- Carey Price's health, Sidney Crosby's wingers, Team USA's dicey roster, and forced chemistry on two squads will be among the determining factors in who wins the tournament.
With training camps for the World Cup of Hockey getting underway next week, here's a look at some of the key questions heading into the highly anticipated tournament.
Is Carey Price ready to go?
The last time Canada put its best team on ice, Price had to prove himself up to the task of carrying the favorites to a title. He did that and more, allowing just three goals in five games and shutting out the previously undefeated Americans and Swedes in the Olympic medal round.
All indications suggest Price is ready to go. He's looked good in videos from his goalie camp and he's reported no discomfort in his surgically repaired knee. But the long and short of it is he hasn't played in an actual game since end of November and off-season workouts are far removed from elite international competition.
Until we see him in action, there's no telling if he is healthy enough to nail down the No. 1 job. If not, Canadian coach Mike Babcock is likely to turn to Braden Holtby. That could be a problem. The Capitals netminder matched an NHL record with 48 wins last season but hasn't played internationally since making a brief appearance for Canada at the 2007 Under-18s.
Price isn't the only Canadian who is headed to camp with injury concerns. Both Claude Giroux (hip) and Tyler Seguin (ankle, calf) have spent the summer rehabbing and their health will be closely monitored.
Who lines up with Sid?
Sidney Crosby is arguably the best player in the world, but that doesn't mean Babcock can drop anyone on his wing and start counting the goals. It takes a certain skill set to succeed alongside Sid: speed, a willingness to retrieve pucks, and the ability to get to places where he's likely to want you. After that, you just have to bury your chances.
Seems easy, but it isn't. It's why Canada gambled on Chris Kunitz in Sochi and why they followed that failed bid with a revolving door of wingers. One player who seemed fairly effective in the role was Patrice Bergeron. The natural center has shown some chemistry with Sid dating back to the 2005 World Juniors and is a good bet to draw the plum assignment in Toronto. And he might bring his regular Boston liney Brad Marchand with him. The Nova Scotia native has spent recent summers training with Crosby, and has the foot speed and finishing touch (37 goals in 2015-16, most on Team Canada) to keep up.
Babcock is fortunate to have options—Steven Stamkos, Logan Couture and Claude Giroux among them—but the B's pair is likely to get a long look in camp.
Who skates with Shea Weber?
Weber and Duncan Keith were Babcock's go-to pairing during Canada's run to gold in Sochi, so losing the Chicago Blackhawks star to injury presents a legitimate lineup challenge, even on a team as stacked as this one.
There's an assumption that the L.A. Kings duo of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin will skate together, as will St. Louis Blues stars Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, leaving San Jose defenders Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns to vie for the coveted spot. It may work out that way, with the steady (and left-shooting) Vlasic looking to be the best fit. It wouldn't be the most mobile pairing, but it could excel in a shutdown role. Vlasic and his regular San Jose partner Justin Braun were outstanding in the playoffs, particularly when they blanketed Vladimir Tarasenko in the Western Conference finals.
But it's equally possible that Bouwmeester, who was named to the roster to replace Keith, could slide alongside Weber. He would bring some speed to the pair, along with vast international experience (51 games at the men's level), but nothing approaching the offensive threat of the more dangerous Keith.
Clearly a tough call, and one that should see some experimentation as the exhibition round plays out.
Did Team USA blunder with its roster design?
Knowing that he didn't have the skill or depth to match up with tournament favorites Canada, American GM Dean Lombardi took a controversial approach to building his side. Instead of loading up on talented skaters like Tyler Johnson, Phil Kessel and Justin Faulk, he leaned heavily on players who bring work ethic, physicality and the ability to slide effortlessly into a clearly defined role.
It's an approach that famously succeeded in 1980, but will it work here? Maybe, but the odds are against them. Bodog lists the American as 13/2 underdogs.
Ultimately, this team's chances come down to the bottom six. If that group, featuring David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan, can nullify the opposition's top six, the U.S. has a chance.
Who starts in net for Team USA?
If there's one area of unquestioned strength for the Americans, it's between the pipes. With Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider, the U.S. has three proven options. Quick is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a Sochi veteran, and Bishop has been a Vezina Trophy finalist in two of the past three seasons. But keep an eye on Schneider, who topped his rivals with a .930 save percentage at even strength last season and boasts the NHL's best cumulative save percentage (.9307) and third-best high-danger save percentage (.8576) over the past five seasons. Ultimately, the job will be won in camp but those numbers suggest than Schneider deserves a very long look.
Will David Krejci dress for the Czech Republic?
At best, the Czechs are viewed as a dark horse to emerge from Group A. If Krejci isn't able to go, they're headed for the glue factory.
There's no overstating Krejci's value. The Bruins center has quietly established himself as an elite, two-way weapon, averaging better than 20 minutes a game while scoring 63 points in 72 contests last season, second only to World Cup no-show Jaromir Jagr among his countrymen.
More important: he's a proven big-game threat, leading the NHL in playoff scoring twice in the past five years while collecting 22 goals and 56 points in 66 postseason matches.
He has been skating since Aug. 17 after undergoing left hip surgery on April 21, but reports out of Boston suggest that he's not up to the rigors of game action just yet. If he's forced to pull out, it leaves the Czechs with Tomas Plekanec, Martin Hanzal and Vladimir Sobotka in the middle. That group will get steamrolled.
Will Team Europe actually be a team?
On paper, this unwieldy union of 23 NHLers looks capable of providing a sturdier challenge to the Big Six than any of its nine member-nations would individually.
On ice, the result might be something else entirely.
The grand experiment of the tournament's organizers features six Slovaks along with five Germans, four Danes, three Swiss and one each from Slovenia, Norway, Italy, France and Austria. Each of them is a pro and none wants to be embarrassed, no matter the logo on the sweater.
But this isn't a national team, and there's no guarantee that it will gel. And that's the challenge facing Ralph Krueger. The former Edmonton Oilers coach needs a full buy-in, and some quick chemistry, to compensate for the absence of national pride.
He also has to deal with a blue line that averages 33 years of age. A lack of depth and foot speed among that crew could put the Europeans in a deep hole.
Can North America let bygones be bygones?
Speaking of experiments in forced chemistry, there hasn't been a "national" team this loaded with enemies since the Oilers/Islanders rivalry almost destroyed Team Canada in 1984. Sure, using the big stage to expose the league's most promising talent makes perfect sense from a PR standpoint. But can these kids put aside long-held grudges and come together as a cohesive team in Toronto?
If they can, they could make some noise. There's impressive firepower up front, led by Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau and Jack Eichel. And the goaltending situation that once prompted GM Peter Chiarelli to ask tournament organizers for an age exemption looks promising with Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray and Jennings Trophy winner John Gibson battling for starts.
But there are real concerns about a young blue line that will rely on Aaron Ekblad, Shayne Gostisbehere, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, Colton Parayko, Morgan Rielly and Jacob Trouba. The talent is there, as is the physicality, but the lack of experience makes this group vulnerable.
Can Sweden break the North American curse?
There's a lot to love about this Swedish roster: the most dynamic blue line (featuring Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson) in the tournament; a netminder (Henrik Lundvist) motivated to prove he's better than he looked in the Stanley Cup Playoffs; and a skilled forward group that's deep in two-way threats. By most accounts, this is the team best positioned to knock off the Canadians.
And maybe it would, if only the event were being staged in Europe. The Swedes won Olympic gold at Torino 2006 and silver at Sochi 2014, but finished fifth on the small ice in Vancouver where their inability to match the physical play of the North American sides was their downfall. That continues a trend established in previous best-on-best events held in Canada, where the Swedes posted a 12-17-1 record.
Sweden has done better at the U-20 level, winning a gold, a silver and a bronze over the past four tournaments held on Canadian soil, but this veteran-laden team has just four players who experienced that success. It might be up to those kids to lead the way.
Can Finland extend a magical run?
The Lions have dominated the international hockey scene in 2016, winning gold at the World Juniors and the U-18s before picking up an impressive silver at the World Championship. By any measure, it's the most successful season yet for the tiny country ... and they have a chance to add to their medal haul.
Granted, the team that Finland is sending to Toronto doesn't look like much on paper. Its top two goaltenders, Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne, are each coming off of disappointing seasons. Four key blueliners are 23 or under. And the forward corps features just one player, 33-year-old winger Jussi Jokinen, who tallied as many as 60 points last year (Canada, by comparison, has 10).
But Finland's strict adherence to a defensive style of play ensures the whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts, and this team should be no different. The Finns allowed just 10 goals in 10 games at this year's Worlds with a lesser lineup and Isles reject Mikko Koskinen in net, so the potential is there to mirror that effort if one of their star keepers steps up. Rask, who shut out the Americans in the bronze medal game in Sochi, looks to have the edge on the job, but Rinne has something to prove in what could be his last major international event.
Same song, different verse for Russia?
We've seen this sort of lineup before from Russia: An eye-popping offense led by four top-15 scorers (Artemi Panarin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Ovechkin) backed by an AHL-caliber defense and white-knuckle goaltending. It hasn't been a successful formula. The Russians have claimed two of the past five golds at the World Championships, but they've been an afterthought at the past three best-on-best tournaments, including the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
Hard to see that changing here. Russia's D will be led by Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin, a pair of aging and marginally effective vets. Behind them are Dmitry Kulikov, Dmitry Orlov, Alexey Marchenko and Nikita Zaitsev. None of them are pylons but this isn't a group that's going to intimidate anyone either. Neither will the veteran netminders. Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky ranked 29th and 34th in save percentage among the 42 goalies who made at least 30 starts last season playing behind defenses scarcely worse than this one.
The wild card is Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 22-year-old made a name for himself during Tampa Bay's playoff run after being pressed into duty to replace the injured Bishop. If Russian coach Oleg Znarok breaks with form and hands the reins to the kid, this team could surprise.