The initial rosters for the World Cup of Hockey were released, and there are a good amount of strong teams out there. Canada is stacked. The United States is tough as nails. And you can never count out teams like Sweden and Russia. But when this tournament was announced, there were a couple of weird hybrid teams out there. One of them was Team North America, to consist of players from the United States and Canada who are under 23 years old.
My first thought was “Okay, filler team so that the tournament can have eight teams for a true round robin.” But now that the first 16 players on each roster have been revealed, I’m not so sure Team North America is pure filler anymore. And the more I think about it, I think this team as a real chance to win the whole thing.
Look at this roster:
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
G Connor Hellebuyck, Manitoba Moose
G Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
D Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
D Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets
D Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
F Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
F J.T. Miller, New York Rangers
F Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
F Brandon Saad, Columbus Blue Jackets
The first thing you notice is up front. These forwards can play with anybody. It’s easy to just be seduced by the names McDavid and Eichel. But Dylan Larkin has made goalies look silly this season. I’d start my team with Johnny Gaudreau any day. Brandon Saad was thought well enough to be the centerpiece of a deal to go to Columbus. Nathan MacKinnon is an established star in this league, and as a Rangers fan I can tell you that J.T. Miller’s game has elevated to the point where he certainly belongs on this team. The speed up front is staggering. Add to that the rising stars on the top defensive pairing of Ekblad and Jones (Ekblad has been compared to Nick Lidstrom, for heaven’s sake.)
John Gibson Can Play
The Anaheim Ducks netminder isn’t Jonathan Quick or Braden Holtby, but he has put up some solid numbers this season, and has done well against solid competition. Consider that he’s 2-1-1 this season against the Kings and the Blackhawks, and has a save percentage of .913 and .918 against them respectively. Gibson although he faltered in Game 7 against the Kings in 2014, Gibson does have four games of playoff experience in which he put up a .919 GAA. So Team North America can do a lot worse than Gibson between the pipes. (I’ll even go so far as to point out that Connor Hellebuyck is considered the goalie of the future for the Winnipeg Jets, so even in the unlikely event that Gibson gets hurt, they at least have a top level prospect to take over.)
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) March 3, 2016
Timing Is Everything
While the United States and Canada will come in with seasoned veterans up and down the roster, perhaps that might be their downfall come September. Those teams are littered with players who play for teams like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington. Teams that should make deep playoff runs for their NHL clubs. This team will not have as many. This North American roster probably wouldn’t beat Team Canada or Team USA in a seven game series in May or June. But can it beat them in a round robin tournament in September? That answer isn’t so obvious.
This kinda sorta ties in with the above point but not really. Team Canada and Team USA also have plenty of players who have already represented their country in the Olympic Games. That will be seen as a positive, but it could also be a negative in this case. Will there be the same motivation for them to lay their lives on the line for a World Cup, with the entire season ahead of them? Now compared that to the young’uns on Team North America. This is probably the biggest tournament they’ve ever played in up until this point. They’ll definitely give everything they have to this, and with younger and fresher legs added to that equation in what is increasingly a young man’s game, you have to give this team a punchers chance at this thing.
— NHL EXPERT PICKS (@NHLexpertpicks) March 2, 2016
Okay, I know this is silly. But you send those guys out to hit the ice in those “Winter is Coming” jerseys with the lights dimmed and the Game of Thrones theme blaring over the loud speaker, that would give anybody a small bit of pause.
So there you have it. My five reasons why this hybrid group of kids have a chance to surprise the world and win the World Cup. It’s something I’m sure the league wouldn’t mind at all, and perhaps they might be secretly rooting for this to happen. But that’s another conversation for another time.