There are two sizable questions facing Team North America ahead of the upcoming World Cup of Hockey: Can a bunch of kids hope to compete against the six best national teams in the world ... and will anyone care?
The presence of two multinational squads—Team Europe, comprised of players from outside Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic is the other—is clearly the most controversial element surrounding the rebooted tournament. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made valid points in defending their creation, saying they’ll allow for the involvement of more NHL stars (hey, it is an NHL/NHLPA co-production) and will compensate for the drop-off in skill beyond the big four European powers. Really, though, what it comes down to is money. It's going to be a lot easier to sell tickets for Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau than it would be for a Zdeno Chara-led Slovakian side or Roman Josi and Team Switzerland.
This team will be made up of Canadian and American players born on or after Oct. 1, 1992. Although that limits GMs Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman to selecting from the past five draft classes, it's a solid cohort of young stars, with competition at every position.
With the deadline to select the first 16 players less than a month away, here’s a look at how the North American roster stacks up.
Boone Jenner – Connor McDavid – Nathan MacKinnon
Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan – Dylan Larkin
Jonathan Huberdeau – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Brandon Saad
Alex Galchenyuk – Jack Eichel – Sean Couturier
Skill and speed—lots and lots of speed—ensure that this bi-national squad will give a good account of itself in Toronto. McDavid and MacKinnon will be fun to watch in tandem, a preview of Team Canadas to come. Both are high-end burners who will be fearsome on the rush. Jenner will be their Clark Gillies—a skilled banger who can win the corner battles and establish a net front presence when they’re set up in the zone. Gaudreau and Monahan form another high-skill pair with chemistry. Larkin, a Calder Trophy favorite, has the speed to match Gaudreau’s pace and the touch to create and finish chances. The bottom six feature several interchangeable parts, although Nugent-Hopkins’s experience is likely to earn him the lion’s share of the minutes. Couturier could move around the roster and provide a reliable presence on the penalty kill. Saad and Huberdeau both are enjoying career years and could move up or down the lineup.
Matthews is the one to watch. There might be an inclination among management to go with more experience in the 13 slot, and no one would blame them if they did especially with so many qualified players up for consideration. But this is a team built to promote the next generation of NHL stars, and there’ll be none as prominently in the spotlight at that time as Matthews, who will be selected with the top pick in this year’s draft. He wouldn’t be the first man-child to make the jump from draft pick to elite international competition, either: Eric Lindros was a key contributor when Canada won the Canada Cup back in 1991. Matthews, who is likely to suit up for Team USA at the 2016 Worlds, could have the same impact on this club.
If they decide to play it safe, there will be plenty of competition for the final spot. Mark Schiefele might be the leading contender, but keep an eye on Vincent Trocheck, Max Domi, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, Bo Horvat, Curtis Lazar and Anthony Duclair. Jonathan Drouin is almost certainly out of consideration at this point.
Morgan Rielly – Aaron Ekblad
Ryan Murray – Seth Jones
Shayne Gostisbehere – Dougie Hamilton
If this side is going to feel the lack of experience anywhere, it will be on the blueline. That said, this group might end up being the surprise of the tournament. At 20, Ekblad comes into the event as a two-time All-Star and a legitimate No. 1 capable of leading with his poise and two-way play. Rielly can handle big minutes and make things happen with his skating and offense. Murray and Jones bring the chemistry they’re building as a pair in Columbus. Both can handle heavy minutes and tough assignments. Hamilton has bounced back from a slow start in Calgary and has top-pairing experience. Gostisbehere is the one to watch. He’s off to an historic start with the Flyers offensively, and will be the wheelman on the power play. He could move up the roster as the tournament progresses. So could Parayko, who is playing so well with St. Louis that the Blues are considering trading Kevin Shattenkirk. Jacob Trouba, Nathan Beaulieu and Mathew Dumba also are in the mix, but they’ll need sensational finishes to knock one of these seven out of a spot.
The picture between the pipes looks considerably brighter than it did back in November when a desperate Chiarelli asked tournament organizers about the possibility of using over-aged goaltenders to backstop his inexperienced side. Gibson, who opened the season with AHL San Diego, has emerged as legitimate starter for Anaheim on the strength of his league-leading 1.92 goals-against average and a solid performance for the All-Star Game-winning Pacific Division squad. His international experience with Team USA—gold at the 2013 World Juniors, bronze at the 2013 World Championships—and his poise under pressure should come in handy. Hellebuyck is starting to buckle as a result of overuse in Winnipeg, but he has enjoyed a promising rookie season. He has impressed on the international stage as well, posting a 7–1–0 record with a 1.37 GAA, .948 save percentage and two shutouts to lead Team USA to a shocking bronze medal at the 2015 Worlds. With the Jets likely to fall short this season, he could get the call again this spring. Murray has overtaken Malcolm Subban as the likely third keeper. He’s gone 17-8-0 for AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton, with a league-best .933 save percentage and sizzling 2.02 GAA. As a group, it lacks the experience and success that other teams will rely on, but it looks entirely capable of stealing a game or two.
First 16: Sean Couturier, Jack Eichel, Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau, Shayne Gostisbehere, John Gibson, Connor Hellebuyck, Jonathan Huberdeau, Seth Jones, Dylan Larkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Sean Monahan, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Morgan Rielly, Brandon Saad