During two international pre-season tournaments in Russia, Canadian hockey fans got their first glimpses of what life would be like in the post-NHL Olympic world. But in less than two weeks, the competition really ramps up for Team Canada and the roster picture is now clearer than it has been all summer.
On Thursday, Hockey Canada unveiled its squad for the upcoming Karjala Cup, and many of those participating in the weeklong tournament, which will see most of its games played in Helsinki, were among those who starred during the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov and Sochi Hockey Open in August.
It almost goes without saying that Canada will be led by a trio of KHL forwards — Wojtek Wolski, Linden Vey and Brandon Kozun — while former longtime NHLers Mason Raymond and Derek Roy will also provide some punch up front.
Vey is arguably the most surprising breakout offensive star in his time overseas thus far. After bouncing between the AHL and NHL for the past four seasons, he has found his groove with Kazakhstan’s Barys Astana and has bolted out to a near league-leading start. In fact, in 26 games, Vey’s five goals and 32 points put him third in league scoring behind Nikita Gusev and Ilya Kovalchuk, the latter pacing the KHL with 34 points. Wolski is also having a tremendous season after coming back from a career-threatening neck injury, registering seven goals and 23 points. And while Kozun’s six goals and 14 points aren’t exactly astonishing totals, he has 38 goals and 105 points in 117 KHL contests over the past two seasons.
As for Raymond and Roy, who have more than 1,200 NHL games between them, they’ll bring a veteran presence to the roster. Raymond has two goals and eight points in 10 games for SC Bern, but he has been dynamite outside of league play. In the Champions League, Raymond has six points and he put up three helpers in two games during the Swiss Cup. Roy, meanwhile, is a near point-per-game player in Sweden one season after putting up decent numbers in the KHL.
On the back end, the Karjala Cup roster has many of the defenders one would have expected given the rosters for the two Russian tournaments. That’s not to say there aren’t surprises, however.
Simon Despres was waived and bought out by the Anaheim Ducks ahead of the season with the belief that multiple concussions would keep him from playing at a high level again. However, Despres has turned heads in the KHL thus far and earned himself a spot on the Canadian roster. In addition, veteran defender Chris Lee, who got his first turn with the Canadian national team at the 2017 World Championship, has also earned his spot. He hasn’t suited up since being cut from Los Angeles Kings' camp, but he's set to join Metallurg Magnitogorsk ahead of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Mat Robinson and Maxim Noreau were two no-doubters for the club. Both have consistently been among the best blueliners in their respective leagues over the past few seasons. Noreau, especially, has been a fixture with Team Canada. He has played at three Spengler Cups in the past five years and captained Canada to the title last season.
After appearing at both Russian tournaments, Kevin Poulin didn’t make the cut for the Karjala Cup. Both netminders he shared the crease with did, though, and it’s likely that Ben Scrivens will see starting duty when the tournament begins. That’s with good reason, too. While Scrivens struggled at times during his debut in the KHL last season, he has found his game this year and has posted solid numbers for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Considering Justin Peters’ stint in the KHL with Dinamo Riga ended after 14 games and a .869 save percentage, chances are he’s backing up Scrivens not just in Finland, but when the Olympics roll around, too.
While there was speculation about NCAA participation with Team Canada, no one quite knew how it would shake out. We have our answer now, though, as Hockey Canada has called upon a pair of NCAA skaters to join the club in Finland. Up front, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Dylan Sikura, who has six goals and 12 points in five games thus far, has been called upon to join Canada at the tournament, while undrafted rearguard Zach Whitecloud has earned himself a spot on Canada’s blueline. If he cracks the lineup and plays well, it’s hard to say there could be a better showcase for Whitecloud.
Unlike the Canadians, Team USA has yet to take the ice for any pre-Olympic competition, but that will change in two weeks’ time at the Deutschland Cup.
The competition, which begins Nov. 10, will give the Americans three tune-up matches, each with international flair. First, USA will take on Slovakia, followed by contests against Russia and Germany. The roster for the competition was released last week and features more than a few familiar faces. That includes the coaching staff. Tony Granato is heading up the squad, while Chris Chelios and Ron Rolston are two of the four assistants for the tournament.
Brian Gionta and Ryan Malone wanted one last shot at suiting up for Team USA and both are getting it. Malone, 37, made his return after two years out of action, nearly made the Minnesota Wild in training camp and then found himself in the AHL just in time to get the call from USA Hockey. As for Gionta, who reportedly had options as a free agent, the 38-year-old decided to skate with the AHL's Rochester Americans in preparation for the international schedule and he seems the prime option to captain Team USA at the tournament and beyond.
It’s not just about the old guard, however. There’s some serious offensive punch and much of it is coming from the Swiss League. Six of the 15 forwards Team USA has called upon are currently playing in the NLA, and highlighting the group is Garrett Roe. A near point-per-game player everywhere he’s been over the past four seasons, which includes stints in Austria, Germany and Sweden, Roe is fourth in NLA scoring with seven goals and 19 points in 15 games. Not far behind him is Mark Arcobello, who has proven himself to be a force in the European game. His four goals and 16 points this season make him a potential top-liner for the American team. Meanwhile, Broc Little and Robbie Earl are tied for 10th in scoring in the NLA, with nine goals and 15 points and six goals and 15 points, respectively.
There’s not a whole lot in the way of offense from the blueline for Team USA. Matt Gilroy has had a tremendous season in the KHL, putting up six goals and 17 points in 22 games with Jokerit, and Bobby Sanguinetti has potential to put up some points after four goals and nine points in 14 games with Lugano in the Swiss League. Primarily, though, the American team is bringing along shutdown guys. Mike Lundin, who has zero points in 22 games, is a prime example of a player who is being brought along for his experience overseas, as is Jonathon Blum.
Mark Stuart is one name many will recognize on the blueline. The veteran couldn’t find work in the NHL after becoming a free agent. He was cut from Chicago Blackhawks' camp shortly after it began and didn’t get another look on a pro tryout after that. He’s a penalty-killing guy, primarily, and that will likely be his role with Team USA.
Ryan Zapolski was the frontrunner for the job from the outset, especially given his history playing for Team USA at the Deutschland Cup in the past. But Zapolski made sure that USA Hockey couldn’t ignore him. In 21 games with Jokerit, Zapolski has been arguably the best goaltender in the league thus far. His .943 save percentage is second-best in the league, but tops among netminders who have seen at least 20 games. He’ll have good support from David Leggio and Brandon Maxwell, but, so long as he stays healthy, it’s near certain that Zapolski is the No. 1 from here on out.
If anyone was going to pull from the college ranks, one would have thought it would be USA Hockey. That wasn’t the case, though, as every single skater heading to the Deutschland Cup has already entered the pro ranks. One omission that’s somewhat surprising, given the American team is including veterans Malone and Gionta, is Keith Aucoin. He might not have an NHL resume, but he’s one of the greatest AHL scorers in history. At 38, his skating might not be there, but he’s the top-scoring American in the DEL and could have done damage as a power play specialist.
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