Month: July 2015

Summer Tournaments everywhere – A recap of football’s club-offseason (II)

(For the 1st part of this article, thoughts on the U-20 World Cup and the U-21 European Championships, go here)

Copa América

The 2015 edition of the South American footballing festival took place in Chile and ended the country’s hunger for a major tournament win, with the hosts lifting the trophy for the first time in their history.

Outside of the arbitral controversies that always permeate these events one way or another, and that, in some moments, surely helped Chile advance, the eventual Champions were no less deserving of the honours, performing admirably in front of their fans and never succumbing to the pressure of carrying the hopes of an entire nation. Masterfully implementing an all-out attacking style of play that seduced every football fan and made the best of their stars, with the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas free to roam the pitch, interchange positions and pounce on goal at every occasion, Chile supplemented its swashbuckling, intense system with an extremely high line of defence and pressure all over the field.

Chile’s golden generation finally celebrated a title

As such, Chile’s games were synonymous with highly-entertaining football and it’s no surprise that the best match of the tournament, and probably the entire football year, was their group finale against Mexico, a 3-3 thriller that awed every spectator with uncountable chances and top-class finishes.

Such exciting brand of football proved risky for the hosts, caught off-guard on defence several times, but didn’t stopped them from sticking with their guns and believing on a defence that embodies the spirit of his leader. Gary Medel, the “Pitbull”, spent the games dispatching service where fires emerged, tightly harassing opposing strikers, and encouraging his team from a backend that navigated between a line of 3 or 4 elements. The variation relied on the position of Marcelo Diaz, the astute Hamburg defensive midfielder that split attentions between helping out his centre backs and using his passing skills to transition the play to the offense quickly, a must for Chile’s system.

Eduardo Vargas scored the goal that sent Chile to the final

In front of Diaz, an impressive midfield got complete with the world-class talent of Arturo Vidal, who may well have been the least remarkable of the sector since he lagged behind the performances of the cerebral Jorge Valdivia, absolutely magical at times exploring the runs of his forwards, and the tireless Charles Aránguiz. Two “carrileros” on the wings provided support and width while, on the attack, Sanchez and Vargas were a nightmare for opposing defences due to their mobility, speed and spontaneity. And lest we forget the starting goaltender, FC Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, whose calm demeanour bounced on his teammates in stressful moments, and who only allowed a goal outside of the Mexico game (Chile was already qualified to the quarter-finals by then).

The side prepared by Jorge Sampaoli was far from a surprise, having already been one of the most distinguished teams at last year’s World Cup, but it was inspiring to see the golden generation of Chilean football finally come through, seven years after Marcelo Bielsa started the work that Sampaoli smartly completed and built on after taking over in 2012.

However, the Argentinian coach shouldn’t be depreciated, since he did a perfect job adapting his team for the final, playing much more conservatively in order to reduce the space Messi and Pastore had to manufacture on the final third. The 0-0 decider didn’t have the beauty of the rest of Chile’s performances but Sampaoli played his cards right and got lucky on the penalty shootout.

Beyond the new South American Champions, reflexions on the other contenders:

Peru was the most interesting squad outside of the versatile Chileans, going off in the semi-final against the hosts but only after displaying incredible fighting spirit, coming back to tie the game after seeing captain Lobatón sent off early on the first half. Right back Luis Advíncula and midfielder Christian Cueva were players that saw their quotation sky rock during the tournament, but veterans like Jefferson Farfán, Juan Vargas and Paolo Guerreiro performed admirably for the generally young side under the guidance of Ricardo Gareca. In particular, Guerreiro ended the tournament as the joint top goal scorer (4 goals) alongside Chile’s Eduardo Vargas, with an hat-trick against Bolivia, in the quarter-finals, pushing him towards renewing an accolade he had already collected in 2011.

Lionel Messi and Javier Pastore were unstoppable against Paraguay in the semi-finals

Argentina’s 22-year title drought continues despite Messi’s best efforts, with his senior résumé still missing that elusive international award. He lost his third final, after the 2007 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup, and had to watch hopelessly as his teammates failed to follow his lead even in the decisive penalty shootout. In comparison with the squad that lost the final last year, Tata Martino kept the main pieces but made slight chances in personal, the most important of which was the inclusion of Javier Pastore as a playmaker, shifting Messi wide. The crafty PSG midfielder slowly clicked with Angel Di Maria and the Barcelona superstar, and the Argentinian’s kept improving as the tournament progressed, resulting in the 6-1 thumping of Paraguay in the semis, with the trio producing a glittering display. It was a real shame they couldn’t build on that momentum after losing Di Maria’s dazzling runs during the final due to injury.

• Eager to put behind the “Maracanazo”, the Brazilian national team had high hopes for this Copa America but Dunga’s group showed the same problems of the World Cup. Extreme overreliance in Neymar, who got kicked out of the competition following the defeat against Colombia in the second match, a sub-par defensive scheme, and individual mistakes that just can’t be accepted at this level of competition. Whilst Neymar was already on vacation, the experienced Thiago Silva committed an absurd penalty to allow Paraguai to tie the quarter-final encounter and eventually go through on penalties. Most of the squad was sick heading into that game, but that’s just not enough to dismiss the idea that, had they went on, the title was an illusion without the services of their star winger. Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian are nice players, partially covering for the imagination absent without Neymar, but it’s just depressing when the best Brazil can muster, with an international competition on the line, is a forward unit consisting of Diego Tardelli, Roberto Firmino and a 31-year-old Robinho.

Derlis González penalty ended Brazil’s hopes of conquering the Copa América

Paraguay completed the semi-finals alignment not only due to Brazil’s screw ups but also because of the bravery, belief and resiliency shown over the entire tournament, especially on the draw snatched against Argentina on the inaugural fixture, coming back from two goals down. Ramon Diaz’s team lacked the talent of some of its rivals but reaped the benefits of a successful mix between savvy strikers like Lucas Barrios and younger creators such as Edgar Benitez and Derlis González, the skilled 21-year-old Basel forward.

• For a Colombian team that disappointed after last year’s run in Brazil, 23-year-old center-back Jeison Murillo was the revelation – earning the nomination as the best young player of the competition – and, most disturbingly, the only goal scorer, since “Los Cafeteros” failed to find the back of the net on any other opportunity despite all the firepower upfront. The roster oriented by José Pékerman failed to score against Venezuela and Peru, and left the competition after a disastrous penalty shootout against Argentina, in a match they only dragged that long because of several incredible saves by goalkeeper David Ospina.

• The defending Champions, Uruguay, were usurped by the eventual Champions in a polemic quarter-final match, but they weren’t far from going out even earlier, having narrowly edged Jamaica for their only win in Chile. Without the suspended Luiz Suárez, “Los Charrúas” suffered to score goals and an unsettled Edison Cavani didn’t help their cause, even if the defence was as stout as usual, with Atletico Madrid’s José Giménez and Diego Godin manning the backend with aplomb.

Women’s World Cup

An historical tournament, a tremendous event, and a big step forward for the world of football on the female side: the 2015 World Cup beat attendance and television records from previous editions, proved that the decision to expand to 24 national teams had solid foundations to stand on, and boasted unprecedented following on all platforms and major countries. All of this was only possible due to the excellent level of play and competitiveness throughout the 52 matches that definitely turned the Women’s World Cup into the second biggest event, at the country level, in the sport. And, hopefully, FIFA will realise that playing it on turf, like some secondary tournament, can’t (WON’T!) happen ever again.

The BC Place, in Vancouver, sold out for several matches during the 2015 Women’s World Cup

Focusing on what occurred on the field, the United States of America celebrated at the end, triumphing over defending Champions Japan on the final held almost on their own backyard, in Vancouver, Canada. With the win, the Americans become the first team to lift the trophy in three occasions (1991, 1999, 2015), leaving the company of Germany, the only other repeating Champion (2003, 2007).

The eventual winners got better as the tournament progressed after a hesitating group phase and reached their peak just at the right time, building momentum as their performances and confidence increased during the knockout rounds. If the team commanded by Jill Ellis was lucky to reach the half time break of their inaugural game tied 1-1 with Australia, they wouldn’t see another ball go past their goaltender until the Final of the competition, showcasing an unexpected defensive efficiency that allowed the attack to found its stride. The Americans eventually managed to take their first game by 3-1, but scored only once during the following two matches (0-0 against Sweden and 1-0 over Nigeria) before sweating to break the resistance of Colombia on the round of 16, benefiting from the sent-off of the opposing goalie early on the second half.

Morgan Brian’s insertion on the lineup was key to get the USA (white) past Germany (red)

However, Colombia’s game was a turning point to the team, since the suspensions to two starters, midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, forced Ellis to explore other options heading into the quarter-final against China. The coach decided to drop 35-year-old striker Abby Wambach, the most prolific goal scorer in international women’s football history, to the bench and inserted 22-year-old Morgan Brian in the line-up, opening the door to a tactical change that ultimately solved their offensive shortcomings. Without Wambach, Alex Morgan was left as the lone forward and the team unleashed the in-form Carli Lloyd to focus on producing offense, with Holiday and Brian providing the defensive backing on the midfield. Thus, moving away from a static, predictable, overwrought 4-4-2 where the target of Wambach’s head was too big to resist, a new 4-2-3-1 system emerged, allowing for more possession and player movement, with Lloyd and wingers Rapinoe and Tobin Heath blossoming.

After dispatching China with a header by Lloyd, on the semi-final against Germany, the number one team in the World, the Americans undoubtedly caught two huge breaks: Julie Johnston escaping a red card for the fault that gave the Germans a penalty missed with the game still tied 0-0; and Alex Morgan stopped at the outside edge of the box on the other end, with the referee awarding the penalty Lloyd would convert to open the score.

However, on the final, the USWNT held no prisoners, obliterating the team that had defeated them four years prior, at the same stage, with 4 goals in the first 16 minutes, including an hat trick for Lloyd completed with this ridiculous tally.

Carly Lloyd (#10) put on the performance of a lifetime on the World Cup final

Naturally, the New Jersey-native was the star of the tournament, receiving the Golden Ball, for best player, and the silver boot – after tying for the goal scoring lead with 6 goals, the same obtained by Germany’s Celia Sasic in fewer minutes – but the team’s defensive unit also performed at almost unprecedented levels, missing by mere seconds a new shutout record in a single World Cup (539 minutes to Germany’s 540 in 2007). The merit lied on the near-irreprehensible work of the central-pair former by Becky Sauerbrunn and tournament-debutant Julie Johnston, full backs Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg, and goaltender Hope Solo. On the other hand, an attack that had several potent weapons at its disposal received only two goals from forwards, with Wambach and Christen Press notching once during the group phase, but watching from the bench alongside Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez as Lloyd stole the show. Alex Morgan, the brightest diamond in the box, didn’t find the back of the net but worked diligently, even if she lacked explosiveness due to a less than ideal preparation marred by injuries.

Time for some notes on the rest of the field:

Japan’s Aya Miyama collected the Bronze Ball

Japan reached the final for the third consecutive major tournament (2011 and 2015 World Cup, 2012 Olympics) but this was probably their most uninspired performance. The Nadeshiko won every game until the final but couldn’t assemble any triumph that wasn’t for the lowest margin. Not even against Ecuador, a team that was absolutely blitzed by minnows Cameroon (6-0) and debutant Switzerland (10-1). Norio Sasaki’s side also lucked out in avoiding the other main contenders in the knockout rounds and could only take care of Australia (QF) and England (SF) due to late regulation strikes, which were wrapped up in tremendous amounts of fortune. The Japanese kept their patented style, built on short passes, imagination, and tricky, involving plays, but the difference-maker that veteran Homare Sawa was on the 2011 campaign just never materialised as they struggled to convert on chances. Although Captain Aya Miyama tried to fill the void and performed admirably (2 G + 1 A, Bronze Ball winner), her positioning on the field, mostly on the left wing, was a headscratcher, limiting her influence. Certainly, it wasn’t a coincidence that the team only stabilized during the Final after she moved back in, settling her teammates and organizing the reaction. However, by that time, the win was already out of reach due to a series of lapses by a defence clearly overwhelmed by the rampant American start.

Germany was another squad that wasn’t at his best in Canada, looking sloppy at times. The Germans didn’t close out Norway on their only challenging game on the group stage, but seemed to be heating up with an authoritative 4-1 win over Sweden on the round of 16. However, on the most compelling match of the entire tournament, they were outplayed by a talented French team and had to thank goaltender Nadine Angerer for squeezing through on penalties. The semi-final clash with the USA was decided on details and they have reasons to complain about key refereeing judgments, but that doesn’t conceal the fact that their level of play was lacking at times. With Nadine Kessler already out of the tournament, the Germans suffered another huge blow due to Dzsenifer Marozsan’s recurring physical limitations, which restricted their creativity on the midfield and left Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag starved for quality balls (the pair amassed 11 goals combined on the tournament, but more than half were obtained on the 10-0 thrashing of Ivory Coast). Nevertheless, in the middle of another disappointing performance and the second consecutive world competition away from the podium, a bright spot arose in the play of 21-year-old Melanie Leopolz, who thrived alongside Lena Goessling at the center of the park.

Fara Williams sealed England’s bronze medal after scoring the lone goal against Germany

England was the biggest surprise of the tournament, capping the best outcome of their history with their first ever win against Germany on the 3rd place match. The Lionesses were defeated by France on the inaugural match but rebounded to reach the knockout stage, when they piled on upsets. First, with a comeback victory over Norway, then a stunning 2-1 win over hosts Canada, silencing the 50,000 inside the BC Place in Vancouver, and finally beating Germany to secure the Bronze. Before this, however, they almost shocked Japan, missing several chances to take a 2-1 lead during the second half before an incredibly cruel own-goal by Laura Bassett, in injury-time, handed the final place to their opponents. The captain Fara Williams, perfect from the penalty spot on three opportunities, and the timely offensive contributions of defenders Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton were essential to England’s run, but the side led by 32-year-old Mark Sampson impressed the most due to an hard-working nature that started on the forwards, with the inspiration of Eniola Aluko quickly side-lined in favour of the strength and stamina exhibited by Jodie Taylor or Toni Duggan.

France’s Eugenie Le Sommer (#9) eludes Germany’s Alexandra Popp (#18) during the quarter-final match played in Montreal

• For France, the 2015 World Cup wasn’t the definitive confirmation as a Cup-winning side on the Women’s game but it wasn’t for the lack of talent. The French suffered a thunderous setback on a 2-0 loss to Colombia on the group stage yet rebounded quickly to dispatch Mexico and South Korea, setting up a match worthy of a final. Against Germany, France went up on a Louisa Necib strike but a dubious penalty tied the game and “Les Blueues” fell on penalties despite dominating much of the 120 minutes. Even with the precocious farewell, defensive anchor Amandine Henry was awarded the Silver Ball, a fair recognition for a roster laden with players that have won everything at the club level, but have yet to reach a major final for the country, with another opportunity looming when France hosts the next World Cup in 2019.

• The hosts had high hopes for the event but they never seemed to unwind with the pressure of the home crowd, failing to put together any imposing performance even against four less than stellar opponents (China, New Zealand, Netherlands, Switzerland) to start the competition. Only three goals obtained in four matches were worrying signals, and when the team fell into a two-goal hole in the quarter-final against England, Canada just seemed to lack the firepower to turn the score around. Captain Christine Sinclair gave some hope with her only goal in the tournament not scored on a penalty, but the unbending English backline held on. The performance of Sinclair was disappointing throughout the event but she just didn’t have much help from a squad missing offensive talent. The signature Canadian forward is 32-years-old and her succession has to be a concern, but, at least, Canada has someone to look out on defence, the flamboyant 19-year-old skipper Kadeisha Buchanan, who confirmed expectations by picking up the World Cup’s best young player award.

Canada´s dream of winning the 2015 World Cup ended at the hands of England despite Christine Sinclair’s goal.

• Canada underachieved but the hosts weren’t the only ones, with Brazil and Sweden leaving the tournament through the backdoor. Marta’s team walked unscathed through the group phase, winning every game and keeping their net immaculate, but an Australian tally with ten minutes to go on their round of 16 match determined Brazil’s fate and set a terrible harbinger for next year’s Olympics. The South American’s were doomed by the lack of punch displayed by their top forward duo, with Marta (1 goal) and Cristiane (0) unable to convert on the chances created on a “do or die” occasion. Marta’s marker, though, was enough to tie former German striker Birgit Prinz for the record of most goals on World Cup history (15), and Formiga, at the ripe age of 37, become the oldest markswoman in the event during Brazil’s opening win over South Korea.

Sweden’s presentation was even worse, with the team kicking off the tournament with an atrocious defensive performance against Nigeria (3-3) and leaving Canada without a single victory. Pia Sundhage’s side was at his best on the battle against the eventual World Champions (0-0), maybe because the coach knew so much about the opponents, but they failed to build on that during the Australia (1-1) match, and sneaked on as one of the third place teams. The final score of their elimination game against Germany (1-4) tells the entire story of a mediocre display and the country’s need to reflect on what went wrong. They can start on the complete vanishing of star forward Lotta Schelin and Nilla Fischer’s failure to stabilize the defensive sector, but Sundhage’s options also left a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, some newcomers showed potential to assume key roles down the line, including a duo of 22-year-old defenders: Elin Rubensson and Amanda Ilestedt.

Caitlin Foord (#9) and her Australian teammates pulled the upset of the tournament by eliminating Marta’s Brazil

• On the other end, the most positive confirmation (not really a revelation) of the competition were the Matildas, whose showings in Canadian soil exhibited skill, pace and youthful exuberance in dozens. Alen Stajcic’s side not only pushed the USA, at times, like no other team could manage over the tournament, but they also imposed the first true upset of the event, jettisoning Brazil before going toe to toe with Japan. A late, really unfortunate goal sank Australia’s dream for now, but the staggering amount of under-25 talent on the Aussie team guarantees that they’ll be even better in four years. It’s just a matter of getting Steph Catley (21), Emily Van Egmond (22), Elise Kellond-Knight (24), Katrina Gorry (22), Samantha Kerr (21), Kyah Simon (24) and Caitlin Foord (20) to deliver on their potential and acquire more experience.

(To read part I, go here)

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Summer Tournaments everywhere – A recap of football’s club-offseason (I)

In no-World Cup (or no-European Championships) summers, the offseason of football fans can be a depressing time, with several weeks of “excitement” over rumours of new addictions to their club and nonsense anticipation over the start of training camps and friendly matches played at turtle-like rhythm. To bridge the gap after the apex of the previous football season, this year there were no shortage of different options, with several competitions going on from late May to early July.

During that time, I had my sights split between four tournaments held all over the world and had a blast following them. Starting in New Zealand, at the Under-20 World Cup (30th May to 20th June), all the way to Canada and the Women’s World Cup (6th June to 5th July) or Chile and the Copa America (11th June to 4th July), with some selected stops in the Czech Republic (U-21 European Championships), I was busy enjoying some really fun sporting events.

This article compiles my thoughts and perspectives on those tournaments, with the obvious remark that I naturally had to prioritize certain viewings and make biased choices on content. Thus, I have to disclaim that my live look-ins on the U-20 World Cup were limited by time-difference and mostly restricted to my nation’s (Portugal) games, and the same happened to U-21 matches due to work-week obligations. The Copa America and the Women’s World Cup final rounds also collided often and my preference usually went to the Canadian-held competition because…well, I just can’t see those girls at big stages that regularly.

It’s time to unpack my (imaginary) travel suitcase and share the spoils.

Under-20 World Cup and Under-21 European Championship

I’ll start with the biggest youth tournaments of the summer and the interesting differences in approach that I noticed between the three European countries that were present in both. As a whole, Portugal, Germany and Serbia should be happy with their performance, but undoubtedly they had to fragment overlapped groups of players that could have been in either event. The way they did it and what they managed to achieve enclosed how they view the sport at the national level right now. The Serbians were the only ones to clinch a title, so I’m going there first.

Serbian Goaltender Predrag Rajkovic lifts the FIFA Under-20 World Cup trophy in front of his teammates

Coming off four consecutive presences at the Under-19 European Championships, the group which Veljko Paunovic got to New Zealand had a few members that experienced success at the 2013 Under-19 European Championships and was supplemented by the semi-finalists of the 2014 event, defeated by Portugal on penalties. Thus, the Serbians knew they had good chances of shining at the world stage, on the first participation of the country on the competition since 1987, at the time as Yugoslavia. It was a long time ago but the youngsters couldn’t have a better example to follow, as that generation left Chile with the trophy. Comprising a terrific array of talents that would become household names, including Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker or Predrag Mijatovic, much of the members of that squad played on Europe’s richest emblems and peaked as a team with the third place on the 1998 World Cup.

Time will tell if the heroes of 2015 will reach the same heights but it’s not too early to appoint the most promising of the lot. Everything starts at the net with goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, the captain and starter for this team and the U-19 iterations of 2013 and 2014. The Red Star Belgrade wunderkind collected the Golden Glove awarded to the best of the tournament at his position and added a few more accolades to a trophy case that already included the nomination as best goaltender of the Serbian league at just 19-years-old. On defence, the dynamic Milan Gajic and center-back Milos Veljkovic, already a property of Tottenham, turned some heads, as did Gent’s midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the leader pushing the team forward at the centre of the park. Vojvodina’s Mijat Gacinovic confirmed the good impressions of the Euro’s and winger Andrija Zivkovic delivered on the credentials of youngest captain in Partizan’s history and most premature debut for the main national team, leaving the World Cup with the award for best goal of the tournament. 17-year-old Ivan Saponjic scored a pair of goals coming off the bench but the decisive tally in the final, against Brazil on extra time, was the work of Nemanja Maksimovic, who didn’t have the same buzz surrounding some his teammates because he plays in Kazakhstan, for FC Astana.

Nemanja Maksimovic scored the tournament winning goal for Serbia

The Serbians started on the wrong foot, losing the inaugural match against Uruguay, but righted the ship to reach the last 16 and then showed tremendous resiliency to overcome four consecutive knockout games that went past regulation time, including a penalty shootout victory over the USA in the quarters.

The Under-21 Serbian team returned to the category’s pinnacle event for the first time since 2009 but they couldn’t replicate the U-20’s success, failing short on the group phase after a draw and two losses. Led by Borussia Dortmund’s Milos Jojic and Benfica’s Filip Djuricic, the Balkanian outfit never displayed the level that ousted Spain, the reigning Champions, out of final tournament and were beaten fair and square by hosts Czech Republic (4-0) and Denmark (2-0). However, everything could have been different had they decided to bring the talents of three players: Schalke 04’s defender Matija Nastasic, Liverpool’s winger Lazar Markovic and new Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, all already established on the starting eleven of their national team, which is almost mathematically eliminated from contention for a spot on the 2016 European Championships. The main team, now coached by Ljubinko Drulovic, the mastermind of the U-19 European Championship triumph in 2013, is experiencing a rebuilding phase, having qualified for only two international competitions in this century (2006 and 2010 World Cups) but the youth Serbian teams have shown that help is on the way. The future of the country’s football seems bright if they can find a way to mesh the kids with untouchable figures like Alexander Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Marc Stendera shined for Germany on the stadiums of New Zealand

The Germans arrived at the U-20 World Cup as the European Champions, after beating Portugal at the final held in Budapest last July, but without a key player of that squad, injured striker David Selke, who will represent RB Leipzig next season and was the best goal scorer of the 2014 tournament. Without a clear replacement, Frank Wormuth had to improvise and Hany Mukhtar received the task, tallying four times in the event but only one after his hat-trick against lowly Fiji. The Germans lacked an incisive front-man but they had talent to spare manufacturing scoring chances, with the trio of Marc Stendera (Eintracht Frankfurt), Julian Brandt and Levin Oztunali (both from Bayer Leverkusen) excelling, especially during the group stage, where the team cruised past three weak opponents (Fiji, Uzbekistan, Honduras). The attractive, offensive style of play produced 16 goals in three games but the offense dried up when things got tougher, with a narrow win over Nigeria preceding a 1-1 draw against a surprising Mali squad, which then left victorious on penalties. The talented Germans were thus sent home earlier than expected but at least one man was recognized in the end: Stendera’s playmaking and prowess on set pieces netted four goals and three assists and those numbers were enough to clinch the Bronze Boot.

From the German team that won the U-19 Euro one year before, the World Cup squad was also in danger of missing the services of Nurnberg’s Niklas Stark, but the skipper/defensive midfielder ended up travelling to the other side of the planet and covering for the loss of Joshua Kimmich. The defensive pivot handpicked by Pep Guardiola arrives at Bayern Munich for the new season after a pair of years on loan from Stuttgart to RB Leipzig and a starting spot on the U-21 team that faltered in the tournament held in Czech Republic. Indeed, the Germans were demolished by Portugal in the semi-final but it wasn’t for a lack of talent, since the roster included two World Champions in Brazil last year, center-back Matthias Ginter and forward Kevin Volland, and more could have been selected from several regular choices by Joachim Low like defenders Erik Durm, Shkrodan Mustafi, Antonio Rudinger and midfielders Julian Draxler and Mario Gotze. Instead of loading up for the event, though, the side handed out to Horst Hrusbesch included two other players that could have featured for the U-20’s in Schalke’s Max Meyer and Arsenal’s revelation Serge Gnabry.

FC Barcelona and Germany’s U-21 Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen couldn’t avoid the humiliation against Portugal

On the other hand, the process of sorting out the players adopted by Portugal was entirely different, even if the lack of titles conquered recently by one of Europe’s most regarded talent makers kind of explains it. The Portuguese haven’t added a trophy to their showcase since 2003, the U-17 Euro Championships they organized, and were eager to come out of the summer with some silverware one year after falling short on the U-19 final against Germany. The entirety of that generation was saved for the New Zealand encore and the team once again made the country dream, ultimately being knocked by Brazil on the quarter-finals after 120 minutes clearly dominated by the Europeans, lots of missed chances and a uninspired penalty shootout. The U-20’s were thus enable to repeat the achievements of their compatriots in 1989 and 1991, but they left the tournament followed by high praises and a slew of impressive performances, including striker André Silva, a highly skilled and mobile front-man, offensive-minded left-back Rafa, always dangerous when approaching the opposing end, and playmaker Ronny Lopes, a Manchester City property that played on loan for Lille last season. This trio had already played for their U-21 team and could have been helpful for coach Rui Jorge at the Euro’s – especially Lopes – but that’s simply not Portugal’s way unless a player completely blows apart the expectations.

Portugal’s #10, Bernardo Silva

Take the case of the U-20’s, that only had a player that wasn’t born in 1995 (the last year of eligibility), forward Gonçalo Guedes, and the makeup of the U-21’s*, that “just had to” receive the reinforcements of several players already firmly entrenched on the main national team, a group that would, in turn, form the best midfield on the competition. Sporting’s William Carvalho and João Mario plus Monaco’s Bernardo Silva, integral parts of Fernando Santos’ roster, were in Czech Republic and Valencia’s André Gomes would have completed the diamond on the centre of the midfield hadn’t he been injured, which opened a space for team captain Sérgio Oliveira. Anyway, the quartet paced Portugal to a strong tournament, highlighted by the 5-0 stumping of Germany in the semi-finals, and they would have terminated their title drought hadn’t been for a sturdy Swedish side that frustrated the favourites on the final. The Portuguese finished with the best attack (7 goals, tied with Sweden) and defence (only 1 goal allowed) and exhibited, by far, the most entertaining football on the field but they were left to pick up the consolation prizes: five members of the team were included on the tournament’s best eleven, including Bernardo Silva and William Carvalho, who squandered off for the best player of the tournament nomination, ultimately awarded to the imposing defensive midfielder.

Now, time for some comments on the other sides that competed on these tournaments:

Sweden won his first ever men’s UEFA competition, coming out on top displaying the same competitiveness that edged France in the qualifying playoff round. The apex of that was the turnaround with only 10 men and 1-0 down against Italy during the first match in the competition, but the side led by Hakan Ericson also managed to rescue the passport to the semi-finals on the last minute against Portugal in game 3, a few days before stifling their rivals on the final. The Swedes relied on an organized defensive scheme boasted by two disciplined midfielders in Captain Oscar Hiljemark (PSV Eindhoven) and Oscar Lewicki (Malmo FF), and played long balls to their pair of dangerous strikers, the physically imposing John Guidetti and Isaac Kiese Thelin, both with experience on the main national team. They didn’t have game-breaking talent, with winger Simon Tibbling being the closest resemblance of that, but used their strengths perfectly and history has shown that, in short tournaments, sometimes is enough.

Denmark’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has already featured for the senior national team.

• With powerhouses like Spain and France dumped in the qualifiers plus Italy and England edged by the eventual finalists in the group stage, dark-horses emerged on the search for the title, with Denmark and Czech Republic showcasing a lot of talent on the event. The hosts were led by Jan Kliment, who burst to prominence due to the unexpected hat trick against Serbia – enough to secure the Golden Boot for best goal scorer of the competition – but right-back Pavel Kaderabek and midfielder Ondrej Petrak also had scouts drooling. Meanwhile, the Danes reached the semi-finals powered by hulking Werder Bremen central commander Jannik Vestergaard on defence, the poise of Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg (Bayern Munich) and Lasse Vigen Christensen (Fulham) on the midfield, and the flash of Viktor Fischer (Ajax) and Yussuf Poulsen up front.

• On the U-20 World Cup, the story of the tournament was the predominance of the African contingent on the latter stages, including semi-finalists Mali and Senegal plus Ghana, beaten by Mali in the last 16, and Nigeria, which lost to Germany. The Malians were the most satisfied in the end, carrying the bronze medals, but another shiny object was part of their luggage, the Golden Ball awarded to the tournament’s best player.

Adama Traoré wasn’t freed for the qualification tournament but he joined his teammates in New Zealand and contributed greatly to Mali’s historical result, including a masterclass performance on the third place game highlighted by two spectacular goals. The slick creative force ended the tournament with four goals, three assists – a direct contribution in 7 of Mali’s 11 goals – and proved why he was already a key figure for the midfield of France’s Lille OSC, his club side. Since the end of the event, he has already agreed to join AS Monaco, where he’ll now exhibit his broad technical gifts, playmaking awareness and flair.

Mali’s Adama Traoré received the U-20 World Cup Golden Ball

• Traoré is not the first African Golden Ball winner, following Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah, laureate in 2009 after his team’s triumph, and countryman Seydou Keita in 1999. The pair shows the hit and miss character of the award, since Keita played at the highest level for FC Barcelona and Seville but, on the other hand, Adiyiah signed with AC Milan in 2010, went to the 2010 World Cup, and five years later is donning the colours of Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima Football Club. Other former winners of the award include Diego Maradona (1979), Lionel Messi (2005), Sergio Aguero (2007) and Paul Pogba (2013) but also non-factors like Ismail Matar (UAE, 2003) and Henrique (2011)

• If we expand the sample to the other Youth World Cup promoted by FIFA, at the U-17 level, we find two more recent Golden Ball winners from the African Continent, Nigerian’s Sani Emmanuel (2009) and Kelechi Iheanacho (2013), which means that Africa has amassed 4 of the last 7 Golden Ball winners.

• The South American contingent, that usually dominates the U-20 competition (Brazil (5) and Argentina (6) have won more than half of the 20 editions), wasn’t impressive this time. Uruguay and Colombia fell in the round of 16 but the biggest fail was Argentina, which had his worst performance ever, finishing with just two points on an accessible group. Only Ángel Correa, the Atletico Madrid attacking midfielder, captivated for the Albicelestes with pace and skill that produced half of the team’s four strikes.

Ángel Correa leads his teamates on a rare moment of elation at the 2015 U-20 World Cup

Brazil reached the final after getting the better of two consecutive penalty shootouts on the round of 16 (Uruguai) and quarter finals (Portugal), but their squad didn’t excite most observers. Defensive anchor and captain Danilo played well above all his teammates over the entire tournament, relentlessly driving the team with his experience and power, while skipper Lucao, a composed defender with great anticipation, and left back Jorge, a speedy, offensive full back, also caught the attention of the scouts. Up front, the team lacked spark outside of Atlético Paranaense’s Marcos Guillerme and the irregular Boschilia, with Real Madrid’s Jean Carlos and Manchester United’s Andreas Pereira, in particular, notching underwhelming performances that saw them relegated to the bench.

*To be fair, 18-year-old Rúben Neves was named to Portugal’s U-21 squad, but he’s exactly the type of tremendously rare exception that corroborates the rule. And he was going to be the starter hadn’t they rescued William Carvalho…

(2nd part, regarding the Copa America and the Women’s World Cup right after the jump)

Thirty (-one) takeaways from the NHL offseason

One month has passed since the Chicago Blackhawks lifted the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons and, during that time, the landscape of the league suffered important transformations, with two of the most talked-about prospects in a number of years finding their new homes, several unrestricted free agents changing addresses, and a few huge trades shipping elite players out of their misery.

This article started as a draft day impression’s notebook and grew up into a list of takeaways/thoughts/recollections about an NHL offseason that will now inevitably slow down into the dog days of summer. As such, pretty much every team in the league is cited, with a couple relegated to the end. As I projected to do this on a bullet-points structure, I ended up deciding to numerate them just so I could…well, find a title for the article.

To facilitate the search through all this, I highlighted the name of the team mainly featured in every part. Here we go:

1. The Buffalo Sabres and GM Tim Murray had an absolutely terrific draft weekend. They knew they were getting their hands on Jack Eichel, the best consolation prize since Evgeni Malkin and a sure-fire franchise center, but adding a player of Ryan O’Reilly’s calibre was a major coup. The 24-year-old has already six seasons of NHL experience and he’s just what they needed to insulate Eichel during his first season, slotting as a second line center in the future: a solid faceoff man (53.4% in 2014-15) used to be deployed in defensive situations, a top penalty killer, and a two-way force with some scoring touch (28 goals in 2013-14). About to become a UFA in 2016, O’Reilly inked a massive 7 years/52.5M deal a few days later with the Sabres, a cap hit that surprised most fans but which won’t look that high when names like Anze Kopitar and Steven Stamkos agree to new extensions. The 2009 2nd round pick has proven capable of handling first line assignments during his time with the Avs and that will be his job for now, even if in the future he may need to move to the wing. Also, with that value hanging over his head and an expanded leadership role, maybe he’ll get more respect from Selke voters that sometimes undervalued his importance.

Ryan O’Reilly is now a Buffalo Sabre

With Zemgus Girgensons and 2014 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart primed to stick with the big club this time, the Sabres are set up the middle for a long time, and may even contemplate the idea of parting with Reinhart if they can acquire a stud young defenseman. Girgensons has the talent to be an answer on that third line slot and I’m not sold on Reinhart becoming a major scorer on the NHL with his lack of a distinctive skill. He’s a finesse, playmaking center with good vision, passing and poise but lacks dynamic skating skills and may struggle to adjust to the higher tempo of the NHL.

The price for O’Reilly was steep (31st overall pick, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and JT Compher and D Nikita Zadorov) and the inclusion of the hulking Russian defenseman hurts, but the team has Rasmus Ristolainen to help cover the void and Jake McCabe, a 2nd round pick in 2012, ready to step on the line-up.

Earlier in draft day, Murray also got a new starting goalie, the talented 24-year-old Robin Lehner, who never took advantage of the chances to claim Ottawa’s net. The Swede, barring another acquisition for the net, will have ample opportunities on the Sabres and must pan out to merit the 21st pick sent back to the Sens for him and veteran David Legwand.

2. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy finally ceded on keeping the clearly disgruntled O’Reilly and managed to secure an interesting haul. Getting a young top-four D in return was crucial and Zadorov has every tool to fill that need on the near future, possessing size, skating, a strong shot and some bite. Grigorenko had his development completely mismanaged by the Sabres, but the Avs are banking on nurturing a player that was considered a top 5 talent entering the 2012 draft, while Compher may someday amount to an energetic third liner that can add some scoring. Flipping the 31st pick to SJ for the 39th and getting back the 2nd rounder next season was also a smart move by the Colorado Avalanche, although signing Carl Soderberg to a 5 years/23.75M deal doesn’t seem like the best idea for a 29-year-old center with a defined offensive edge that is destined for nothing more than a third line role.

Winger Blake Comeau joined in at the start of free agency, agreeing to a 3-year-deal that improves the team depth on the offense, but the team’s other addiction was more controversial. Francois Beauchemin will help a sub-par backline but 3-years and 13.5M are way too rich for a declining 35-year-old defenseman, even more because they’ll need to extend Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie and Zadorov in the summer of 2016.

With the 10th overall pick the Avs selected Mikko Rantanen, a Finnish winger that shined at this year’s World Juniors and already has almost two complete seasons under his belt playing against professional players. As a big, supremely skilled right winger, Rantanen will provide balance to a talented and young forward group that will continue to lead the Avalanche going forward, joining, in short term, either Matt Duchene or Nathan MacKinnon on the team’s top two lines.

Finland’s Mikko Rantanen was selected by the Colorado Avalanche

3. With Brendan Shanahan at the top and Mike Babcock on the bench, a new era of accountability and intelligence choices seems to have arrived for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the draft was a perfect example of that. Indeed, Kyle Dubas, the Leafs assistant GM in office, gave a lesson of asset management to the previous occupants of the GM position. After selecting the super-skilled but undersized Mitch Marner with the fourth pick, an hometown boy no less, Dubas traded down twice at the end of the first round to add more picks and prospects to the organization. First, the #24 was sent to Philadelphia for the #29 and a supplementary 2nd round pick (#61), and then he flipped #29 for the 34th and 68th picks. With these three assets, Dubas proceeded to stock his pipeline with skilled players, with D Travis Dermott and FW Jeremy Bracco, who beat Patrick Kane’s US NTDP assist record during the season, deserving approving reviews from draft experts.

With chief amateur scout Mark Hunter driving the bus, the Leafs kept picking up speed and skill through the latter rounds, a welcome difference from the years of searching and valuing “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” above all. To cap it, the Leafs also added 23-year-old defenseman Martin Marincin, a former 2nd round pick that lost space on the Edmonton Oilers system but has already played in 85 NHL games. Marincin is a lanky, mobile blueliner that can add more snarl to his game, but possesses some offensive skills that the Leafs can develop into a middle-pair performer. His promise is certainly worth of a fourth round pick plus a low-level prospect like Brad Ross, a relic of the past after being selected in the 2nd round in 2010 for his hard-nosed style and agitating qualities.

4. The chaotic situation at the draft floor wasn’t ideal to offload the top-earning players on the Leafs roster but, a few days later, the Leafs brass pulled the gun on the biggest blockbuster of the summer, flipping Phil Kessel for more assets. Thus, the mercurial goal scorer was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the talented 19-year-old Kasperi Kapanen, a character, stay-at-home promising defenseman in Scott Harrington, a first and third round picks plus some throw-ins from both sides, comprising a return that failed to impress Toronto’s avid press. However, with the Leafs clearly in rebuild and intent on clearing money from the books, Kessel’s steep cap hit, and lack of other interested suitors, Dubas and Shanahan had to settle for a deal with a Penguins team desperate to add a star player. Retaining 15% of his salary might be a better option than absorbing Rob Scuderi’s contract until 2017, and giving back a 2nd round pick was not in the plans, but the most important thing was achieved: shaking the losing core that sunk the ship throughout the second half of last season.

Daniel Winnik decided to return to Toronto

After solving this situation, Toronto was back to promoting indisputably smart decisions, filling out his roster with several cheap, undervalued, short-term contracts that can be used to acquire more assets down the line, including PA Parenteau for 1.5M, Mark Arcobello for 1.1M and Daniel Winnik for 5.5M over two years. Shawn Matthias at 2.3M, though, was the best of the lot, with the 27-year-old versatile forward primed to build on a great second half of 2014-15 by playing top-six minutes. RFA Nazem Kadri signed a one-year, “show-me” deal and will have ample opportunities to prove himself now that Tyler Bozak’s buddy is not around anymore, while starting goalie Jonathan Bernier has yet to agree to terms with the team.

5. With the addition of a stud blueliner like Noah Hanifin with the fifth pick, the Carolina Hurricanes now have three former top 12 picks in the draft on their defensive cupboard, joining offensive-minded Ryan Murphy and Hayden Fleury, last year’s seventh pick. Ron Francis seems to be building the foundation of his team from the backend, slotting pieces around 23-year-old Justin Faulk, an established all-star calibre rearguard.

However, to buy time for their jewel’s development, Francis managed to improve his defence for now by trading for James Wisniewski, the Ducks’ pricy trade deadline acquisition that saw the entire playoffs from the press box but will have ample opportunities to regain his mojo in Carolina, probably running the first powerplay unit. Moving Anton Khudobin for Wisniewski to make space for Eddie Lack is a lateral move on the net in terms of quality, although the Swede makes less than half in relation to the Russian netminder, always an important factor on a budget team. The former Canucks’ goaltender has one more year before becoming a UFA, mirroring the situation of veteran Cam Ward, and the Canes will closely follow his performance to determine if he can be an important part of their team going forward.

6. Going into July 1, the Canes announced the buyout of the mercurial Alex Semin, which never justified the 35 M/5-year deal signed before the 2013-14 season. The operation will cut 2.3M from their cap space for the next six years but the move was justified by the Russian’s inability to feed on a productive first season with the team (44 pts in 44 games in 2012-13, 61 pts in 122 games since then). The talented Semin has undoubtedly one of the most lethal releases in the league but with his profile on the downswing again, he’ll have to settle for one year, mid-level (probably on the 3-4M range, maybe even less) offers to continue his career in the NHL. A gamble some NHL teams looking for a top-six winger will make and one that could pay off on the right situation.

Alex Semin’s time with the Carolina Hurricanes has ended

7. Another GM that left Florida with a building block for his defensive core was Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall, who saw Ivan Provorov, for a lot of observers the most complete defenseman on the draft, fall to their lap. An all-around, mobile, physical defenseman, the Russian may well become the decade-long franchise blueliner the team has coveted and it’s not out of reach that he sticks with the Flyers in 2014-15. Hextall moved quicky to sign Provorov to an entry-level deal, and he could bring size, agility and some offensive flair to a defence that lacks those qualities.

After Provorov, the Flyers collected a few more pieces for their future, starting by trading up on the latter part of the first round to select Travis Konecny, a skilled, energetic, yet undersized winger, and picking up a pair of athletic, promising goaltending prospects in Sweden’s Felix Sandstrom and Slovakia’s Felix Tomek. In the latter rounds, they kept getting away from the usual Flyers mentality, going with speed and skill instead of grit and physicality, showing that most NHL organizations are learning from mistakes and understanding the evolution of the game.

8. Hextall and the Flyers brass had a good couple of days at the draft but the GM had more up his sleeve when he finalized a trade to get rid of the slow, expensive Nicklas Grossmann, sent to the Coyotes in return for center Sam Gagner, who, in spite of never fully blossoming on the league, can certainly help an offense that relied too heavily on their top guns. Along with Grossmann, Hextall dumped Chris Pronger’s contract to Arizona, opening some wiggle room to orchestrate more moves. The Flyers’ legend will continue to make everything in his power to offload the contracts of Vinny Lecavalier and R.J Umberger, but can take solace on the way he completely pickpocketed Boston’s Don Sweeney, prying a 3rd round pick for agitator Zac Rinaldo. And with Michael Neuvirth as the new backup to Steve Mason, the Flyers put on one of the team’s best goaltending tandems in quite some time.

Dougie Hamilton was traded to the Calgary Flames

9. The rookie Boston Bruins’ GM was the talk of draft day and his summer just keeps delivering. Pressed against the salary cap, Sweeney traded two core members of his roster and the returns were less than stellar. First was Dougie Hamilton, the burgeoning 22-year-old defenseman that accrued 42 pts in 2014-15, traded to Calgary for picks 15th, 45th and 52nd in the draft, slightly more than the team would receive for an offer sheet in the range of Hamilton’s salary demands, but nothing close to fair value for one of the best young defenseman in the league.

Meanwhile, Milan Lucic, the emblematic 27-year old left winger, was sent to the LA Kings for the 13th pick, goaltender Martin Jones, and mid-level defensive prospect Collin Miller, on a move intended to clear his 6M cap hit. However, the Bruins had to retain almost half of it (2.7M) and lost a top-six physical forward that, for years, had served as the model of their “Big, Bad Bruins” mantra.

Despite the divisive moves, Sweeney was now armed with the 13th, 14th and 15th pick and everyone thought he would move up to select a blue chip prospect. Wrong! The Bruins made the three consecutive selections and went off-the-board in all three, taking D Jakub Zboril and LW Jake Debrusk, both projected to go in the 20-30 range, plus winger Zachary Senychyn, a late 2nd/early 3rd round talent heading into the draft. The decisions earned scorn from multiple sectors and, even if we’ll have to wait years to realize whether they were the right ones, Sweeney should have definitely managed better his resources if he intended to come away with this trio.

10. A few days later, after taking notice of Jones’ financial demands, Sweeney tossed the goalie he had acquired to the San Jose Sharks, collecting a 2016 1st round pick, and ended his roster retool by signing Matt Beleskey to a surprisingly reasonable 5-years/19M deal, covering Lucic’s loss with a player that cashed out on a career-high 22 goals’ season. He also exchanged forward Reilly Smith for a cheaper secondary scoring threat on Florida’s Jimmy Hayes (a Boston-native…).

In the end, the Bruins downgraded twice on the attack and lost a stud, massively talented young defenseman for picks and some prospects, assets several years away from making an impact at the NHL level. Nonetheless, at least Sweeney followed Hextall’s lead and finally got rid of Marc Savard’s contract in the deal with the Panthers.

Oh, almost forgot, he also blew everyone away by valuing Zac Rinaldo as mid-round-pick-worthy…

11. Milan Lucic will fit right in with LA’s heavy style of hockey, and having him at a 3.3M cap hit until he reaches UFA status next summer is a solid deal for Dean Lombardi and the Kings, but the team won’t be happy with how the rest of the offseason is going on. Losing Justin Williams because they couldn’t match a perfectly reasonable 2-year-offer for the veteran winger stinks, and Andrej Sekera long-term contract with the Oilers was way too rich for another team way up against the cap. The Jarret Stoll drug situation sealed his exit as a pending UFA but Lombardi won’t have the same freedom to get rid of Slava Voynov and Mike Richards, no matter the subterfuges he tries to use.

Milan Lucic’s style will fit perfectly in LA

Jhonas Enroth’s signing to backup Jonathan Quick was wise, replacing Martin Jones, who, like Jonathan Bernier before, outperformed his role and effectively forced the GM’s hand to cash in on an asset. Tyler Toffoli’s 2-year bridge deal, worth a total of 6.5M, represents a compromise that seems to work for both the team and a player on the verge of a scoring outburst.

12. When he traded Jones to Boston, Lombardi didn’t envision the goaltender facing off his former teammates multiples times over the next few years, but Doug Wilson was aggressive moving in for the promising goalie and he got a new starter shortly after sending the UFA rights of incumbent Antti Niemi to the Dallas Stars. Jones inked a 3-year/9M deal with the Sharks and will have every opportunity to carve his spot, with 27-year-old Alex Stalock pushing him like he did with Niemi.

Then, the San Jose Sharks GM pounced twice on the free agency pool to add Paul Martin in order to complement his defensive core, envisioning the steady veteran alongside Brent Burns on the top pair, and improving his scoring depth with former Capital Joel Ward. Both players are 34-years-old and Wilson wasn’t shy about offering multi-year deals (4 to Martin, 3 to Ward) to the pair but, in the short term, his team is definitely improved, an inversion of last summer’s behaviour, where they did absolutely nothing to climb the ladder on the West and were left behind, missing the playoffs.

Former Penguins’ defenseman Paul Martin signed with the San Jose Sharks

13. Before settling for Jones, Doug Wilson went hard after NY Rangers’ Cam Talbot but Henrik Lundqvist’s understudy was ultimately sent to Edmonton, with a 59-game NHL career seemingly impressive enough to merit a place on the Oilers’ quest to find the right starting goalie for the future. Although Peter Chiarelli was able to resist the urge to send a 1st round pick for the 28-year-old unproven netminder, packaging a 2nd, 3rd and 7th round selections is nothing to sneeze at even for a team full of draft assets. Two more picks, the 16th and 33rd, were used to land former 4th overall selection (2010) Griffin Reinhart, a solid all-around defender that has taken more time than expected to break into regular NHL duties and had fallen out of favour inside a stacked NY Islanders’ cupboard.

Reinhart’s addition led to the trade of Martin Marincin, because, obviously, you can’t have too many young defensemen fighting for spots, but the true reinforcement at the position is Andrej Sekera, who, at age 29 and holding a new, shiny 33M deal, will carry the expectations directed at a No. 2D.

14. However, for all the Oilers did, the offseason will always be remembered for Connor McDavid’s arrival. Nothing is left to say about the new Canadian sensation, but look out for the implications on fellow young Center Leon Draisatl, the 3rd overall pick in 2014, who slides on the depth chart, stuck behind McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The German has already expressed his willingness to adapt to the wing, at least for now, and he may need to stick there for some time until another solution emerges, since neither he or Nugent-Hopkins seem suited for a third line role.

15. The beginning of the McDavid era in Edmonton will also mark the full reboot of one the best rivalries in the league, with the Calgary Flames already stocking up to counter the offensive fireworks coming out of Oil Land. In this sense, the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton gives the Flames one of the deepest bluelines in the NHL, with a formidable top-three in Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Hamilton allowing Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell to slide further down the line-up card. Furthermore, Deryk Engelland will spend most of his time on the press box, which makes his compensation seem even more ridiculous (2.7M.PER.YEAR!!!).

Michael Frolik chosed the Calgary Flames over the Winnipeg Jets

The GM Brad Treliving decided to keep the 1A/1B model at the net, re-signing Karri Ramo to rekindle the pair with Jonas Hiller, and he managed to snatch one of the most sought-after forwards on the market, Czech Republic’s right winger Michael Frolik, who will receive 21.5M for 5 years of contract, adding versatility, speed and an impressive two-way game to a team on the upswing. With Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau a year away from the end of their entry-level deals, and Jiri Hudler also set to close his contract in 2016, Treliving did a good job locking up another core player in Swedish center Mikael Backlund, at worst a really capable, possession-driving, third line center with skill.

16. Most of the Pacific Division emblems got better and the current Champions, the Anaheim Ducks, followed their challengers’ lead, enhancing the speed of their attack with the arrival of Carl Hagelin, whose RFA status made him expendable on a cap-strapped NY Rangers team. The 26-year-old winger has a chance to join Perry and Getzlaf on the top line, shatter his career-highs set last year (17G, 35 pts), and bank on it next summer. Obviously, for this to happen, he’ll have to sacrifice money and term now, something GM Bob Murray will have to mull on because his team is miles away (18M) from the cap, making the Ducks a prime example of a clear title contender with roster flexibility due to several low-cost deals assigned to key contributors like Sami Vatanen, Hamphus Lindholm or Rickard Rackell. The gamble on Chris Stewart, re-signing Jacob Silfverberg, and the new figure to Hagelin’s deal will cut into that number, but the team will have a major opportunity, once again, to load up come the trade deadline.

Murray exchanged Francois Beauchemin, who bolted to Denver, for the acquired Kevin Bieksa, saving one year both in contract duration and age, and brought in depth at the goal with Anton Khudobin, allowing some more development time for John Gibson, who figures to be less than thrilled if forced to start the season in the AHL.

17. In Arizona, the disappointment of missing out on McDavid and Jack Eichel will take some more time to go away but GM Dave Maloney made the right decision in holding on to the 3rd overall pick, logically selecting a prototypical No. 1C in Dylan Strome, a highly-competitive kid with size (6-3), skill and speed. He’s definitely not a Messiah but a franchise cornerstone forward to build around, something the Coyotes have lacked for years. Strome may not stick on the NHL in 2015-16, but a youthful injection is coming to Arizona, with top prospects like Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Brendan Perlini knocking on the door and several spots on the attack to fill.

Don Maloney (L) selected Dylan Strome (C) with the 3rd pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

To surround the rookies (and reach the salary floor), several veterans were brought back into the fold, with defensive specialist Boyd Gordon rescued from the Oilers, and the pair Antoine Vermette / Zbynek Michalek choosing to return after being flipped for futures at the trade deadline. Brad Richardson is another solid depth addiction to stabilize the lower offensive lines, while the arrival of Chris Pronger’s contract will certainly inspire Klas Dahlbeck and Brandon Gormley to prove their value to Arizona’s future plans. In the middle of this rebuild, a poor, sad, young man in stalwart defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is already getting ready for another year drowning in the desert.

18. If the Pacific Division has seen some major changes, the Central is surprisingly quiet, with the Blackhawks’ rivals perhaps waiting to see the complete outcome of the 2015 Great Chicago Stampede. Experiencing difficulties to unload the 5.9M due to Patrick Sharp and the 4M Bryan Bickell is scheduled to earn next season, the Stanley Cup Champions shipped out the up-and-coming Brandon Saad, a 22-year-old winger that EVERYONE thought would share the locker room with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for years to come. Stan Bowman wouldn’t go above the 5M threshold on a long-term offer for the sought-after RFA, and decided to trade him to the Columbus Blue Jackets instead of risk being backed into the wall by an offer sheet.

The return, as always happens when you are forced to give up on a talent of Saad’s calibre, isn’t stellar but Bowman looked happy for finally solving the 2nd line central conundrum with Artem Anisimov, a big, two-way player the team had coveted for some time. Getting the 20-year-old Marko Dano, an NHL-ready winger with two years of his entry-level deal yet to burn, was also significant for a team in need of cheap talent to fill attacking roles, and Jeremy Morin should get a chance to crack the lineup. As much as trading Saad hurts, these are the kind of returns that keep good teams always refreshed and ready to contend year after year, and Bowman delivered put on a difficult situation once again.

Brandon Saad will sport a new jersey over the next few years

Also, surrounded by little fanfare but potentially off no lesser importance, the Hawks guaranteed the services of Viktor Tikhonov, who joins his compatriot Artemi Panarin for a combined total of less than 2M, a true bargain for a pair of skilled forwards with potential to fill scoring line roles.

19. However, a difficult summer for the Hawks is just starting and Bowman still has to work the miracle of dumping Bickell somewhere, carving cap space to bring back Marcus Kruger, a player who has shown the willingness to wait due to his burning desire to stay in Chicago. Patrick Sharp, despite his clear decline, still holds some value and the Dallas Stars recently took him off Bowman’s hands, tossing back defenseman Trevor Daley, overmatched last year on Dallas’ first pair, and agitator Ryan Garbutt, on a move that, money-wise, didn’t really made a significant difference.

20. Eliminated by the Hawks in the first round, the Nashville Predators settled for the usual low-profile moves, taking a chance on the puzzling Cody Hodgson, who completely flamed out in Buffalo last season, and signing Barret Jackman to fill the veteran, mentoring role on their defence, probably by the side of Seth Jones on the second pair. The two-year extension for Mike Ribeiro is debatable, in light of the criminal accusations hanging over his head and his age (35), but the Preds didn’t have a lot of options to substitute a player who was effective as their No 1C. Mike Fischer will also be in Nashville for another couple of years after he proved last season that he’s still an effective shutdown guy.

Two other middleman, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson, both 25-years-old, are RFAs coming off deals with a 2M cap hit, and it’s not out of question that they double that after their arbitration hearings.

21. The Dallas Stars need reinforcements on defence, yet GM Jim Nill decided to spend money on a second starting goalie, trading for the rights to Antti Niemi and locking him up quickly to a three-year extension. The move left the Stars with 10.3M stuck on Niemi and compatriot Kari Lehtonen until 2018, but still 8M to use this season and Nill showed no hesitation making a trade for a significant offensive addiction for the third consecutive summer.

Patrick Sharp, a three-time Stanley Cup Champion on the move to Dallas

Patrick Sharp increases the firepower of the NHL’s second-best attack in 2014-15 and also becomes the second player in the team with the biggest cap hit, in front of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who make a total of 11M for the next two seasons.

With the out-of-nowhere emergence of John Klingberg, the skating acumen of Trevor Daley was expendable, but to come back into the playoffs the Stars still need to add a sure-fire top-four blueliner, even if Stephen Johns, also acquired in the Sharp deal, was already on the verge of Chicago’s roster. With 6M to use, a full complement of players and names like Johnny Oduya, Cody Franson and Christian Ehrhoff still on the market, Jim Nill could take action or wait for what the future holds.

22. The Minnesota Wild offseason is marked by the success in the Mike Reilly sweepstakes, plucking the 21-year-old dynamic offensive defenseman that declined to ink an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The American spurned several other suitors, notably the Hawks, Rangers and Pens, for a chance to star for his home state team, and they can certainly use a cost-controlled, mobile puck moving defenseman with Jared Spurgeon entering the last year of his deal and Matt Dumba finishing his rookie agreement.

The Wild are also in a bit of a cap crunch, with Erik Haula yet to sign and goalie Niklas Backstrom injured – and, as so, unable to be bought out – but Chuck Fletcher opened space by dumping Matt Cooke. Then, he managed to keep Mikael Granlund on a bridge two-year deal and season saviour Devan Dubnyk with a six-year offer worth 4.3M per year, a solid compromise with a goalie that just 12 months ago was out of the league. Trade deadline acquisitions’ Chris Stewart and Sean Bergenheim didn’t work as expected and were let go.

TJ Oshie is leaving the St. Louis Blues to play in Washington, D.C.

23. After another frustrating end of the season for the St. Louis Blues, changes were undoubtedly on the way and when Ken Hitchcock was brought back, the spotlight switched to some of the most important forwards in the team. Between David Backes, an UFA in 2016, Alex Steen and TJ Oshie, one had to go and the hammer dropped on the American right winger, sent to the Washington Capitals. Although getting Troy Brouwer and a 3rd round pick for Oshie is kind of underwhelming, especially because the physical winger represents a clear downgrade on a team that already lacked game-breaking skill, the message to the core group was delivered loud and clear.

Also decisive and definitive was the commitment, in the form of 8 seasons and 60M, to Vladimir Tarasenko as the team’s cornerstone forward through his prime years, with the Blues hoping the 23-year-old sniper will take on more responsibilities in the fall. The St. Louis outfit appears to have already set its roster after giving Jake Allen two more years to usurp Brian Elliot and prove that he can be a starter on a Cup contender.

24. Oshie left one of the better well-rounded squads in the NHL but he won’t be unhappy to get a chance to nail the spot on the Washington Capitals’ top line, certainly welcoming the opportunity to be the sidekick Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have desired for years. However, Barry Trotz will have another recent arrival vying for the same after the Caps convinced advanced-stats darling Justin Williams to pen a two-year deal with the team. The term and money were an absolute win for GM Brian MacLellan, and surely left some Kings fans exasperated but, more importantly, the Caps upgraded significantly on the right wing position.

Third line center Eric Fehr is still unsigned but it’s not impossible he comes back as soon as they reach an agreement with Braden Holtby, looking for a deal in the 6M range, and forward Marcus Johansson. Evgeni Kuznetsov accepted a two-year bridge deal for 3M per season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he explodes in a way that resembles his compatriot Tarasenko. The arrivals of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik forced Mike Green into a secondary role at even strength during the season and the parts naturally agreed to move on, with the former 30-goal scorer landing in Detroit.

25. The Red Wings had been looking for a left handed, offensive minded blue-liner for some time and Ken Holland, after being spurned several times over the last summers, finally filled the void, handing a 3-year contract to Mike Green, who was able to keep his 6M cap hit. The reeling Brad Richards also landed in Detroit, for 3M on a one-year-deal, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the buyout of Stephen Weiss, a complete failure during his term with the team, even if some of the funds were also reallocated to a deserved and fair 4-year extension for Gustav Nyquist.

Gustav Nyquist will continue to score goals for the Detroit Red Wings for four more seasons

26. Ray Shero inherited from Lou Lamoriello a roster bare of young talent, especially on the attack, and his first move was to select a big, skilled center with the sixth overall pick in the draft, turning Pavel Zacha into the best and most important prospect the New Jersey Devils have had in years. However, Zacha may still be a couple of seasons away from contributing on the NHL and Shero will have to add some goal scoring until then. The market isn’t stuffed with that but, at least, he has already started to decrease the average age of his roster by adding 24-year-old, New Jersey-born forward Kyle Palmieri for a second round pick to the Ducks.

Several veterans won’t don the Devils’ jersey again, including Scott Gomez and Martin Havlat, but to expedite the renovation maybe Shero can aggressively revive one of his favourite moves as a Pittsburgh Penguins GM, dangling one of his young defenseman (Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Damon Severson or Jon Merrill) for a similarly-aged prospect up front.

27. The Columbus Blue Jackets have no such problems, with the Saad coup arranged by GM Jarmo Kekalainen netting what could be a perennial running-mate for Ryan Johansen, provided the 22-year-old center forgets about the quarrels of his renovation by the time they sit down to talk again in 2017. Saad’s speed and strength will fit in nicely on a team built on those qualities, and the Jackets top-six now features Johansen, Saad, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell and Boone Jenner, with Cam Atkinson and 20-year-old sophomore Alexander Wennberg bumped to the third line. This is a forward group that should scare their Metropolitan Division opponents’, and if the team builds on last season’s superb finish, watch out.

Ryan Murray’s health will be of paramount importance for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015-16

The backend will need an impressive and injury-free season from the battered Ryan Murray, the 2nd overall pick in 2012, or else the lack of depth could be exposed (being spurned by Mike Reilly really hurts here), but remember they have Sergei Bobrovsky covering the mistakes. This squad is well positioned to battle for way more than a single playoff position and I won’t be surprised to see them squaring for supremacy in the East come the spring of 2016.

28. Severely threatened by Columbus improvements’ are the two teams that have dominated the Division over the last few seasons. The New York Rangers, now under the direction of rookie GM Jeff Gorton, smartly auctioned an overvalued asset like Cam Talbot and replaced him with Antti Raanta, a backup capable enough to fill in for Lundqvist in the 15-20 games he should take to rest. However, they have 10M of cap space to use and some valuable RFA forwards to sign, with the most important, Derek Stepan, poised to hoard a major chunk of the pie. The Ryan O’Reilly extension in Buffalo will certainly be the comparison to use and those aren’t great news for the team, which hoped to agree to a deal starting with a “6”, while now the award may well move above the 7M per year. JT Miller, Jesper Fast and new recruit Emerson Etem, who welcomes the fresh start after never breaking through for the Ducks, are in line for much smaller payments and short-term deals, but the trio should reserve the entire space, with another forward left to close the roster after the cheap signing of Viktor Stalberg.

With little wiggle room, Gorton may be forced to part with one of his defenders, also anticipating the raises that Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes will deserve next year, with Kevin Klein (2.9M) and Keith Yandle, despite being a bargain at 2.65 M (Arizona is picking up half of his check until 2016), on the forefront.

29. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins, already sensing the prime years of the Crosby/Malkin era running out without sniffing another Cup, had to beef up yet again and shipped out more young assets on the Phil Kessel deal, a bet that Jim Rutherford and the organization were once again forced to do. Ponying up their only top-end forward prospect, a former 2nd round pick and the 2016 first round pick almost empties their cupboard, but at least they succeeded in keeping prized young defenders Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta.

Although Kessel is, arguably, the third most lethal sniper in the NHL today, after Ovechkin and Stamkos, and a tremendous weapon to join Crosby or Malkin at even strength, his presence on the powerplay can be even more crucial. His left shot stationed on the right side could open up precious space so that the two-headed monster could work on the left, maybe turning a scary but unbalanced unit into a mass destruction device. With Kessel, the whole Penguins offensive lineup also stretches out better, with the team now holding, when everyone is healthy, as many as ten legit top-nine forwards.

Will the trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins reenergize Phil Kessel?

Rutherford has yet to assemble his entire 4th line, weighing if the time is right to take a chance on untested youngsters like Oskar Sundqvist and Scott Wilson, and he would certainly love to find a taker for Rob Scuderi’s contract, but, for now, the team figures to enter the season with a really young blueline after losing veterans Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff due to cap constraints.

30. Since we got all the way till here, a few quick ideas on the teams missing :

Florida Panthers: parted ways with several veteran forwards (Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Brad Boyes) to open space for home-grown talents like Vincent Trocheck and Quinton Howden;

Montreal Canadiens: re-signed sound top-four defenseman Jeff Petry to a rich six-years/33M deal and swapped Brandon Prust for Zack Kassian, who’s already 24-years-old and missing the boat towards becoming more than a physical, pesky, low-end forward;

New York Islanders: extended forward Anders Lee and defenseman Thomas Hickey on deserved multi-year deals;

Ottawa Senators: smartly locked out last year’s rookie of the year candidate Mark Stone to a reasonable 3 year/10.5M deal, and resisted the pressure to give up on lanky defenseman Jared Cowen, going through a bout of low-confidence;
Tampa Bay Lightning: rounded out the bottom-six with the smart signing of possession-driver, ex-Ottawa Senator, Erik Condra;

Vancouver Canucks: for some reason decided that paying 2.5M to Brandon Prust was what they needed and even threw-in a 5th round pick to make it happen. Cashed in on Eddie Lack after deciding he wasn’t a long-term solution on goal, opening a slot for Jacob Markstrom to prove that he belongs in the NHL. However, Jim Benning was unable to keep the other piece of the Luongo deal, losing Shawn Matthias, an affordable, productive third line option.

Winnipeg Jets: Kevin Cheveldayoff managed to snare Alexander Burmistrov back from the KHL, adding a talented and versatile forward that can play anywhere on the top-nine, and retained, on a two-year deal, Drew Stafford, a key element over the stretch run last season. Michael Frolik, an influential defensive-ace, moved to the Calgary Flames even if the Jets made offers in the neighbourhood of what he got. Really important point to keep in mind: the Jets system is brimming with talent at every position and stellar prospects like Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrisey and Nic Petan can force their way in as early as opening night;

31. Top five Unrestricted Free Agents left in the market and my bet on where they’ll land:

RW Alex Semin (Montreal Canadiens)
D Christian Ehrhoff (Philadelphia Flyers)
D Cody Franson (Columbus Blue Jackets)
D Johnny Oduya (Dallas Stars)
C Eric Fehr (New Jersey Devils)