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)

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