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)

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