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