singles titles and few deep runs at landmark tournaments. However, there’s no rebuffing that she’s found a home on the terre batue of Roland Garros and the results speak for themselves as the Swiss reached the last eight in Paris for the third consecutive season with a crafty combination of versatility on the forehand, deceiving power, especially off the backhand, ability to slice and dice at will, and a distinctive propensity for well-disguised drop shots. Despite that, Bacsinszky (30) was overlooked at the start of the tournament only to dismantle her first three opponents, rout Venus Williams in the last two sets in round four and squash the French faithful with a composed, methodical takedown of Kiki Mladenovic in the QF. After that triumph, the 28-year-old surely fantasised with hoisting the trophy two years after losing to Serena Williams in the SF, but she too struggled to tame Ostapenko when the Latvian found another gear in the third set of their semi-final affair.

Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in action at the Court Philippe Chartier

  • Simona Halep (3) was the closest figure cutting unanimous favouritism entering Roland Garros but a rolled ankle in the days leading up to her debut tempered expectations and, oddly, the Romanian seemed to benefit from it. She usually begins the Slams in a tentative way and that would only ramp up with the extra attention, however the Constanta-native racked up routine victories throughout the first week and destroyed clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in round four with an immaculate exhibition of top-notch counterattacking tennis to confirm her title bid. Halep was ready to avenge her loss to Svitolina in the Final at Rome, but for close to an hour she was engulfed by her rival’s masterclass in controlled aggression. Until, of course, the moment Svitolina’s level slipped and Halep unexpectedly found a handle on the game, her tactical nous slowly chopping down the 1-5 disadvantage in the second and staving off a match point before prevailing in the tie break. The third set would prove nothing more than a formality with her opponent heart-broken, and the Romanian started gearing up for the next commitment, a clash with World No.2 Karolina Plískova, another player whose balls she would have to hunt down relentlessly.

 

  • The semi-final between the two most decorated competitors left in the field was a fascinating two-hour battle of attrition between players with contrasting styles. While Pliskova tried to blast the points open as early as possible by pouncing on the rising balls and targeting the lines, Halep looked to return everything, force her opponent back by going long and high and surprise by redirecting the ball while transitioning from defence to offense quickly. None got her way decisively as every set was decided by an extra break but, in the end, the Romanian just had more options to draw the line and prevailed to repeat her Final appearance of 2014. Yet, this time it wasn’t Maria Sharapova standing on the other side and Halep wasn’t the wide-eyed debutant. She would face an unseeded youngster with nothing to lose and unwavering belief in her own game.

Simona Halep celebrates after ousting Elina Svitolina in the Quarter-Finals

  • Five months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, a 19-year-old Latvian girl was on the verge of ousting the World No.5 and stride into uncharted territory, the second week of a Grand Slam. Up 5-2 in the final set, Jelena Ostapenko got “tight”, in her own words, and Karolina Plískova moved on instead. A few weeks later, in Charleston, the same teenager wasted a brilliant run to her first clay final with a mistake-laden performance against another promising youngster, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, whose measured, nifty style disrupted Ostapenko’s rhythm so much that defeat came in the brunt of a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in just over one hour. Watching the trophy presentation, I couldn’t help to think Kasatkina’s surgical efficiency would yield a breakthrough performance soon while the Latvian’s go-for broke rush would need time to deliver a standout result, much less in the slowest of surfaces. Fast forward less than two months and that impatient, streaky, volatile adolescent is a Grand Slam Champion, a National hero and the newest star of the WTA Tour.

 

  • Most tennis aficionados have known about Ostapenko since 2015, and the danger she could present in any given day to any opponent was well documented. A ferocious ball-striker that hits as fast, as clean and as hard as anyone in women’s tennis, her draw placement at Roland Garros, on the section of an hobbling Angelique Kerber, opened leeway for a breakthrough campaign should Ostapenko manage to adapt to the fluctuating weather conditions and how those could affect her timings. Incidentally, the Latvian would drop her first set at the tournament, but progressed to round two by rallying over the next two, and she would follow that framework to a tee several times during her magical campaign, toppling former finalist Sam Stosur and her heavy top spin in round four, and eventually putting the field on notice by draining a barrage of winners on the Tour’s foremost defender, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

Jelena Ostapenko prepares to zip another forehand during a match at the 2017 French Open

  • Her semi-final opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, in many ways bears a resemblance to Daria Kasatkina’s game, and it was fitting that Ostapenko used the semi-final to showcase the improvements that a short stint under the direction of clay-court specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues provided to complement her bread-and-butter all-out aggression. While at her best planted on the baseline smacking the ball, Ostapenko’s quicker movement and body adjustments sustained her disposition to step inside the court, deal with Bacsinszky’s changes of speed and finish at the net, as well as an effort to dictate at a lower cadence and deliver safer, brushed strokes not necessarily aimed for the lines at all times. It would work as she edged past the Swiss to secure a spot in the 2017 Women’s singles Final.

 

  • It would have been understandable if the 20-year-old took a few minutes to settle into the ambiance of the biggest match of her career, but Ostapenko came out blazing, broke at love in the first game and kept swinging freely throughout, unfazed by the pressure, the nerves, the weight of the occasion, the evolution of the score, the futile attempts of her rival to force her into a corner. Lashing onto every ball headed her way, she kept following her own brand of high-risk/high-reward tennis, gunning relentlessly for winners from everywhere and in any shape or form: ripping cross court or down the line, on the run or returning a serve, forehand or backhand, all while dismissing negative thoughts and self-doubt with a growl or a sardonic smile towards her box regardless of how many errors she would queue at times. It was a firebrand festival of power, obstinacy and competitive adrenaline that many times resorted into a one-person recital, with Halep shoved into the sidelines, “a spectator” on what was also her show, unable to say her own lines, to impact the game using her superb defensive skills as the ball blew past her, sometimes drifting wide or long, sometimes landing between the white lines.

Jelena Ostapenko serves against the backdrop of a packed stadium in Paris

  • In the pivotal moments, a set and 3-0 down in the second, and later trailing 3-1 in the third, Ostapenko actually cranked up the intensity, tried to hit even earlier, even harder, to further take the destiny out of the Romanian’s hands and eradicate any chances she could conjure an alternative course of action. Maybe by instigating fewer cross-court exchanges that vacated the corridors, looking to force her rival to hit from a central location, or perhaps experiment with slices, drop shots and even moon balls to halt the Latvian’s furious pace.

 

  • On the back of 54 winners and equal number of unforced errors, the Riga-native eventually guaranteed an opportunity to wrap up the match, and she didn’t hesitate to launch another backhand missile on the return, directing the ball down the line one final time and raising her arms for the first time, in an incredibly restrained reaction from a 20-year-old who had just won her maiden professional title at a Grand Slam, something not seen in two decades. The same premature composure displayed on court would reverberate as she acknowledged the crowd and filled her media obligations, poised, collected and discoursing with no hesitations as if she hadn’t just become Latvia’s first Grand Slam winner, the youngest Major Champion in a decade and the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. Just another remarkable image to bookend a bizarre yet fascinating tournament.

Jelena Ostapenko holds the first rophy of her professional career, Roland Garros’ Coupe Suzanne Lenglen

NHL playoff series digested: St. Louis Blues – Nashville Predators (2-4)

Coming off two upsets in the first round, long-time Division rivals St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators crossed paths for the first time in their playoff history with a spot in the Western Conference Final on the line.

For the Blues, a success would have represented a second consecutive appearance in the third round, something they haven’t accomplished since 1970, however Nashville proved stronger, labouring past them to rewrite the franchise’s history books, winning two consecutive playoff series for the first time ever.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 4 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 2: Nashville Predators 2 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 3: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

Game 4: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 1 @ 2 St. Louis Blues

Game 6: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

 

Nashville’s blueline drives the offense

Any sensible NHL observer already knew about the embarrassment of riches on the Preds blueline and the way the backend impacts every aspect of Nashville’s game, including the generation of scoring chances, nonetheless an offensive outburst in the biggest of stages always helps drilling the point home.

In this series, the top three point getters – tied with five points – were all Predators defenseman as Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and PK Subban ruled the show while their forwards took a backseat after contributing decisively to the stunning sweep of Chicago.

For instance, Ellis scored in three consecutive matches (Games 2 to 4), including the opening goals in Game 3 and 4, to fire up the home crowd, while his partner, Josi, contributed with the insurance tally in Game 4 before tying the score in the series-clinching Game 6 off a gorgeous cross ice feed by fellow blueliner Matthias Ekholm.

Roman Josi reacts after scoring Nashville’s third goal in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The physical Swedish defenseman put up just one other assist during the six-game slate, yet his work smothering Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues top line was top-rate, allowing accomplice PK Subban to spread his wings offensively, namely in Game 1, when he notched a goal and two assists.

Furthermore, third pairing defensemen Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, while pointless in just under 12 min of TOI/GP, dominated in the possession front (59 adj. CF%) and also in scoring chances (26-18 SCF) differential to round out a group that really carried the mail in the series.

Special Teams forge separation between the sides

Against the Minnesota Wild in round one, the St. Louis Blues were able to survive a rotten powerplay effort (6.7% PP conversion) due to Jake Allen’s heroics, yet very few teams are able to plow through the grind of the NHL postseason without some timely contributions from the man advantage.

The eight best group in the regular season desperately needed to regain its mojo in time, but the second round brought an equally discombobulated unit that mimicked the numbers (1/15, the same 6.7%) recorded in the previous series, and it would prove the difference as the Predators middling (15th-ranked PK and 16th-ranked PP during the regular season) special teams stepped up.

Predators’ defenseman Ryan Ellis shovels the puck past Jake Allen in Game 4 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

At even strength, Nashville and St. Louis scored 10 times apiece, but the Blues third- ranked penalty kill (84.3%) was bested in 4 of 17 opportunities, including twice in Game 1, facilitating the road triumph Nashville would need to advance, and once in Game 4, when Ryan Ellis broke the ice in the third period to push the Blues to the brink of elimination.

Moreover, the same Ellis blasted the opener in Game 3 just three seconds after Ryan Reaves elbowing penalty expired, another critical moment on a series where Vladimir Tarasenko’s lone Blues PP tally allowed his team to level Game 2 before snatching victory.  Since both teams enjoyed virtually the same time with the man advantage – 28:12 min for St. Louis versus 28:10 min for Nashville – buying an extra couple of goals, especially on the road, would have been a perfect springboard to rally the Blues back in the series.

Pekka Rinne outlasts Jake Allen in battle of hot goalies

Going into this series, there was no way to dance around the juiciest storyline: goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen, otherworldly during the first round, were about to stare down each other and who would blink first?

It turned out both men did, performing below their high standards in Games 1 and 2 to come back to Earth, splitting wins while clocking below-0.900 Sv%, but eventually settling down over the next four matches, tight affairs that ended up as a pair of 2-1 encounters, a 3-1 showdown with an empty netter aggregated and a 3-1 Predators victory in Game 4.

Goaltenders Pekka Rinne (#35) and Jake Allen (#34) greet each other in the handshake line after Game 6 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Under such thin margins of error, Rinne would prevail over Allen by conceding just five goals in 112 shots for an outstanding 0.955 Sv%, while Allen filed in a good-but-not-great 0.918 Sv% (eight in 98) on a stretch that included three games in Nashville, where the Predators and their Finnish goaltender stringed nine consecutive playoff games.

Overall, another test passed with flying colours by Pekka Rinne, who finished the second round with a 1.37 GAA and a 0.951 Sv% in 10 postseason games.

Best players in the series

Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues)

With sniper Vladimir Tarasenko getting roughed up at every opportunity, linemate Jaden Schwartz tried to pick up the slack similarly to what he did in round 1 though he fell short this time. In six games, the 24-year-old posted two goals in 18 shots and four even strength points in just over 21 mins of ice-time per game, but still managed to maintain his head above water both in terms of possession (50.95 adj CF%) and scoring chances (50.9 SCF%).

St. Louis forward Jaden Schwartz flicks the puck past Rinne in Game 5 (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

Honourable mention for defenseman Joel Edmundson, whose +6 rating and 4 points collected alongside Colton Parayko on the Blues most effective pairing capped off a breakout spring campaign that gets slightly bogged down by a 7:1 giveaway/takeaway ratio in round two.

Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators)

Amongst the cadre of Nashville’s high-flying rearguards, Ellis earns the cake because of his three-goal bundle, including two opening markers which forced the Blues to chase Games 3 and 4.

Additionally, the fully-bearded 26-year-old assisted twice, hurled 13 shots on goal and blocked a series-high 19 shots launched at his own net in 22:35 mins of TOI/GP. His partnership with Roman Josi suffered through some ups and downs, as illustrated by a 43.59 5 on 5 adj CF% and 44.9 SCF%, but there’s no denying the direct impact on the Predators’ accomplishment.

Will the St. Louis Blues return to the playoffs next year? 

Maybe. The Central Division promises to be even more competitive next year with Dallas and Winnipeg expected to mount better challenges, but don’t count the Blues out just yet even if their margin for improvement isn’t encouraging.

In fact, St. Louis is bumping against the cap ceiling and the few millions in store (5M) are earmarked for 24-year-old stud Colton Parayko, a RFA with arbitration rights that may be a prime target for an offer sheet this summer. However, don’t hold your breath as GM Doug Armstrong has indicated he’ll match any proposal since he can open critical space without shaking the foundations by swinging David Perron (3.75M), a 2018 UFA.

Re-signing towering defenseman Colton Parayko should be St. Louis’ main priority this offseason (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

If more is required, top-line pivot Paul Stastny, whose four-year, 28 M pact agreed in 2014 expires next summer, could be an option despite Jori Lehtera’s status as a preferable remittance at 4.7 M (2019). Meanwhile, trading Patrick Berglund (3.85M until 2022) and veteran Alex Steen (NTC, 5.75M until 2021) is tougher as both possess some kind of No-trade protection for some reason.

Fortunately, Vladimir Tarasenko (2023) and Jaden Schwartz (2021) are locked down at decent rates, as is Captain Alex Pietrangelo (2020) and starting goalie Jake Allen (2021), consequently, outside of Parayko, the Blues’ main concerns this offseason relate to the outer edges of the roster. Will fourth-liner Scottie Upshall return? Will they retain the rights for RFAs Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjavi, two former lottery-picks who haven’t pan out? Who will be the seventh defenseman?

Not exactly roster-breaking resolutions nor expected to impact what must be taken care off in 2018: potentially tricky negotiations with the fast-improving Joel Edmundson (23-years-old) and Robby Fabbri (21).