Month: Nov 2015

European Tour of Sports – Romania

The Basics

Population: 20.1 M
Area: 238 391 km2
Capital: Bucharest
Summer Olympic Medals: 301 (88 G-94 S-119 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 1 (0 G-0 S-1 B)

Popular sports and History

Romania places in a very honourable 15th position on the all-time Olympic Games’ medal count, and there is an edition that contributed with more than one in six medals conquered for the country. In 1984, at Los Angeles, Romania only trailed the hosts, collecting 20 golds and a total of 53 laurels, a haul never approached before or after. Those Olympic Games were indelibly marked by the boycott of the rest of the so-called Eastern Bloc, headlined by the Soviet Union, but Romania’s feats can’t be belittled as they reigned supreme over powerhouses like China, Japan or West Germany. And that performance came in the middle of a stretch where the country amassed, at least, 24 medals on four consecutive editions, starting in Montreal 76 and ending in Seoul 1988. Those were the heydays of Romania’s artistic gymnastics, but we’ll get to that later.

Our first stop is on a sport that hasn’t contributed to the more than 300 medals conquered on the Olympic stage, but it is, nonetheless, the most beloved by Romanians. The nation’s football history has no record of a major international triumph by the “Tricolorii”, the Romanian National team, but they’ve participated in seven World Cups, with the pinnacle being a quarter-final in 1994, a tournament highlighted by the elimination of Argentina. On the continental stage, Romania will take part for the fifth time on the European Championships in 2016, hoping to best the quarter-finals achieved in 2000.

Connecting the squads of 1994 and 2000 was one man above all others, The “Regele” (“The King”) of Romanian football, Mr. Gheorghe Hagi. The exquisite playmaker graced the fields of Europe for two decades and is not only one of the few players to have represented both Real Madrid (1990-92) and FC Barcelona (1992-94), but also a legend in Turkey, where he’ll forever be remembered as “The Commander” by Galatasaray fans. Hagi’s technique and vision were responsible for another nickname, “The Maradona of the Carpathians”, and the recognition as the greatest Romanian player of all-time, a country he represented in 137 occasions (35 goals).

Gheorghe Hagi with the Romanian jersey on the 1994 World Cup

Names like those of Gheorghe Popescu, who also played for Barcelona and Galatasaray, and Miodrag Belodedici, the first player to win the European Cup for two different clubs (Steaua Bucharest (1986) and Red Star Belgrade (1991), are also inked in the nation’s books, while Mircea Lucescu served Romania as a player (70 appearances) and coach (1981-86), but is most recognized for an illustrious career as a manager in Italy, Ukraine and Turkey, where he led Hagi and Galatasaray to an unprecedented triumph on the 2000 UEFA Cup.

At the club level, FC Steaua București is, undoubtedly, the most important institution, becoming the first Eastern Europe club to win the European Cup, in 1986, and losing the final three years later. Steaua also has a record number of National Championships (26) and National Cups (22), with fierce rivals Dinamo București coming next. Dinamo was the first Romanian team to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, in 1984, defeating the holders Hamburg SV. FC Rapid București, FC Universitatea Craiova and CFR Cluj have also amassed a significant number of national honours.

Handball is the second team sport in Romania, with the men’s national team securing the World Championships on four occasions (1961, 64, 70, 74), tied for the most with Sweden, and adding four medals in Olympic tournaments (silver in 1976, bronze in 1972, 1980, 1984). However, Romania has been away from the top over the last two decades, missing all but two (2009 and 2011) World tournaments since 1997, and failing to qualify for the European Championships and Olympic Games since the early 90’s. Both Steaua București (1968 and 1977) and Dinamo București (1965) have won the sport’s Champions League, while CS UCM Reşiţa, HC Odorheiu Secuiesc and HC Minaur Baia Mare have secured other European competitions.

The Women’s National team won the World Championship in 1962, came second in 1973 and 2005, and has never missed the tournament, something no other nation can claim. CS Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea triumphed on every European Cup, except for the Champions League (finalists in 2010), and also holds the record for most national titles on the women’s side.

Romania is a top European nation in Rugby, having competed in every World Cup. The Stejarii (”The Oaks”) picked up the European Nations Cup (also called the Six Nations B, a tournament instituted in 2000) in four instances, trailing only Georgia, their challenger for the right to be considered the seventh best team on the continent. In their history, Romania has managed to beat France, Italy, Scotland and Wales, four of the Six Nations.

The Romanian rugby national team celebrated after a win over Canada on the 2015 World Cup

Other team sports that boast some relevancy on Romania’s sports landscape are basketball, volleyball and water polo. The Romanian men’s Basketball team finished 5th on the 1957 and 1967 Eurobasket, but hasn’t qualified for the competition since 1987, while their women’s counterparts took part in the 2015 Eurobasket, by virtue of co-organizing the competition with Hungary, and were defeated in all four matches. Gheorghe Mureșan isn’t the best Romanian Basketball player of all-time, since that honour goes to Andrei Folbert, captain of the national team for 25 years, but he’s definitely the most recognizable face, becoming the first to compete in the NBA and, in the process, sharing the distinction as the tallest man ever in the League, standing at 2.31 m.

Romania men’s volleyball team captured a silver medal in the 1980 Olympic Games and reached the podium in the World Cup on four occasions, from 1956 to 1966, while the water polo representation is a regular in the most important international competitions, even if they have never been able to guarantee a top three position.

Nadia Comaneci, an Olympic legend at age 14

For Romania, no sport has been engraved more on the world scale than artistic gymnastics, with a strong tradition rooted on the successes of their ladies. The sport has managed to fetch a staggering total of 72 Olympic medals, including 25 golds, and contributed with the best female athlete in Romania’s history. A 14-year-old girl by the name of Nadia Comaneci took by storm the 1976 Olympics and became the first ever gymnast to score a perfect ten during her routine on the uneven bars, one of the most memorable moments in Olympic Games’ history. She conquered three individual gold medals (uneven bars, balance beam and all-around competition) in Montreal, and added two more in Moscow 1980, leaving his Olympic tally in 5 titles, three silver medals, including two on the team competition, and a bronze.

Comaneci’s achievements transcended her sport and brought a great deal of attention to Gymnastics, something her country beneficiated from on the following Olympics, with Ecaterina Szabo collecting gold medals in three (vault, balance beam, floor) of the four individual events in Los Angeles 84. She also added the team triumph, missing the all-around crown for just 0.5 points to home favourite Mary Lou Retton. In 1988, it was Daniela Silivaș’ time to shine, medalling in all six events of the Seoul Olympics, including the titles in the uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam. Romania’s prowess has continued into the 21st century, carried on by Olympic Champions like Sandra Izbașa and Cătălina Ponor, who combined for nine medals, five of them golds. On the men’s side, Marius Urzică and his unique style on the pommel horse were catalysts to a career highlighted by three Olympic medals in the event on consecutive Games (1996-2004), and three World Championships titles.

Another individual sport rooted in Romania’s lore is tennis, mainly by the achievements of the third member of Romanian sports’ gold triangle (alongside Hagi and Comaneci). Ilie Năstase is the only Romanian to ever become World N.1* (between August 1973 and June 1974) but he didn’t stop there. He won Roland Garros in 1972 without dropping a set on the entire tournament, the US Open in 1973, and four ATP Tour Finals, the most important titles of the more than 100 he amassed between singles and doubles. Năstase also led Romania to three Davis Cup finals (1969, 1971, 1972), losing out on the trophy at the hands of the USA on every occasion. Nonetheless, the long campaigns forged a partnership with teammate Ion Țiriac, who rose as far as 8th on the singles rankings before building a reputation as a billionaire businessman, tennis coach, manager and tournament promotor.

Ilie Năstase, Romania’s best tennis player of all-time

On the female circuit, Virginia Ruzici is (by now) the most accomplished player hailing from Romania, having won the French Open in 1978 on both singles and doubles. On the Fed Cup, Romania went as far as the semi-finals in 1973, but the country has been away from the top division since 1992, a run of futility that will end in 2016 due to a renaissance of the women’s game expressed on the presence of five players among the top 100 in the World. Meanwhile, no Romanian man is currently on the top 100 of the ATP Tour Singles Ranking.

*Horia Tecău, alongside Dutch Jean-Julien Rojer, climbed to the lead of the ATP Doubles Rankings today (23/11/2015) after winning the Masters

The second sport in Romania’s history in terms of Olympic silverware is rowing, with 37 medals conquered. Elisabeta Lipă collected a total of eight over a run of six consecutive Olympic Games, from 1984 to 2004, a feat no other rower has ever achieved. She ascended to the podium propelling four different boats, the singles, doubles and quadruple sculls plus the eight-oared boat. Likewise, the 20 years that mediated the first and last of her five Olympic titles are a record in the sport. Also on the history books, Georgeta Damian won six medals (5 titles) from 2000 to 2008, on the coxless pair and eights, first pairing with Doina Ignat (4G+1S+1B) and later with Viorica Susanu (4G+1 B). In London 2012, for the first time in 36 years, Romania came home without a medal from their rowers.

Also impelling the water, Ivan Patzaichin hauled seven Olympic medals (four titles) on Canoeing from 1968 to 1984, later becoming the long-time head of the Romanian national team on a sport that has contributed with 34 medals for the country’s tally.

Alina Dumitru, Judo Olympic Champion in Beijing 2008

Fencing is another sport that enjoys great tradition, with six Romanians among the sport’s Hall of Fame, and 15 medals, spanning every weapon, accumulated since the 50’s. The track and field events (Athletics) place third on the nation’s list of Olympic offerings, with 35 honours, and the women have also been responsible for most of the biggest moments, at least recently: Constantina Diță was the marathon Olympic Champion in 2008; Gabriela Szabo won the 5000 meters of the 2000 Sidney Olympics; Lidia Simon was a silver medallist on the marathon in the same edition, and Ionela Târlea a runner up on the 400 meters hurdles in Athens 2004.

Judo has come into the spotlight over the last few years, with half of the sport’s six medals conquered in 2008 and 2012. Alina Dumitru was a surprising Olympic Champion in Beijing on the -48kg category, and won silver four years later, while Corina Căprioriu lost the decisive encounter in London on the -57kg. Boxing, Wrestling, weightlifting and shooting have also brought joy to the Romanian people on multiple occasions.

Romania’s history on the Winter Olympics is much less impressive, including a single moment of glory, back in the 1968 edition, when the two-man bobsleigh crew of Ion Panturu and Nicolae Neagoe stepped up on the lower podium position.

To wrap it up, a reference to Romania’s own traditional sport, Oină, a team game sharing similarities with baseball that is also played on neighbouring Moldova, and wherever there is a Romanian ethnic or cultural presence.

Star Athletes

Simona Halep (Tennis)

The picturesque city of Constanța, on the edge of the Black Sea, welcomed Halep to the world in September of 1991 and, from early on, the diminutive Simona displayed tremendous talent and passion for the game. The pursuit of the dream to become a professional led to a move to Bucharest at age 16 and a triumph on the 2008 Roland Garros Junior event would soon follow, enlisting the Romanian on the list of biggest promises in the sport. She would dip her toe on the WTA during 2009, but her results didn’t really took off until she made the extremely brave decision to have breast reduction surgery in order to improve her career prospects, citing recurring back pain and trouble with the additional weight.

Simona Halep clutches the Indian Wells trophy, the most important she’s conquered on her career

From 2010 to 2012, Halep slowly improved her game and adapted to the top-level, despite failing to go past the second round on any Grand Slam or conquer a WTA trophy. In 2013, she finally put it all together and broke into the scene with a bang, winning her maiden tournament in June, at Nuremberg, and adding five more until the end of the season, to finish with six on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard courts). She climbed from just inside to top 50 all the way to 11th, was named WTA Most Improved Player of the Year, and set her sight on breaking into the top 10. A quarterfinal performance at the 2014 Australian Open did the trick and Halep didn’t look back. Her first Grand Slam final followed soon, ultimately losing to Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, but she also reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, triumphed on the important Qatar Open, and celebrated, at home, on the Bucharest Open. By August, Halep had already became the 2nd player in the world and she ended 2014 with an impressive debut at the WTA Finals, defeating Serena Williams during the group stage before succumbing to the same opponent on the final.

In 2015, Halep solidified her grip on the top positions of the WTA Rankings, ending the season as the Number 2, but couldn’t take a step forward in the Grand Slams, with a semi-final at the US Open as the best outcome. However, her triumph at Indian Wells, a Premier Tournament, represented the most relevant trophy of her career and, at age 24, she has a lot ahead, with her aggressive game from the baseline combined with great athleticism and balance well suited for more successes down the road.

Marian Drăgulescu (Artistic Gymnastics)

So, up there I wrote almost 300 words on artistic gymnastics and Romania’s history on the ladies side, and now I’ll feature a male gymnast? It’s certainly strange but the pool of candidates it’s so much deeper on the women’s side that I had to scramble a bit.

Marian Drăgulescu is still picking up medals for his country at age 34

Anyway, Marian Drăgulescu is a more than qualified athlete to be here. After all, the 34-year-old has won a staggering amount of 26 medals between Olympics, World and European Championships. The Bucharest-native toggled with other sports as a youngster but ended up choosing gymnastics, and the decision paid off on the first international championship he competed in, the 1998 Junior European Championships, which he left with four medals. Two years later, on the 2000 Olympics, Drăgulescu was a 20-year-old newcomer that performed modestly among the big boys but, by the 2001 World Championships, the Romanian was already amongst the best, taking gold on the vault and floor exercise, the first two of his eight career world titles. Three more medals settled his spot on the top in 2002, netting the recognition as Gymnast of the year, and he reached the 2004 Olympics fresh of four triumphs on the European Championships (team competition, vault, floor exercise and all-around).

In Athens, he became a household name on his country by gathering a trio of medals. First, the 23-year-old helped secure a bronze on the team event, then came out second on the floor exercise, losing the title on a tiebreaker, and later added another bronze medal on the vault. On this event, Drăgulescu failed to secure the title after making an error on his second attempt, and the disappointment trickled into an extemporaneous retirement announcement in 2005, from which he returned before long to take the vault title on the World Championships. Two years later, a heavy fall during the European Championships derailed his preparation to the Beijing Olympics, and history ended up repeating itself, with the vault Olympic title escaping again after a near perfect first routine.

He left Beijing empty handed, retired and unretired again in 2009, and went through some tough seasons, pulling out of the 2012 Olympics due to injury. By 2015, approaching age-35, way past the peak for most gymnasts, Drăgulescu is still hanging on with the best, as proved by the gold medal conquered on the vault at the 2015 World Championships. Time will tell if he can finally write his name in gold on Olympic history next year, but the “Drăgulescu”, a move described as “a handspring double front with half turn” will stand the test of time on the future of the vault apparatus.

Cristina Neagu (Handball)

The 27-year-old born in Bucharest has carved a place amongst the top-echelon of female handball players in the World after shining on several occasions for her country at the international stage. Neagu debuted on the professional ranks for Rulmentul Braşov in 2006, and helped the team to an EHF Cup Winner’s Cup trophy in 2008 and three runner-up positions on the national league, behind a CS Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea club that was starting a string of seven consecutive titles. The left back switched sides in 2009, just as she was becoming the best player on the country, and the new challenge proved decisive for a 2010 season that would leave an indelible mark on her career.

She led Oltchim to the Champions League final, lost to Denmark’s Viborg, and then dazzled at the European Championships, where she won the top scorer award, was elected to the tournament’s All-Star Team, and helped Romania to a first podium position in history. Her performance was so impressive that she was named as the IHF World Player of the Year.

Cristina Neagu, Romania’s handball national team lethal left back

However, in 2010-11, Neagu started an injury ordeal that would last almost three years, first due to damage on her right shoulder cartilage that kept her out for two seasons and, in early 2013, after a rupture on the cruciate ligaments of her left knee. Before 2013-14, the Romania star left her country to join Montenegro’s ŽRK Budućnost Podgorica, and found her stride again, repeating the All Star Team distinction in the 2014 European Championships just a few months before coming in 2nd on the election for World Player of the Year. Her team lost the Champions League Final in 2014, but Neagu’s ability as a scorer carried them back to the decision in 2015, with the Romanian winning the biggest title of her career until today.

Other Athletes: Cătălin Fercu and Florin Vlaicu (Rugby), Cătălina Ponor and Sandra Izbașa (Artistic Gymnastics), Ana Maria Brânză and Simona Gherman (Épée, Fencing), Tiberiu Dolceanu (Sabre, Fencing), Alin Moldoveanu (shooting), Corina Căprioriu and Andreea Chițu (Judo), Elizabeta Samara (Table Tennis), Horia Tecău (Tennis), Alexandru Dumitrescu (Canoeing), Vlad Chiricheș (Football)

Venues

Romania doesn’t boast the same deep pockets that their western neighbours have demonstrated when it comes to building shinny new top sporting facilities, but they’ve steadily worked to modernize and substitute the most important venues in the country.

The symbol of that is the state-of-the-art Arena Națională (National Arena), which opened in 2011 and substituted the former Stadionul Național, the home of the national football team between 1953 and 2008. The 55.600-seats venue, located on the Romanian capital, has hosted, in addition to national team matches’, the 2012 UEFA Europa League Final – the first ever European football final held in the country – and several continental appointments of the country’s main clubs, especially Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest. In 2020, the stadium will receive four matches of the 2020 UEFA European Championships.

The Arena Națională on the night of the inaugural match, between Romania and France.

Beyond the National Arena, there are three more stadiums that can accommodate more than 30.000 people: the Dan Paltinisanu Stadium (32.972), in Timișoara, opened in 1964; the 1983’s Stadionul Iftimie Ilisei (32.700), in Medgidia; and the majestic Cluj Arena (30.201), a modern venue erected in 2011 to be used by Fotbal Club Universitatea Cluj. This arena is also equipped with a running track, opening the possibility of welcoming important athletics’ meetings. CFR Cluj, the city’s most famous club, plays on the Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu, a facility with capacity for 23.500 that dates back to 1973.

Steaua Bucharest’s long-time home, the Stadionul Steaua, is owned by the Ministry of National Defence, and disagreements with the government meant the club had to move out from the place they occupied since 1974. Until a solution is found, they’ve transferred to the Arena Națională. Opened in 2011, the Stadionul Ilie Oană, in Ploiești, seats just 15.500, but it’s one of the only three Romanian venues (alongside the Arena Națională and Cluj Arena) ranked by UEFA as a category 4 stadium, thus able to host Champions League and Europa League matches.

On a different perspective, the Stadionul Naţional de Rugby “Arcul de Triumf” deserves a reference, as the 5.500-seats facility is considered the historical ground of the Romanian national rugby team.

In terms of indoor arenas, the Sala Polivalentă (Polyvalent Hall) din București, with a capacity for up to 5.300, is the main hall for sports events in the capital. Renovated in 2008 and 2011, the building has hosted several high-end events in a number of sports, such as the final of the 2000 Women’s Handball European Championships, the 2014 European Judo Championships, or the 2009 European Weightlifting Championships. However, there’s a bigger indoor venue in Bucharest, the Romexpo, an iconic building for combat sports in Romania, since almost 14.000 can watch the battles on scene. With the concert configuration, though, 40.000 can flock inside a hall that dates back to 1962.

Cluj-Napoca’s Sala Polivalentă during an handball match

Cluj-Napoca’s own Sala Polivalentă opened up in October 2014, alongside the new Cluj Arena, and can host 10.000 fans for boxing or concerts and, approximately, 7300 for basketball and handball matches. The local men’s basketball (U BT Cluj-Napoca) and women’s handball (Universitatea Alexandrion Cluj-Napoca) teams hold their games on the hall.

In Craiova, the Sala Polivalentă is also very recent, having been inaugurated in 2012. The arena holds 4200 spectators in the matches of the city’s volleyball, basketball and handball teams. The Sala Sporturilor Olimpia, in Ploiești, was renovated from 2011 to 2013, and now welcomes 3500 spectators for the matches of CSU Asesoft Ploiești, the most successful basketball team in the country during this century, winners of 10 of the last 11 national championships.

Staying indoors but on a different surface, the Patinoarul Olimpic Brașov is a multi-purpose ice rink, with 1600 seats, inaugurated in 2010 with the goal of hosting the festivities of the 2013 European Youth Winter Olympic Festival. The ski jumping events for the Festival were held at the Râșnov Ski Jump, a hill that has hosted rounds of the ladies’ FIS Ski Jumping World Cup.

Meanwhile, the Patinoarul Mihai Flamaropol holds 8.000 and is the venue used by the Steaua Rangers, the ice hockey section of Steaua Bucharest and the sport’s most decorated club in Romania. The capital’s rink will be demolished to make space for a new 16.000-seats facility on the proximity of the Arena Națională.

Getting back outside, the Arenele BNR is a tennis complex with 11 courts – including a stadium with capacity for 5.000 – which hosts the WTA and ATP Tour annual events held in Bucharest.

Yearly Events

You can’t really say Romania has a league nested on Europe’s top-level (except maybe in women’s handball), but you’ll surely find some decent matches dotted around the country in various sports. Several handball, basketball and football teams are competitive on international competitions, so keep an eye on the league’s schedules from August to May.
For some of the main sporting events held on the country during the year, look below:

Irina Deleanu Cup, Rhythmic Gymnastics (World Cup Series)
Bucharest, April

The Arenele BNR Stadium on a night session

BRD Năstase Țiriac Trophy (Romanian Open), Tennis (ATP Tour)
Bucharest, April

Cluj-Napoca International Marathon, Athletics

Cluj-Napoca, April

Spring Cup, Rhythmic Gymnastics
Ploiești, May

BRD Bucharest Open, Tennis (WTA Tour)
Bucharest, July

Bucharest Trophy, (Women’s) Handball

Bucharest, August

Constanța-Mamaia ETU Triathlon European Cup, Triathlon
Constanța-Mamaia (Constanța district), September

Bucharest International Marathon, Athletics
Bucharest, October

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Shaping Team Europe’s roster for the World Cup of Hockey (II)

(Introduction and forward group’s on the previous post)

Defence

Team Europe’s defensive corps is not short on experience and puck-moving ability, but there are some reasons for concern. Outside of depth issues we’ll mention later, they have a crucial trio that has been plagued by injuries recently, and a clear inclination for the left side. What I mean is that all of their prospective blueliners are left-handed.

The issue is not exclusive to this roster, since most players on the NHL shoot left (around 65%, and the predominance is even bigger in Europeans), but it is significant given the way this influences essential parts of a defenceman’s work, namely when clearing their own zone, escaping forecheckers, starting the breakout with an outlet pass, or keeping the puck on-side at the boards. I’m sure they’ll sort it out but one or two players will definitely move to their off-side, and it takes some time to adapt.

Zdeno Chara (Boston, SVK) – Roman Josi (Nashville, SUI)

After so many years leading Slovakia, will Zdeno Chara represent Team Europe at the World Cup?

A top pairing with Chara and Josi is, definitely, world-class but things get murkier if, for some reason, the hulking Bruins captain misses the tournament.

The proud Slovakian will be 39 by the time the tournament starts, and pulling out in order to save his body for the grind of a long season may be on his mind. Chara has participated in several World Championships and three Olympic Games for his country, and the idea of putting himself at risk for a team without a flag can’t be too exciting at this time of his career, when injuries are becoming increasingly prevalent. Nonetheless, assuming he takes part, his long reach, strength and booming slapshot would still be obvious difference makers.

Chara has patrolled the left side for his entire career, whereby it’s up to Josi to change his routines. The smooth-skating rearguard is already used to partner with a mammoth blueliner (RD Shea Weber), and figures to be the most important cog on a group that shares a lot of mileage. The Swiss’ impressive all-around game, ability to log big minutes, and growing offensive flair (28 goals over the last two seasons) will keep him on the ice in every situation, a load the burgeoning 2013 World Championships’ MVP seems ready to shoulder.

Christian Ehrhoff (LA Kings, GER) – Dennis Seidenberg (Boston, GER)

Germany’s top pair has a wealth of international experience sharing the ice, but, at this stage of their careers, it’s probably overmatched on a top four role.

The games of Ehrhoff and Seidenberg complement each other quite well, with the Bruins defenseman more than used to play the right side, but age and different ailments may have compromised their performance. The 33-year-old Kings blueliner is offensive-minded and can quarterback a powerplay with aplomb, but hasn’t been able to regain the level displayed for the Vancouver Canucks (2009-11) as a consequence of being side-lined for large chunks of games with concussion-like symptoms. Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Seidenberg plays like a true shutdown defenseman, and that style percolates into a richness of bruises that are starting to take its toll.

Christian Ehrhoff (#10) has been a stellar contributor to the German national team throughout his career

For Team Europe, it’s definitely beneficial that the competition will follow the off-season, since both players can be fresh and, hopefully, healthy heading into the tournament.

Andrej Sekera (Edmonton, SVK) – Mark Streit (Philadelphia, SUI)

Currently 25 years old, Roman Josi will be the youngest defenseman on the regular rotation for Team Europe, and Andrej Sekera is the other that has yet to reach 30.
The Slovak has regularly represented his nation, including on the last two Olympics, and has to help shore up the bottom pairing with his heady two-way game. A mobile defenseman that can move the puck but isn’t overly physical, Sekera will reach the tournament after a season as Edmonton’s top rearguard, and that experience will be crucial as he looks to withhold some minutes from the top four.

Mark Streit, another greybeard that has gone past the 37th birthday, won’t have to carry the same type of burden he’s used to for the Philadelphia Flyers, even though his offensive capabilities will be welcomed. A long-time powerplay specialist that can bomb the puck from the point, the 10-year NHL veteran has already participated in three Olympics and managed to become a savvy and responsible player on his end. Plus, he plays on the right side in Philly, which is definitely a bonus for this team’s handedness topic.

Andrej Sekera joined the Edmonton Oilers this offseason

We know the Russians will rotate four defensive units like always just to be different from everyone else, but since the rest will take seven blueliners to Canada to fill the 23-man roster, Team Europe’s final choice will likely come up to:

Luca Sbisa (Vancouver, SUI) / Mirco Mueller (San Jose, SUI)

Luca Sbisa jumped to the NHL as an 18-year-old (2008) with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he was clearly rushed and ended up stagnating in Anaheim, the organization he joined one year later as part of the Chris Pronger trade. As a matter of fact, he was a member of Switzerland’s 2010 Olympic roster but missed out in Sochi 2014. The 25-year-old failed to gain the coaches’ trust either in Anaheim or Vancouver because his skating ability and solid frame couldn’t disguise the bad decisions and hideous mistakes. Sbisa’s inconsistency have turned him into a low-end blueliner that struggles to crack the lineup at the NHL level, and the fact that he has some experience playing the right side is one of his few positive aspects.

20-year-old Mirco Mueller has had a cup of coffee in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks

Thus, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s passed over by his 20-year-old counterpart. The San Jose Sharks’ prospect is still raw and figures to spend most of this season on the AHL, but the lanky Mueller already displays a sound defensive game and is able to make a good first pass out of the zone. In 2014-15, the Swiss appeared in 39 NHL games and a few more would markedly hasten his development ahead of the World Cup.

Reserve

Did you notice how far you have to dig to find seven capable defenseman for this team? Well, in the NHL there’s literally no one else that fills the requirements of origin. Unless you ask Sweden for some loanees… maybe Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Victor Hedman? Mind-bogglingly they had no use for them in Sochi.

I had Andrej Meszaros on the mix but he has moved to the KHL after failing to land an NHL contract. Seems like a long time ago, but, in 2005-06, when he broke into the League, the now 30-year-old was one the brightest young blueliners in the game. However, since 2011, several injuries (back, shoulder, torn Achilles) derailed his progression and he fell out of favour. Positional errors, tentativeness with the puck and the refusal to engage physically turned him into a spare part, but, maybe, he can regain some confidence for HC Sibir Novosibirsk. Adept at playing the right side, his size and mobility were once important ingredients for his success.

Another Slovak, Lubomir Visnovsky, has also left the NHL, following an unsuccessful try-out with the Chicago Blackhawks, and returned to HC Bratislava. He will be 40 years old at the time of the tournament but…they say you never have too many puck-moving defenseman, right?

Group overview:

Experience and sound positioning are nice attributes, but if you don’t have the legs to hang on with the opponent, even more on a game that every day relies more on speed, you’re toast. Only Josi and Sekera possess above-average footspeed on Team Europe’s defence, they face some durability challenges, and there’s virtually no depth should an injury arise. We can safely say they’ll need a lot of help from the forwards corps to weather the storm.

*********************

Goalies

The range of choices for the goaltending position is not the sturdiest, but I’m moderately certain they won’t be the most worried team on this category.
I’m looking at you, Team Czech Republic. And you, Team North-America.

Frederik Andersen (Anaheim, DEN)

The incumbent starter for one of the NHL’s premier teams is the favourite to take the reins on net. The 26-year-old is just on his 2nd complete NHL season, but has already collected 58 wins in 93 games and boasts very solid career numbers at the highest level (0.920 SV%, 2.31 GAA). Andersen is a big goalie (6’4”) that was drafted twice – first by the Hurricanes in 2010 (7th round) and, two years later, by the Ducks (3rd round) – and lacks some experience at the international level for Denmark, but he should be able to cover for that with another season backstopping the Ducks.

Frederik Andersen will be the lead man between the pipes for Team Europe

Jaroslav Halak (NY Islanders, SVK)

The Slovakian netminder is far removed from that memorable playoff run for the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, and those two months ended up being the peak of his NHL career. He seemed to be on cusp of stardom and almost forced the Habs to push Carey Price out of the door (*takes a moment to imagine what could have been*), but never evolved into an elite goalie and shared the crease most of the time. Halak’s best qualities as a smallish goaltender are his quick movement and positioning, and he has crafted a plum assignment as the starter for the up-and-coming Islanders, but the 30-year-old won’t be more than the backup to Andersen on the World Cup.

Jonas Hiller (Calgary, SUI)

The 33-year-old was once a workhorse goaltender for the Ducks, where he played 73 games during the 2011-12 season, but his numbers were never sparkling, except for a highly-respectful 0.924 SV% in 2010-11. Hiller defended Switzerland’s net at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics and maintains some of the agility that made him successful, but his career is definitely on the downswing, something clearly expressed by his difficulties to pin down the job in Calgary. For Team Europe, he will play third-fiddle.

Reserve:

Thomas Greiss (NY Islanders, GER)

The 29-year-old has been an average NHL backup since he gained a place on the San Jose Sharks roster in 2009-10. Greiss represented Germany at the 2010 Olympics and he’s currently the understudy to Halak on the Islanders. He’s decent enough to include on the roster if anything happens to the trio above him, but nothing more than that.

Group overview:

None of Team Europe’s goalies would appear on a list of the top ten in the World, but they’re capable of defending the team’s honour. Andersen’s evolution during the season will dictate if they can expect above-average goaltending, since the alternatives are past their heyday.

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I’ll have a look at Team North America once I see enough of Connor McDavid. Have to be absolutely sure he’s worthy of a spot. It may take a while.

(Check out Part I here)

Shaping Team Europe’s roster for the World Cup of Hockey (I)

The World Cup of Hockey will return in September of 2016 (17th to 1st October), with a tournament held in Toronto, and the NHL’s footprint made for some puzzling decisions regarding the format. None was more discussed than the idea of ditching the invitation for two teams to join the six hockey powerhouses (Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic) and, instead, congregate two makeshift rosters to complete the field of eight required to fulfill the two preliminary groups of four.

One of those will be an under-23 (on October 1st of 2016) team composed of the best North American youngsters playing in the League, and the other a mix of Europe’s talents born outside of the four nations previous referenced. Even if the effort to showcase more NHL talent is understandable, the outcry from countries like Slovakia (usually included on hockey’s seven traditional hotbeds) and Switzerland (that has seen the sport develop immensely both at the club and national team level) was immense and players were candid demonstrating their dissatisfaction. The final roster will likely be made up of players from Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, Belarus, and maybe even France, and that creates problems for a group that has to come together in a month, build chemistry, integrate a melting pot of personalities and embrace the moniker of underdog. Plus, it’s still up in the air how to solve some simple elements of a group that congregates to compete against other nations, such as the flag and crest they’ll fight under, or the anthem heard after a triumph. In short words, the identity behind what can be considered a collection of misfits.

The man responsible for selecting Team Europe is former NHLer and Slovakia’s captain Miroslav Satan, while the coach will be Ralph Krueger, who coached the Edmonton Oilers in 2013-14, but has mostly been successful in Europe, leading Switzerland in 12 World Championships (1998-2009) and three Olympics (2002, 2006 and 2010). The 23-man roster may include three goalies and, predictably, thirteen forwards and seven defensemen, whereas the first 16 members have to be names until March 1st, and the entire squad announced no later than June 1st.

This article aims to predict the members of Team Europe’s roster and take a wild guess on the composition of the forward lines and defensive pairings we should expect entering the tournament and the encounter with the USA on opening day. I only included NHL-based players since the event is a joint effort by the NHL and the NHLPA, and it is on the best interest of these organizations that the number of NHL players be maximized. Plus, I don’t have enough knowledge about the players that ply their trade on the European Leagues to stack their merits against the NHL competition.

Switzerland came 2nd on the 2013 World Championships but that wasn’t enough to secure an invitation for the 2016 World Cup

To forecast the composition of the different lines, I tried to follow some simple guidelines that should be important for a group that will have a short window to gel and gain cohesiveness. Familiarity at the club level or in previous competitions for their nations, complementarity of styles (as subjective as the prediction of chemistry can be), and the need to balance the talent across the lineup were taken into account, with an effort to arrange four forward lines that can guarantee a solid two-way game and provide an offensive push. The NHL game today is about rolling four lines effectively and Team Europe will have to follow the same pattern, since it won’t be able to match the offensive fireworks we can expect from some of their opponents.
On the backend, the need for a consistent top four configures a feature of top-level teams and that was also a concern evaluating a prospective Team Europe’s lineup. I also took a look at the goaltenders and, for every position, appointed some reserve players that missed the cut and would be on verge of making the roster should the injury bug strike.

Forwards

Thomas Vanek (Minnesota, AUT) – Anze Kopitar (LA Kings, SLO) – Marian Gaborik (LA Kings, SVK)

On paper, a really potent top line…if we were in 2010.

Team Europe’s top center is probably the reason this team exists in the first place. Anze Kopitar’s Slovenia qualified for the 2014 Olympic tournament but that’s far from a regular participation and, thus, the Kings star is removed from competing with the best players in the world at the International stage. For this roster he’s a key player, the prototypical first line pivot that can matchup against any other sent to the ice, and the only complete scoring presence up the middle they can trust to put points on the scoreboard.

The 28-year-old has had, at least, 60 points in every NHL season but he covers many more fundamental facets of the game, being a strong penalty killer with a history of offensive prowess (9 SHG), a solid faceoff man (53.3% wins since 2011), and an elite two-way forward, expressed on a Selke nomination in 2014.

On the right side of Kopitar, the natural fit is his regular running mate in Los Angeles, Slovakian Marian Gaborik. At the age of 33, the winger has lost some of his trademark speed, and is already very far from the dynamic scorer that shined in Minnesota and New York, with his offensive production and shot rates tumbling over the last few seasons. Still, the three-time 40-goal scorer has shown that he can regain some of his magic in short spurts, like in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs he led with 14 goals, and his talent can be a difference-maker for Team Europe.

Anze Kopitar (#11) and Marian Gaborik (#12) have shared the ice for the LA Kings since March 2014

Gaborik has flanked the top line at international competitions with one famous compatriot filling the other side but, this time, I believe that it’s for the best if Marian Hossa shores up the second line. Thus, another veteran NHL forward, Austria’s Thomas Vanek strides in. The 31-year-old is another player that is already over the hill and he certainly won’t improve the foot speed of this line, but his contributes can be valuable. His large frame and soft hands bring memories of more than 300 NHL goals, including ten-consecutive 20-goal seasons, and a lot of success with the man advantage, where he has accumulated approximately one-third of his offensive numbers.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if, by next fall, he is way below on the depth chart and maybe even out of the regular rotation.

Tomas Tatar (Detroit, SVK) – Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo, LAT) – Marian Hossa (Chicago, SVK)

A couple of Slovak wingers with an eleven-year difference headline the second line.

24-year-old Tomas Tatar is just starting to come into his own at the NHL level and his 29 goals last year were flashes of a player that the Detroit Red Wings envision as a perennial 30-goal scorer moving forward. He’s probably Slovakia’s best hope to lead the transition after the likes of Gaborik, Chara and Marian Hossa retire, and the Red Wings would be thrilled if he comes remotely close to the career put on by his countryman.

Latvian Zemgus Girgensons should center one of Team Europe’s forward lines

However, for now, Tatar should benefit from another competition sharing the ice with the 37-year-old winger. Marian Hossa will probably say goodbye to international audiences very soon, but not without gracing the ice once again as one of the most accomplished players of his generation. A clutch performer, with 144 points amassed during the playoffs, 25 points in 15 games over three Olympic Games, and close to 500 NHL goals, Hossa’s numbers represent a brilliant and somewhat underappreciated career of an elite two-way presence that still displays the wheels to hang on with youngsters like Tatar.

Between the pair, Team Europe could ice the highest drafted Latvian player ever, Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons, a bonafide NHL All-Star, as evidenced last year. Ok…not really but, at least, Team Europe would certainly have the support of the rabid Latvian fans.

Jokes aside, the 21-year-old center is big (6’2, 203 pounds), physical and can generate offense flashing some power moves and using a wicked wrist shot. His development hasn’t been helped by the Sabres putrid roster over the last few seasons, but he could use the World Cup to improve his profile. Girgensons is also an effective two-way force and thus, slotting him with Hossa and Tatar, may give Team Europe a highly effective all-around line.

Mikkel Boedker (Arizona, DEN)–Lars Eller (Montreal, DEN) – Mats Zuccarello (NY Rangers, NOR)

Another line built on a pair of countryman that have performed together at previous international competitions.

Team Europe’s strength down the middle is suspect but you could do worse than the 26-year-old Danish on your third line. The versatile center can play on a checking line, like he’s usually deployed in Montreal, but he can also step up to a more prominent scoring role or move to the wing, taking a page out of Michel Therrien’s decision to start him this season on Alex Galchenyuk’s left side. Furthermore, Eller is a consistent two-way presence but to produce offense he will need to be flanked by skilled wingers, and that’s exactly what we’re looking at.

Mats Zuccarello will trade the colours of Norway for Team Europe’s (whatever they are..)

On the left, fellow Danish Mikkel Boedker is an underrated player that doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as one of the few flamboyant offensive talents the Arizona Coyotes have carried recently. The 25-year-old, who collected a career-high 51 points in 2013-14, is extremely fast, boasts some size and he’s especially dangerous on the PP, with his creativity and ability to play the point. A RW on the junior leagues, Boedker can easily shift to the left to make room for another crafty winger, New York Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello.

The 28-year-old Norwegian “hobbit” is way past the early concerns about his lack of size and strength, having become a go-to scorer for his team, which felt his absence deeply at last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Zuccarello had 59 points in 2013-14, and uses his left shot to manufacture offense from the right side of the ice, excelling with his vision and passing aptitude, attributes that should click well with his line mates, especially if Boedker finally realizes that he needs to shoot more and explore his great release.

Jannik Hansen (Vancouver, DEN) – Frans Nielsen (NY Islanders, DEN) – Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota, SUI)

Frans Nielsen would probably fit nicely on a line with his compatriots, but with the amount of depth other teams can throw on the ice, it’s important for Team Europe to present an experienced pivot on the fourth line. The 31-year-old is another recognizable two-way force and, even more than Eller, a player that, earlier in his career, was expected to put points on the board for a starved NY Islanders’ squad. The team’s improvement shuffled Nielsen down the lineup and he’s adjust to the role seamlessly, ghosting the oppositions’ best players and chipping in offensively. After all, he’s shown that he can score regularly, as occurred in 2013-14 when he posted 25G and 58 points.

The Danish is also a shorthanded threat, with 13 goals amassed in those situations over his NHL stay, and he may well form a fearsome pair in that situation with another Denmark-born forward. Vancouver Canucks’ Jannik Hansen may be a surprise inclusion on this roster, but the 8-year veteran has made a career as a PK specialist and shutdown forward for the 2011 Stanley Cup finalists, and his tremendous speed is an asset on the forecheck. Hansen is smart and versatile, can play either wing, and has also been called up to contribute on every line for the Canucks, including stints with the Sedin twins.

Frans Nielsen is one of several Denmark-born players expected to be a part of the roster

To provide an offensive pop to this line, the right side could use a big, skilled winger with a shooting mentality, and those are Nino Niederreiter’s main predicates. The highest-drafted Swiss player (5th, 2010) endured two frustrating seasons for the NY Islanders right after being selected, but the 2013 trade to Minnesota did wonders for his development. He learned how to use effectively his 6’2’’ frame, got consistent minutes with talented teammates, and flourished into the goal-scoring winger he was supposed to be, potting 24 goals in 2014-15. Just 23 years-old, he may be a wild card on this team, capable of climbing the ladder as the tournament progresses.

To round out the 13-men forward unit, I have two candidates:

Mikhail Grabovski (NY Islanders, BLR) / Nikolaj Ehlers (Winnipeg, DEN)

Common sense dictates that the center spot is essential, and entering the tournament with just four options for the position, since none of the proposed wingers has experience playing there, could prove problematic. Thus, the extra middleman may be a dependable veteran that could suit any role, and 31-year-old Mikhail Grabovski fits the mould, having accumulated experience since joining the Montreal Canadiens in 2008. A creative center that has been able to post offensive numbers despite limited attacking roles, the Belarussian has also acquired some experience on the left side for the New York Islanders.

Nikolaj Ehlers’ top-end skill set could prove valuable for Team Europe’s forward unit

However, just because I’m having a hard time leaving him outside, and it’s more than probable one of the 13 man listed above misses the tournament, the last player to make this roster should be a kid with the type of game-breaking talent Team Europe doesn’t have in spades.

19-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers has a lot to learn, but he’ll reach the World Cup with an NHL season under his belt after developing on the shadow of other scorers in Winnipeg, and his tantalising talent is just too exciting to leave out. An explosive skater with silky hands and the ability to play either side, Ehlers seems tailor-made to slot as a youngster destined to force Krueger’s hand into regular duty. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him operating Kopitar’s wing on the first day of the tournament…

Reserves

Unfortunately, the time when teams were allowed to carry a “taxi squad” is gone, but injuries always happen, so let’s get a sense of some possible reserves for Team Europe.
Should a middleman go down, Germany’s Leon Draisatl should slip in. The rangy playmaker has often been compared to Anze Kopitar but, right now, he’s just too much of an unknown quantity at the NHL level to pencil in without any doubt. However, his raw offensive skills are way above any other pivot on the team except for the Slovenian. Another German, Arizona’s Tobias Rieder, is also on the radar, with the winger cracking a top-six role for the Coyotes. Marko Dano, the Blackhawks’ much-heralded prospect, has the versatility to play center or wing, and could add speed and skill, while France’s Antoine Roussel is a valid option if the management staff decides the roster could use a pest with a crash-and-bang approach. Austria’s Michael Grabner has speed to burn and is an ace penalty killer, but injuries have hampered his ability to match the 34 goals reached as a rookie in 2010-11. However, in 2014, he tied for the Olympic tournament lead with 5 goals, so don’t discount him just yet.

Group overview:

Team Europe’s most famous forwards (Hossa, Vanek, Gaborik) have already seen their best days, which means some of the secondary elements, like Tatar, Boedker, Zuccarello and Niederreiter, will have to shine in order for this team to be competitive. On the positive side, there’s no shortage of defensively responsible players on the offensive mix, including down the middle of the ice. This group won’t be an offensive juggernaut but they have the means to slow down the heavyweights.

(Continues on the next post)