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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