Month: May 2016

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

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

Defence

Morgan Rielly* (Toronto, CAN) – Aaron Ekblad* (Florida, CAN)

It’s a testament to the overall quality of the younger generation of NHL rear guards that this squad’s top pairing would be the envy of many playoff-bound teams. Actually, very few wouldn’t hasten at the opportunity of building their blueline around a player of the ilk of Aaron Ekblad, the standout Florida Panther’s man-child.

Just 20 year-old, the youngest defenseman on the team will also be the group’s main factor, with his outstanding maturity, composure and poise with the puck essential in steadying a position where experience is always fundamental to curb blunders. Ekblad’s remarkable blend of size and skill, alongside the penchant to avoid mistakes or force plays, will thrust him into the enviable do-it-all role superstar players crave.

Similarly to Drew Doughty in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it’s perfectly plausible that Ekblad would have been on the radar to make Team Canada, but the regulations of this World Cup are what they are. Already a two-time NHL All-Star, a Calder Trophy winner and a World Champion (2015), it’s easy to forget that the 6-4 Windsor-native has a grand total of 165 NHL games on his résumé. The audience that spurns Panthers’ games may yet to discover the true ability of this minute-munching defenseman, but that’s about to end.

Ekblad’s probable partner has never accomplished “exceptional status”, but has certainly spilled more ink as a result of his day-to-day surroundings in Toronto, where his development has been one of the few brightest spots on the Leafs’ desert crossing. The 22-year-old Rielly especially flourished in 2015-2016 under Mike Babcock to become much more than a talented, offensively-gifted blueliner, improving his game in every facet as his load increased after Dion Phaneuf’s exit.

Morgan Rielly is one of the building blocks of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Despite limited power play opportunities, the left-handed defenseman still posted a career-high in points (36) as he learned to pick his spots in attack, but what excited Leafs fans was his ability to thrive in the tougher responsibilities of a number one defenseman, facing top competition and logging ample time on the penalty kill. If Rielly can accompany Ekblad’s excellence and mirror his usage, Team North America will be allowed to dream.

Ryan Murray* (Columbus, CAN) – Seth Jones* (Columbus, USA)

In short tournaments, familiarity is a luxury teams have to take advantage off. Thus, if you can count on a pair that has amassed hundreds of minutes together in every situation and happens to be composed of two complementary players, it becomes a pretty straightforward decision. With Murray and Jones, Todd McLellan can expect upwards to 25 minutes of smart, consistent hockey, and that’s exactly what a second unit should deliver.

Seth Jones, the 21-year-old that Nashville had to concede because of an overloaded right side on defence, headlines the partnership simply as a matter of pedigree. After all, just three years have passed since he was hailed as the next greatest American blueliner and a lot of potential is still untapped. The 6-4, 207 pounds, Texas-native is an athletic, slick skater with a long stride that can handle the puck with aplomb, but he’s yet to take the next step. Since an increased part in Columbus is bound to unlock his burgeoning offensive game, it would be interesting if he can discover a meaner streak, something that players of his stature and strength eventually learn to master.

Columbus Blue Jackets’ Ryan Murray forms a solid pairing with teammate Seth Jones

As for Murray, the flashy game is just not his style, since the 22-year-old is more about all-around reliability. He plays a rigorous game dependent on good skating ability, a cerebral approach and delivering a crisp first pass to start the breakout, which aren’t exactly the calling cards for recognition. Additionally, injuries almost wiped out two seasons of his career (2012-13 and 2014-15), and the 2nd pick of the 2012 NHL Draft has only suited up for 160 NHL games to date. His presence among the first sixteen players nominated was a surprise for many, but in a pool of candidates short on dependable natural left-side blueliners, it became pretty much a no brainer.

Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg, USA) – Colton Parayko (St. Louis Blues, CAN)

You have to push out a Calder Trophy finalist and break the left-right balance to make this pairing work, but I just think this is a fascinating outlook, an enthralling combination of strength, physicality, mobility and skill from two players that have the tools to become top-level NHL defenseman.

Born in Minnesota, the 22-year-old Trouba has had his breakthrough delayed by Winnipeg’s depth on the right-side, being stuck behind Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. Indeed, after pilling up 29 points in 65 games as a rookie in 2013-14, Trouba hasn’t been able to reach new heights despite holding a booming shot, a great weapon that has been underutilized due to limited PP exposure. However, his two-way ability and edge are regularly in evidence, be it when he delivers a thunderous check, or uses his 6-2 frame to excel on the penalty kill or a shutdown assignment. Dangerous when joining the rush late, the Jets’ cornerstone still makes questionable decisions with the puck, but it’s an asset Team North America would be wise to use. He can provide an element of nastiness lacking in the line-up, and has already been tested on the left side with promising results.

Jacob Trouba, of the Winnipeg Jets, is running for a spot on Team North America’s defense

With Trouba manning the left point, the right wall can be handled by one of the greatest success stories of the season. Eight months ago, Colton Parayko was completely out of this conversation, but a rampant rookie season changed everything.

The massive 6-5, 218 pounds rearguard impressed for his positional awareness, mobility, and ability to break the play with his long reach, which he usually followed up by skating the puck out of trouble with a grace that belies his size. Meanwhile, his offensive upside was also evident, with a heavy slap shot from the point serving as a catalyst for 33 points and a glittery +/- 28 rating, among the best in the league. Once passed at the draft, the brawny Parayko should go from representing the obscure University of Alaska-Fairbanks to playing a critical role for Team North America in a bit more than a year.

Shayne Ghostisbehere (Philadelphia Flyers, USA) / Dougie Hamilton (Calgary Flames, CAN)

Looking at the six names highlighted above for regular duty on Team North America’s defence, jumps out the lack of an elite powerplay specialist, whereby I believe the last man called should fill that void. Fortunately, a perfect option is available, in the form of a player that missed the cut because of legitimate concerns about his ability to hang on defensively against wave after wave of all-world offensive talent.

Shayne Gostisbehere’s heroics fueled a Philadelphia Flyers’s improbable run, and maybe he can work the same magic for Team North America.

Those apprehensions may be warranted, yet the “Ghost” is the type of competitor that can prosper in a spot-on, sheltered role. During a dazzling NHL debut season, he’s shown to be a dynamic, resourceful blueliner capable of exploring cracks in coverage and carrying the puck like the best, while also displaying masterful point man credentials, namely a big shot he always gets through to the net.

His skinny 5-11 frame, though, presents challenges when dealing with bigger forwards, and that may be his downfall in relation to a guy like Dougie Hamilton, whose lanky 6-6 body and 260 NHL games may sound enticing as a first fill-in candidate. Hamilton is also adept at joining the rush and logging the puck, yet sometimes shies away from physical confrontation. Nevertheless, his reach is an asset, and after a stumbling start for the Calgary Flames he righted the ship to end with a career-high 43 points in 2015-16.

Reserves:

I consider that the coaching staff would be comfortable bringing any combination of the eight names designated above, but after those we enter a territory where every other option has a drawback.

The Senators’ Cody Ceci is one of the players on Team North America’s watch

For the right side, the alternate names that pop up are Matt Dumba (Minnesota, CAN) and Cody Ceci (Ottawa, CAN). The Wild defender was the seventh overall pick in 2012, but his flashy, bruising style has yet to be trusted by Minnesota’s management, with 2015-16 being the first season entirely spent on the NHL. He saw powerplay and third pair action but barely touched the ice on the penalty kill. Meanwhile, Ceci, a smooth-skating offensive-minded blueliner, cracked the Sens second pair and was mostly an even-strength weapon as Erik Karlsson cannibalized the man-advantage. New Jersey Devils’ Damon Severson (USA) is another name to consider here.

As for left-handed rearguards, the dispute would be between Noah Hanifin (Carolina, USA) and Darnel Nurse (Edmonton, CAN), two players that also experienced a full NHL season for the first time. Hanifin, just 19 years old, displayed the mature, polished game scouts raved about, but was ultimately overshadowed by the contributions of fellow rookie teammate Jaccob Slavin, who is 22, more experienced and also a left shooter. The imposing (6-4) Nurse broke the 20 minutes-per-game mark for an Oilers squad that lacked a true stud defenseman, and generally earned positive reviews, but he couldn’t escape all the defensive breakdowns that still plague that team. The Penguins’ Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh, CAN) lost the train due to his inability to crack his team’s roster.

Group overview:

If the forward group is built on speed, Team North America’s defence is composed entirely of mobile blueliners capable of pushing the puck up the ice quickly, thus taking advantage of the team’s main forte. Every single one of these guys has the ability to deliver tape-to-tape passes, evade aggressive fore checkers and offer support through the neutral zone or on the offensive end, either by contributing to the cycle, pinching in, or taking advantage of blown coverage.

There are players possessing devastating shots (Trouba, Parayko), beautiful stick handlers that shine at gaining the offensive zone and crafting plays (Rielly and Gostisbehere), and efficient all-situations performers (Ekblad, Jones, Murray).  Additionally, this is also a group that can compete physically on the boards or in front of the net, and handle multiple types of attacking approaches, whether teams prefer to grind down low or play off the rush.

Obviously, the unit will be tested against the finest offensive talents in the World, and they may struggle at times, but, as an under-23 collection, few could call for a steadier ensemble. Even if we overlook the age (and upward trend) factor, few NHL teams (or national squads) wouldn’t exchange their blueline for this in a glance.

 

Goalies

John Gibson* (Anaheim, USA)

Last summer, when the first predictions for Team North America started to trickle in, Gibson was the presumable starter and no one else stood a chance. Things have changed dramatically since then, but for the time being the crease is his to lose. At least for another month, since one of his colleagues can turn the table with his Stanley Cup playoffs’ performance.

John Gibson stretches to make a save wearing the USA’s jersey

The Pittsburgh-native, a second round pick in 2011, has long been viewed as a potential superstar especially due to his crowded résumé, which includes titles at the U-18 and U-20 World Championships, and a bronze medal as a 19-year-old on the 2013 World Championships. No doubts exists that he delivers for his country, but donning a Ducks’ jersey the path has proved a bit rougher. Despite being given opportunities to seize the spot, including 66 regular season appearances and six more on the playoffs over three seasons, he’s been sent to the AHL several times.

Not that he hasn’t been good for a goalie of his age, as his numbers (career 2.22 GAA, 0.920 SV%) and All-Star Game selection in 2016 demonstrate, yet he hasn’t fortified the position for a powerhouse team and helped them get over the hump. Generally extremely poised and consistent, the 22-year-old, however, has been known to give softies in critical times, and that just can’t happen if Team North America hopes to compete.

Matthew Murray* (Pittsburgh, CAN)

When the rangy (6-4) Murray was selected on the third round in 2012, few could have predicted that just four years later that same Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ goaltender would be on the verge of pushing out Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins long-time starter. After all, a look at his pedestrian OHL numbers from 2010 to 2013 screamed about an extremely raw prospect.

However, something clicked in 2013-14, when he was selected as an OHL Second Team All-Star, and he’s never looked back. In his debut professional year, Murray hammered AHL record after AHL record, delivering the best GAA (1.58) and Sv% (0.941) in the league in route to securing best goaltender and best rookie honours.

Matt Murray’s play for the Pittsburgh Penguins has turned him into a contender for Team North America’s starter role

The Penguins and the whole NHL took notice, yet it was decided he would start this season in the minors to take advantage of supplemental playing time. The domination continued (0.930 Sv%) and when Fleury went down, Murray supplanted Jeff Zatkoff to assume the crease and just run with it, whether on the regular season (13 games, 0.931 Sv%) or the playoffs, where he’s currently leading the Penguins on the quest for a fourth Stanley Cup. Should they go all the way, this time absolutely no one will be surprised watching him stand as the last line of defence for Team North America in September.

Connor Hellebuyck* (Winnipeg, USA)

A fifth round pick by the Jets in 2012, Hellebuyck’s ascension to become one of hockey’s blue-chip goaltenders was leveraged at UMass-Lowell, with the Michigan-native posting two stellar seasons for the River Hawks, highlighted by a Sv% above 0.940. However, he needed to prove his worth against top-level competition and the 2015 World Championships were the perfect stage, with Hellebuyck wielding an unheralded American squad to a bronze medal, accruing 7 wins, a 1.37 GAA, 0.948 Sv%, 2 SO and an All-Star team selection.

The NHL was the natural step and his first taste came this season, with a stretch of 26 solid starts (2.35 GAA, 0918 Sv%), which confirmed he’ll enjoy success at this level before long. Standing at 6-4, the 22-year-old workhorse boasts ideal size for the position, and Jets’ fans should be thrilled to have finally found a franchise goaltender, even if for Team North America he figures to be the third option.

Reserves:

The reason Team North America already named their three goalies is quite simple: no other alternative can even cast a shadow at this point. However, they’re naturally going to take a reserve if something happens, so I’ll quickly describe the most obvious options, none of which presents a clear cut case for.

Malcolm Subban (Boston, CAN) seemed to be on the bubble for a spot before Murray and Hellebuyk took off and his development stagnated. The 22-year-old was expected to fight for the Bruins backup job after posting two AHL seasons with a Sv% above 0.920%, but was bested and then had a disastrous start. He eventually rebounded but his season was cut short by a fractured larynx in February. However, the place alongside Tuukka Rask will again be his to lose in October.

Malcolm Subban (#30) denies Johnny Gaudreau during a USA- Canada matchup

Another goaltender that grew up on Canada’s junior leagues is 20-year-old Zach Fucale (Montreal, CAN), whose decorated youth career increased a profile that wasn’t always matched by the counting stats. A 2nd round pick by the Canadiens in 2013, right after backstopping a Memorial Cup-winning Halifax Mooseheads team that iced Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, his first AHL season produced 42 starts and the same ordinary numbers his inconsistency usually delivers. Developed in the WHL, Laurent Brossoit (Edmonton, CAN) is a more experienced option at age 23, since we can already throw 6 NHL starts into the mix, but the upside of the selection is limited.

On the American side of the border, the standout names are two NCAA-groomed goaltenders that incidentally are part of Canadian organizations. The 22-year-old Jon Gillies (Calgary, USA) was the key cog for the Providence Friars during three stellar seasons, posting a Sv% always above 0.930, but his first professional adventure was marred by injuries. A fortune that Thatcher Demko (Vancouver, USA) will want to dodge, since the 20-year-old recently signed with the Canucks, leaving Boston College following a three year stint crowned with the top-collegiate goaltender award in 2015-16.

If I had to bet on it, I’d say Demko is currently on top of the reserve list, with Gillies and Subban trailing behind.

Group overview:

Last year, Team North America’s brain trust submitted a motion to be allowed to select an overaged goalie, and it ended up being denied by the NHL and NHLPA.

After all, the position looked murky at the time, with only Gibson beholding meaningful NHL experience, but Hellebuyck and Murray’s advent changed that and now it can even be…kind of a strength in comparison with a handful of competitors (Team Europe, Team Czech Republic…maybe even Russia). The trio is no match for Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist or Tuukka Rask, but neither were those names at similar levels by age 23…

Connor Hellebuyk reacts after getting scored on during last year’s World Championships

Team North America will have a trio of exceptionally talented young goalies to choose from, and that’s way more than anyone could have predicted when this project was announced.

(Check out Part I here)

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

A few months ago, I took a long look at the construction of Team Europe’s roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and promised to come back later with Team North America. Naturally, I won’t repeat much of what I wrote there, especially regarding the main guidelines for player selection and lineup assemblage, but the “Young Guns” deserve a brief introduction.

To be eligible to play for this Under-23, sorry Under-24…hell, under 23.5(?) star squad, a North American player has to be born on or after Oct. 1, 1992, which is the first time I’ve seen an age cut for a sports tournament be defined by a day, in this case the date of the final*.

Well, this makes absolutely no sense, but I won’t use this to start a rant….Actually, since the young American and Canadian players won’t be able to represent their own colours, I’d really like an explanation on why Brandon Saad has to be stuck with the other kids because he was born one month too late (October, 27th) and fellow 92’s like Nick Bjugstad (17-7), Tyler Toffoli (24-4), Tanner Pearson (10-8), Ryan Johansen (31-7), Brendan Gallagher (6-5) or Jaden Schwartz (25-6) will either done the jerseys they’ve dreamed about since the beginning of their lives or watch the competition on television. A real under-23 team (in 2016) is composed of players born from 1993 onwards…

(*And no, this isn’t the same as the NHL Draft regulations, since the September 15th cut-off is in place because kids have to turn 18 to be able to sign their own professional contracts and attend training camps.)

Team North America’s jersey at the 2016 World Cup

Anyway, the 23-man roster composed of 20 skaters and 3 goalies will congregate a fascinating collection of talent, with the first 16 names having been announced on March 2nd,  and the rest due by May 27th, just after the end of the 2016 IHHF World Championships, where a strong performance may well settle a spot for players on the bubble. Across this article, players with their participation already guaranteed have their names marked with an “*”.

Two of the NHL’s most successful GM’s, Edmonton Oilers’ Peter Chiarelli, Stanley Cup Champion in 2011, and Chicago Blackhawks’s Stan Bowman, who architected his team’s three triumphs in six seasons, were named general managers of Team North America and will be responsible for picking a consistent group that will absolutely rely on tremendous amounts of skill and speed. Additionally, the high-tempo style will benefit from the underdog mentality that will permeate this squad, hungry to prove their worth against all their star-laden opponents and, especially, measure themselves against their (older) compatriots.

Aaron Ekblad (L) and Dylan Larkin will once again become teammates at the World Cup of Hockey

Of the names already unveiled are five players that took part in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game (Johnny Gaudreau, Brandon Saad, Dylan Larkin, Aaron Ekblad and John Gibson), and this roster will also rip the benefits of the outstanding rookie crop of 2015-16, including the confirmed attendances of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Matt Murray and Connor Hellebuyk, plus the possible selections of Max Domi, Colton Parayko and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Meanwhile, the task of guiding the youngsters falls to Todd McLellan (Edmonton Oilers), who will serve as the Head Coach after leading Team Canada to a World Championships’ triumph in 2015. He will be assisted by John Cooper (Tampa Bay Lightning), Dave Tippett (Arizona Coyotes), Gerard Gallant (Florida Panthers) and Jay Woodcroft (Edmonton Oilers’ assistant coach).

Team North America’s journey will start in September 18th against Finland, facing Russia the following night and Team Sweden on the 21st of September. The semi-finals are scheduled for the 24th and 25th of September, with the best-of-three final for the right to hold the trophy contested from September 27th to October 1st.

And now, let the fun begin. First, my forecasted forward units.

Forwards

Brandon Saad* (Columbus, USA) – Connor McDavid* (Edmonton, CAN) – Nathan MacKinnon* (Colorado, CAN)

Front and Centre of Team North America’s ambitions, the generational talent of Connor McDavid will be under the spotlight on the first major international tournament of a probable Hall of Fame career. The 19-year-old run wild during his first NHL season, clocking at over a point-per-game (48 in 45 games) pace despite missing 37 games due to injury, and will be asked to produce against the toughest competition in the World while shouldering the brunt of attentions on Hockey’s Meca. McDavid’s explosiveness, offensive awareness and elite skillset are the build of the prospective best player in the World by October…2017, but to make the desired impact at this level he’ll have to be flanked by players capable of processing the game on the same wavelength.

Nathan MacKinnon certainly fits the bill and the tantalizing combination of speed the pair vaunts is mouth-watering. Just thinking of those two toying off the rush, with McDavid’s vision blending with MacKinnon’s natural goal-scoring prowess and quick-release, should make defender’s ache. Still, there are natural reservations regarding the 20-year-old Avalanche forward, which hasn’t upped his game to where everyone was expecting after a smouldering playoff campaign as an NHL rookie, and the Cole Harbour-native enters the tournament with something to prove outside of Colorado’s dysfunctional domain. The 2013 first overall pick should be a perennial 30-goal scorer and this is the ideal stage to regain his mojo.

Nathan MacKinnon’s ability to blow past defenders will be crucial for Team North America’s sucess

To complement the two high-flying stallions, McLellan should look no further than one of the “veterans” on the roster, 23-year-old Brandon Saad. The two-time Stanley Cup Champion brings a polished two-way game, experience in big games and heaps of familiarity on the role of a high-motor, hard-working power forward that protects the puck and works the wall alongside superstars. The Blue Jackets’ winger, solidly built at 6-1, 203 pounds, is also a strong skater that figures to carve a big role on the team’s penalty kill unit, and may shift up-and-down (or left-and-right) the line-up card on occasion, but this should be his starting point.

JT Miller* (NY Rangers, USA) – Jack Eichel* (Buffalo, USA) – Dylan Larkin* (Detroit, USA)

I really wanted to field an all-rookie line, but the surprising JT Miller selection ruined it and ultimately pushed Arizona’s Max Domi out of the picture. In its place, we’ll settle for an All-American line powered by two of the game’s most exciting young talents.

Jack Eichel may have been overshadowed during his rookie season by Artemi Panarin and Connor McDavid, but he still displayed all the smarts that had scouts drooling. The 19-year-old is dynamic but boasts that rare ability to slow the game down, control the puck under pressure and wait for the play to develop. His 6-2 frame helps shield the puck and he can then anticipate where teammates will be and distribute accordingly, which was part of the reason he posted almost unprecedented numbers as a freshman at Boston University before putting on a quietly consistent 56-points debut NHL campaign. The youngster’s position in the line-up, or whether he plays centre or not, may only be under peril because his faceoff percentage is below-average (around 40%), and there’s already a Connor McDavid in need of protection in terms of line deployment. McLellan will have the final word on that, but expect him to be, at least, a tremendous asset of the left-wall on the powerplay, where he can launch rocket one-timers.

Dylan Larkin (#71) and Jack Eichel (#15)’s careers will once again cross paths

Dylan Larkin and Jack Eichel formed a tremendous one-two punch down the middle for Team USA at the 2015 World Junior Championships, but in the World Cup I believe they should join forces. The Detroit Red Wings’ phenomenon blazed his way into the NHL as a 19-year-old with impressive two-way instincts, scoring touch and a willingness to use his speed to drive the net, but he hit the dreaded rookie wall on the second part of the season. Nevertheless, his ability to finish and create at high speed, admirable work rate, and versatility to perform in all situations regardless of the forward position, were enough to earn a spot on the first batch of players announced. Larkin is probably more suited to play the left wing, however, to balance Team North America’s roster, he may well need to wheel up the right side.

As for the 23-year-old JT Miller, the spot on the roster came during his first full-time NHL season, since in 2014-15 he spent much of the first half on the AHL. The 6-1 winger brings an energetic, physical game, using his size to win battles and his speed to disrupt the opposition on the forecheck. Still, the 2011 first round pick shared USA’s top line during the 2013 World Junior Championships with Johnny Gaudreau, back when Miller played as a centre, and exhibited nifty offensive skills that he can still flash on occasion. Alain Vigneault, the Rangers coach, bounces Miller around his top-nine forward group, but he was mainly a top-six left winger for the latter part of the season, skating on Derrick Brassard’s group and amassing 22 goals and 43 points. The East Palestine, Ohio, native is plagued by inconsistency from time to time, but his solid two-way game, hustle and decent build can link well with the skilled pair of Eichel and Larkin.

Johnny Gaudreau* (Calgary, USA) – Sean Monahan* (Calgary, CAN) – Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg, CAN)

Sean Monahan (#23) and Johnny Gaudreau (#13), Calgary’s dynamic offensive duo, should rekindle their magic at the World Cup

A line composed exclusively of players that ply their trades in Western Canada or…a trio of players you’ve seldom seen. Familiarity is obviously a critical factor here, as I wanted to keep the Gaudreau-Monahan pair together, since they’ve carried the Flames offense over the last two years.  Some will be inclined to bump Gaudreau to play with McDavid or Eichel, but I believe the water bug-sized winger is at his best hogging the puck on his stick, and those two command it a lot.

Unsurprisingly, I see the 22-year-old American as the main playmaker on this line, as the elusive, incredibly shifty winger can thread passes through the tinniest crevasses. Dangling around at top speed in traffic – in spite of tremendous height and weight disadvantage – due to incredible puck control and stickhandling, the diminutive 5-9, 157 pounds former NCAA star is a joy to watch that casual fans will discover in force at the World Cup. Arriving on the heels of a 78-points sophomore season, Gaudreau’s international coming out party should have been for Team USA, maybe as the American Panarin to Patrick Kane, but emerging as one of Team North America’s brightest stars might suffice.

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg’s up-and-coming star center, should make Team North America’s roster

Sean Monahan has greatly benefitted from Gaudreau’s creativity and pinpoint passing to put up points on the board, but he isn’t exactly a lumpy trailer hitched behind. The 21-year-old centre is big, standing at 6-3, and not overly aggressive, yet he’s had to fast-track is apprenticeship against the mammoth middleman of the Pacific Division. The lessons acquired in three seasons are a valuable resource for Team North America, as Monahan’s hockey sense, budding leadership and deceptive shot can also translate into a dangerous counter-punching, checking game. Meanwhile, his (relative) proficiency on the faceoff dot (51%), unparalleled among the team’s centres, is also an asset that should earn important minutes.

After mulling several options for the right side, and considering the lack of natural fits, I slotted Mark Scheifele here, the Jets burgeoning star pivot. Also 6-3, the versatile centre is a poised playmaker that can help this line keep control of the puck with his top-notch skill level and vision. The 22-year-old flourished after being handed the reigns of Winnipeg’s top line late this season, with 27 points in the final 21 games, and his offensive instincts, especially an unappreciated shot, turned heads. The Kitchener-native has some history on the right side, for Canada’s U-20 Team and early on during his Winnipeg tenure, and is also right-handed, which is relevant on draws, since only Jack Eichel is guaranteed to fill that void among the centres in the conversation.

Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal, USA) – Sean Couturier* (Philadelphia, CAN) – Boone Jenner (Columbus, CAN)

On a team that is brimming with highly-skilled players that can hardly grow a beard, I expect this line to function as a unit the coaching staff will throw over the boards when the game needs to be settled down, soon after the run-and-gun style most of these guys would adore to play reaches a tipping point. This trio is experienced, strong, hard to play against and probably underrated offensively, even on a tournament where most teams can roll four scoring lines.

Sean Couturier has played internationally in several previous occasions

After five NHL seasons and over 300 games, Sean Couturier has stealthily developed into one of the league’s underappreciated two-way centres, but you can be absolutely sure his role on this team won’t be overlooked. Beyond being a stalwart penalty killer, the gangly Flyers pivot is used to handle the toughest defensive assignments at even strength, which is especially relevant when two of the team’s centres just finished their rookie seasons, and his size (6-3) isn’t featured in spades on this roster, coming in handy when the physical component ramps up. The 23-year-old has limited scoring potential but he seemed to be turning a corner last season (50 points were within reach until injuries hit), while his average skating is less of a concern due to his expected usage and presence on a team full of speed burners.

Couturier became a role player when he reached the NHL level, but Boone Jenner’s history dates back to Canada’s younger teams, where he filled whatever part was asked. The 22-year-old Blue Jacket is a former pivot with sound defensive fundamentals that most pencilled as an energy type, crash-and-bang player, but he can be much more than that, as the 30 goals obtained in 2015-16 attest. Robust, ferocious in front of the net and on the forecheck, reliable on the penalty kill, and irritating if need be, the 6-2, 216 pounds winger fits perfectly a bottom-line role, and is an ace McLellan and company would be smart to have up their sleeve to deploy as necessary. Furthermore, he’s an option on either wing, which can be suitable later.

Rounding out this group, but with eyes set on moving up at the first opportunity, the 22-year Alex Galchenuyk possesses the aptitudes to be able to contribute in limited minutes, not straying away from the physical game because of his size (6-1), strength and powerful skating, while also providing a bit of flair. The Wisconsin-native with dual Russian/American nationality finished the season with a career-high 30 goals and may be putting it all together offensively at last, with his creativity, vision and wicked one-timer functioning as an asset that can deliver a timely goal. He may not have gained yet the thrust of his coach to assume a full-time centre position in Montreal, but for Team North America he can take on a active role playing on the wing.

Alex Galchenyuk should provide some scoring punch to the bottom forward lines

And to close the group, the 13th forward:

Ryan Nugent – Hopkins (Edmonton, CAN)

As I did with Team Europe, I’m inclined to name a centre as the extra forward, and I’m not sure GM Peter Ciarelli is even allowed to leave his own guy at home (unless he already knows a trade is brimming). Now, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a perfectly fine player but his style can be polarizing, since most would put him inside the middle six forwards, while some would consider him inept to contribute outside of a scoring line.

For me, even if I couldn’t find a fit at centre on the four regular lines, I believe he can be a valuable ace to shake things further down the road, possibly pushing a guy like Eichel to the wing. Despite playing a finesse game built on high-end playmaking skills, Nugent-Hopkins’ two-way competence has improved by leaps and bounds since he entered the league five years ago, and he’s amassed a capital of experience relevant for a team not exactly stocked with it. I would feel even better if he wasn’t another below-average faceoff man (45%), but his smarts, hockey IQ and ability to work and execute in traffic are a match for the type of hockey this team will display.

Reserves

Chiarelli and Bowman have no shortage of options to cover for injuries. With the tournament in Toronto, the NHL would sure love to see Auston Matthews (USA) make the team, but the GMs didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about that perspective when the initial rosters were announced. He’ll really, really need to make an outstanding impression at the World Championships to be seriously considered.

I already referenced Max Domi (Arizona, CAN), and Vincent Trocheck (USA) was another tough name to leave out. The Florida Panthers’ #21 was one of the most improved NHL players in 2015-16 and his energy, coupled with the versatility to play centre or wing, should make him a favourite. Meanwhile, his teammate Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida, CAN) possesses great hands but lacks quickness and the ability to contribute on limited minutes, so I don’t see how he snatches a LW spot on one of the big lines from a Gaudreau or Larkin.

Vincent Trocheck became an integral part of the Florida Panthers’ offense this season

Also vying for a spot on the left side, the rejuvenated Jonathan Drouin (Tampa Bay, CAN) seems to have arrived a little too late to the party, while Sam Bennett’s (Calgary, CAN) rookie season showed he’ll be a difference maker before long but not in time for this tournament. For freshmen Sam Reinhart (Buffalo, CAN), who excelled way more than I thought on Eichel’s wing, and Anthony Duclair (Arizona, CAN) the tournament also comes a year too early to be able to post a serious candidacy at right wing.

At centre, the depth behind RNH is composed of Vancouver’s Bo Horvat, a meticulous two-way middleman whose role was taken by Couturier’s eligibility, and Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar, a pesky, in-your-face presence that couldn’t aspire to more than fourth-line minutes.

Group overview:

Tons of speed and skill are the new paradigm of the NHL, but in order for it to be effective teams have to hold onto the puck. And as much as the importance of face-offs can be overstated, beginning with the puck instead of expending energy to recover it is vital to be able to generate regular offense. This is a concern I have for this group, as is the lack of weight and guile they’ll have to cope with on a tournament to be contested on NHL ice, where egregious mistakes by their opponents should be even fewer than usual, and opportunities off the rush limited to a minimum.

The 23-year-old Brandon Saad is one of Team North America’s most experienced weapons

However, with the World Cup occurring after the offseason, the opposite can also happen, with Team North America’s young legs staving off the rust quicker and making the difference. If they can repeatedly get to the puck before their opponents, dispossessing a bunch of impertinent speed demons can prove challenging for a horde of slobs on early season form.

I tried to supplement a bit of muscle, strength and savviness without quelling the qualities that can make this forward group succeed, but ultimately it will be up to the top guns (McDavid, MacKinnon, Gaudreau, Eichel, Larkin) to produce and not become overwhelmed when they line up against their idols.

(Continues on the next post)