The World Cup of Hockey begins Saturday after a week of exhibition games that made us believe the under-23 team can win gold and that Team Europe is so old and slow you’d think they were more suited for a company softball game.
The eight-team tournament takes place exclusively in Toronto, so that city is guaranteed to see hockey players lift a trophy in victory, which is a nice change of pace for that population.
The format is simple and odd — two groups with four teams and the top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals. There is no quarterfinal round and the championship is a best-of-three. Ideally, the winners of each group would get a bye to the semifinals and the next two teams in each group would play in the quarterfinals, but this limits wear and tear and increases the odds of a US-Canada matchup in the final.
Who will win? Who are the teams to watch? Great questions, so let’s answer them.
Here are the eight teams ranked in order of predicted finish with some tidbits and jokes to make it worth your time when you see your team isn’t as high in the rankings as you would like.
Eighth Place – Czech Republic (Group A)
Notable stars: Ondrej Palat, Jakub Voracek, Tomas Plekanec
Biggest issue: The blue line is bad. It’s very bad. A case can be made that Roman Polak is the team’s No. 3 defenseman. You may remember him from the Sharks pairing that got torched by the Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.
Worst thing about this team: Jaromir Jagr chose not to play. Also, this category is in this preview simply because I wanted to mention Jagr isn’t playing and it makes me sad.
How they can win gold: They can’t. They will play three games and get ready for the NHL season.
Seventh Place – Russia (Group B)
Notable stars: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, come on, you know all the good NHL Russians.
Biggest issue: They are in a loaded group. If they were in Group A, they’d finish second at worst. But the NHL stuck the U.S. team and Canada in Group A with two (alleged) patsies to get them into the semifinals, so someone in Group B is getting screwed.
Worst thing about this team: Two of their three games are in the middle of the day (3 p.m. ET). They play Sweden on Sunday during the heart of a full NFL schedule so people will miss a really good game.
How they can win gold: If every game they play is 5-4. Semyon Varlamov can steal a game in the right conditions but with the defense, he’ll need to be incredible for two weeks.
Sixth Place – Finland (Group B)
Notable stars: Tuukka Rask, Aleksander Barkov, Sami Vatanen
Biggest issue: There’s not a lot of speed to go around. Patrik Laine looked great in the pre-tournament games but Finland could use 4-5 more Laines to compete with the speed in their group.
Worst thing about this team: Teemu Selanne retired two years ago but he should still be on this roster. He’s still better than Lauri Korpikoski, right?
How they can win gold: They have just enough talent surrounding an excellent goaltender (assuming it’s Rask and not Pekka Rinne) to win a bunch of 2-1 games. Getting out of the group might be harder than winning a semifinal game.
Fifth Place – Team USA (Group A)
Notable stars: Jack Johnson, Justin Abdelkader, Brandon Dubinsky, yes, I have the USA not making it out of group play.
Biggest issue: Patrick Kane seems to be a focus during intermission interviews and commercials and no one should be subjected to that for two weeks.
Worst thing about this team: Patrick Kane seems to be a focus during intermission interviews and commercials and no one should be subjected to that for two weeks.
How they can win gold: If, like, six more … no, nine more Canadians gets hurt and Sweden gets disqualified for doping and the NHL rigs the tournament, maybe.
Fourth Place – Team Europe (Group A)
Notable stars: Anze Kopitar, Mats Zuccarello, Zdeno Chara
Biggest issue: Some will say it’s the fact this team is comprised of players from so many countries, but really, it’s their age. Although, that could also be their biggest asset. They are either old and slow and primed to be bounced early; or they are old and wise, biding their time in the exhibition games while the overeager young people expend way too much energy out of the gate. Everyone is writing off Team Europe because they got run out of the building by Team North America, but all Europe has to do to reach the semis is beat Team USA on Saturday.
Worst thing about this team: They don’t get to have a national anthem, which of course should be The Final Countdown by Europe.
How they can win gold: They can get out of their group, but that’s it. Even that’s pushing it.
Bronze Medal – Team Sweden (Group B)
Notable stars: Henrik Lundqvist, Henrik Lundqvist’s hair, Henrik Lundqvist’s eyes
Biggest issue: With Henrik Zetterberg out due to injury, the Swedes aren’t their usual dominant selves down the middle. Yes, they still have Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Sedin, but there’s a dropoff that will likely prevent them from winning gold. Their blue line is the best in the tournament and Lundqvist is still an elite goaltender.
Worst thing about this team: I had a whole thing about Par Marts, the coach from Sochi that benched Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but he’s not the coach of this team. So the worst thing about this team is some other dude is coaching this team and I don’t have any jokes about him.
How they can win gold: Lundqvist is unconscious in either the final round or semifinals against Canada. It probably behooves the Swedes to get the Canadians in a one-game showdown rather than a three-game series but even then asking Lundqvist to steal the show vs. Canada on Canadian soil is asking a lot.
Silver Medal – Team North America (Group B)
Notable stars: Connor McDavid, Auston… wait, are players under the age of 23 allowed to be considered stars in this league? Don’t they have to pay their dues or some nonsense? I don’t want to get anyone in trouble so let’s say they have a lot of guys willing to work hard that just want to win.
Biggest issue: Without question, it’s the goaltending. Matt Murray won a Stanley Cup last year behind a dominant Penguins team but at some point, Murray is going to be under siege and it will probably be against Canada in the final. Team North America lacking a “steal a game” goaltender will probably be its downfall.
Worst thing about this team: I know I’m in the minority, but I hate the uniforms. The insignia looks like it’s what a secret society on The Simpsons would use.
How they can win gold: I’m picturing the gold-medal game as a Bad News Bears vs. Yankees final, so basically, they need to do the hockey equivalent of holding Kelly Leak at third instead of trying for the inside-the-park home run.
Gold Medal – Team Canada (Group A)
Notable stars: Whatever
Biggest issue: There isn’t one.
Worst thing about this team: Everything.
How they can win gold: By throwing their equipment onto the ice. We need a new category.
How they can lose gold: They pretty much have to lose in the semifinal because they A) ran into the hottest goaltender in the world at that exact moment, B) Carey Price is so rusty that he allows two bad goals in that game or C) Air Canada Centre is cursed and a Canadian team simply can’t win a championship there anymore. Canada lost Tyler Seguin to injury and he was their fourth-line center. Oh no! How will they get by with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Joe Thornton…
… Never mind. Don’t watch this tournament. It will just make you sad (unless you are Canadian).