The upcoming World Cup of Hockey will be unlike any best-on-best hockey tournament we’ve seen before, thanks in large part to the additions of Team North America – comprised of the best 23-and-under players from Canada and the United States – and Team Europe – made up of the top European players not from the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden or Russia. Though some see the two new teams as a gimmick, the unprecedented format could create the most dynamic competition ever seen in an eight-team hockey tournament, with no obvious lesser-than-the-rest team involved.
While the focus will largely remain on the success or failure of the new format of the World Cup, there are also many unique individual storylines to keep an eye on, such as players getting a chance to play in the event under the new structure when they otherwise wouldn’t, or guys who have a little something extra to prove.
Here’s a look at five guys worth some additional attention at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Pierre-Édouard Bellemare – Team Europe
In Bellemare’s two NHL seasons, he has been a serviceable, if unspectacular bottom-six forward. So what’s the intrigue? This will mark the first time the 31-year-old French winger has ever played in a truly best-on-best tournament. He has represented France at several World Championships, playing a leading offensive role in those situations, but never in a World Junior Championship, World Cup or Olympics. Based on his time with the Philadelphia Flyers, we tend to look at him as nothing more than a depth forward. This could be Bellemare’s chance to elevate his stock on the world stage.
Anze Kopitar – Team Europe
Kopitar – a Slovenian – probably comes from the most obscure hockey country of any active NHL player. In fact, according to eliteprospects.com, only three players of Slovenian nationality have ever played in the NHL, with the other two combining for 47 games, compared to Kopitar’s 764 appearances. Kopitar has almost single-handedly lifted Slovenia’s international program to relevance, even helping his country to an Olympics appearance in 2014. Now that this NHL star will have world-class linemates in an international competition for the first time, look out.
Auston Matthews - Team North America
It’s either incredibly convenient or awfully unfortunate that Matthews’ first North American professional appearance will come on this grand stage in the very city he’ll call home for years to come. All eyes may be on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-overall pick more so than any other player in this tournament, simply because the hometown crowd wants a taste of what the potential franchise savior has in store for them. If he dazzles, the hype train might go off the rails. If he underwhelms at all, the 18-year-old could get a sense of the pressures of playing in Toronto in a hurry.
Carey Price – Team Canada
The Montreal Canadiens’ franchise player missed most of last season with a knee injury. The short- and long-term fate of the Habs rests squarely on Price’s shoulders. Can the player widely regarded as the best goaltender in the world return to form, or will the knee problems persist? Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford are talented replacements for the Team Canada crease if Price suffers another setback, but everyone in Montreal will be holding their breath, hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Vladimir Sobotka – Team Czech Republic
So, is this guy coming back to the NHL or not? Sobotka left the St. Louis Blues and signed in the KHL following an arbitration ruling that didn’t go his way in 2014. He was rumored to return to St. Louis last season, but didn’t. This summer, Blues management insists he’ll be at their training camp following the World Cup, while his KHL club, Avangard Omsk, says that’s nonsense. Regarding the Sobotka situation, Blues GM Doug Armstrong told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I think the questions are going to persist until he gets off the plane at Lambert (Airport) and comes into the Mills or to Scottrade. When he does that, this will finally be behind us.” Until then, it’ll be interesting to see if and how Sobotka’s game has changed since we last saw him in North America two years ago.