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Big Questions For Each Team In The World Cup Of Hockey

After what felt like a month’s worth of exhibition games, the puck will finally drop for the World Cup of Hockey on Saturday afternoon as Team USA meets up with Team Europe and Canada goes head-to-head with the Czech Republic later in the evening.  The first World Cup since 2004 will feature eight teams, including Team Europe and Team North America.  Entering the tournament, every team has at least one major question hanging over their head, maybe multiple questions for some of them.  But for the sake of this story, we’ll just stick to one lingering question following each group into the World Cup of Hockey.

NORTH AMERICA – They have speed and skill, but can they shut other teams down when it counts?

The most intriguing squad put together for the World Cup, the 23-and-under squad of Team North America is a talented hodgepodge of skilled players with speed to burn.  Some of the brightest up-and-coming youngsters in the NHL populate this group, including Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Jonathan Drouin, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad, and Shayne Gostisbehere, just to name a few.  And let’s not forget about the first overall pick in this summer’s draft, Auston Matthews, who will be putting his skills on display in Toronto in this tournament, giving Maple Leafs fans a sneak preview of what’s to come.  But even with all of their offensive swagger, the question remains: will they be able to play a sound defensive game against the likes of Russia, Sweden, or even Canada if they advance farther in the tournament?  During the pre-tournament exhibition games, North America went 2-1-0, but both of those wins were over Team Europe, and they nearly blew a 5-1 lead in the second contest after shutting out Europe in the opening game.  While Matt Murray, Connor Hellebuyck, and John Gibson are all very talented goalies, they’re going to need some help in front of them in order to make a run.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Sunday, 9/18 vs. Finland, 8 pm, ESPN2

Monday, 9/19 vs. Russia, 8 pm, ESPN2

Wednesday, 9/21 vs. Sweden, 3 pm ESPN

 

EUROPE – Can they find a way to jell quickly?

If Team North America is a hodgepodge of players, then Team Europe has to be considered an outright buffet.  Eight different countries will be represented on this roster, and many of the players began the pre-tournament games almost immediately after playing in Olympic qualifiers.  Goalie Frederik Andersen will miss the World Cup after suffering an injury during those qualifiers, and he’ll be replaced by Philipp Grubauer.  Jaroslav Halak was named the starting goaltender after making 34 saves in Europe’s 6-2 win over Sweden in the final exhibition game, which was a great bounce-back effort after dropping two straight to North America.  There’s some intriguing and proven talent on this roster that’s sure to lead the way, such as Anze Kopitar, Leon Draisaitl, Marian Hossa, Mats Zuccarello, and Roman Josi.  However, one has to be worried about the age of the defensive corps, as players like Dennis Seidenberg, Zdeno Chara, Christian Ehrhoff, and Mark Streit are all guys who are well into their 30’s.  Team Europe is considered a very heavy underdog in this tournament, and they will need to come together and find some chemistry quickly if they are going to make any noise in the World Cup.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Saturday, 9/17 vs. USA, 3:30 pm, ESPN2

Monday, 9/19 vs. Czech Republic, 3 pm, ESPN2

Wednesday, 9/21 vs. Canada, 8 pm, ESPN2

 

CZECH REPUBLIC – Can they find a way to make some noise despite injuries and a lack of depth?

If there’s one team in this tournament that’s an even bigger underdog than Team Europe, it’s the Czech Republic.  The story of the Czechs up to this point isn’t who made it on the roster, but who isn’t suiting up for this team.  David Krecji, Tomas Hertl, and Radko Gudas all had to withdraw due to injuries.  Jiri Hudler declined an invitation to be a replacement.  And that’s not even factoring in the retirement of the ageless Jaromir Jagr from international competition.  While the Czechs have some really talented players in their forward group, such as Ondrej Palat, Jakub Voracek, Radek Faksa, David Pastrnak, Ales Hemsky, and Tomas Plekanec, their blue line doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of the opposition.  In fact, you could make a case that the Czech Republic has the weakest defensive corps in the World Cup, as it’s mostly composed of guys that are either not in the NHL or guys that are no better than second or third-pairing defensemen on their NHL teams.  If the Czechs do advance, it’ll have to be on the backs of their goalies, Petr Mrazek, Ondrej Pavelec, and Michal Neuvirth.  While those three have shown flashes of being able to steal games at times, Mrazek is probably the only one I’d trust to be able to get hot and maintain the kind of play needed to spark the Czechs to an improbable run.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Saturday, 9/17 vs. Canada, 8 pm, ESPNEWS

Monday, 9/19 vs. Europe, 3 pm, ESPN2

Thursday, 9/22 vs. USA, 8 pm, ESPN2

 

FINLAND – Can a more youthful Finnish team continue their trend of being an international contender?

In the last World Cup of Hockey in 2004, Team Finland finished second to Canada.  In the 2006 Olympics, they ended up with the silver medal.  They came away with bronze in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.  Now with the 2016 World Cup looming, Finland looks to finally break through on the international stage, but they’ll be attempting to do so with a much different roster than the last two Olympics, as only eight players remain from 2014 and only two of those players, Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu, were on the 2010 Olympic roster.  It’s a new era for the Finns, as youngsters like Patrik Laine, the second overall pick in this summer’s NHL Draft, Aleksander Barkov, Sebastin Aho, Joonas Donskoi, Teuvo Teravainen, Jori Lehtera, and Olli Maatta will help to lead the charge for Finland in this tournament.  However, the Finns lost two of their three pre-tournament exhibitions, and will need some secondary scoring to help out the likes of Laine and Barkov, who will likely be paired on the team’s top line.  The Finns have usually gotten stellar goaltending in the past in international play, and having Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask should continue that trend.  However, they’re going to need some more goal support from the rest of their forwards to make their mark in the World Cup.  Which is where guys like Lehtera, Teravainen, and Donskoi will have to factor in heavily.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Sunday, 9/18 vs. North America, 8 pm, ESPN2

Tuesday, 9/20 vs. Sweden, 3 pm, ESPN

Thursday, 9/22 vs. Russia, 3 pm, ESPN

 

RUSSIA – The offense is there.  Can the defense hold up their end of the bargain?

When you look at Team Russia’s roster, it’s pretty obvious where the strength of this team lies, and that’s in the hands of a forward group that can go goal-for-goal with anyone in the World Cup.  Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Artemi Panarin, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, can light up the scoreboard for days.  But when you take a glimpse at this team’s blue line, one doesn’t quite get that same confident feeling that they do with their forwards.  Russia’s most experienced blueliners are Montreal Canadiens teammates Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov, and neither of them is what you’d call a superstar.  The rest of the defensive group includes guys like Dimitry Kulikov, Dimitry Orlov, Alexey Marchenko, Nikita Nesterov, and Nikita Zaitsev.  Not exactly household names among hockey fans.  They’re not a terrible group, and there is some puck-moving ability in that collection of blueliners, but there’s nobody that jumps out at you as being a difference-maker.  The biggest question will be whether or not this team’s defense can get the puck up to it’s talented forwards and help out their goaltending, which is actually pretty strong on paper.  I expect either Semyon Varlamov or Sergei Bobrovsky to get the starting nod, with Andrei Vasilevskiy serving as the third goalie.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Sunday, 9/18 vs. Sweden, 3 pm, ESPN

Monday, 9/19 vs. North America, 8 pm, ESPN2

Thursday, 9/22 vs. Finland, 3 pm, ESPN

 

SWEDEN – Will the injuries be too much to overcome?

Unlike Russia, Team Sweden has no problems on their blue line.  In fact, they have arguably the best defensive corps in this tournament, particularly when it comes to puck movement and puck possession.  Having a group like Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mattias Ekholm, and Niklas Hjalmarsson on the blue line is any coach’s dream.  This team is no slouch offensively, either, as Nicklas Backstrom, Loui Eriksson, Filip Forsberg, Gabriel Landeskog, and the Sedin twins are no strangers to lighting the lamp.  Even guys like Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin are dangerous, and with Henrik Lundqvist in net, the Swedes are certainly one of the favorites.  The only thing that could hold them back are injuries, as Henrik Zetterberg, Alex Steen, Niklas Kronwall, and Robin Lehner will all miss the World Cup due to various aliments.  The losses of Zetterberg and Steen will be tough to swallow due to their solid two-way play.  Hampus Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Rickard Rakell, and Jhonas Enroth will be the injury replacements, which means Sweden has had to do some tinkering with their forward lines.  After going 1-1-1 in their exhibition games, they’ll open the tournament against Russia on Sunday afternoon.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Sunday, 9/18 vs. Russia, 3 pm, ESPN

Tuesday, 9/20 vs. Finland, 3 pm, ESPN

Wednesday, 9/21 vs. North America, 3 pm, ESPN

 

USA – Can they find some secondary scoring to help out their goaltending?

Of all the teams in this tournament, only Canada can boast of a better group of goalies than Team USA.  Jonathan Quick cemented his status as the starting goalie as the Americans won two out of three exhibitions, which included a split of a couple of physical, chippy contests with Canada.  If Quick falters, there will be no drop-off, as Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider are more than capable of shouldering the burden if the need arises.  Coached by the always feisty John Tortorella, Team USA figures to be the hardest team to play against, as they sacrificed some offensive skill up front (the omission of Phil Kessel being the most glaring) in favor of grit and physicality with the likes of Ryan Kesler, Justin Abdelkader, David Backes, and Brandon Dubinsky.  They would’ve had even more of a physical edge if Ryan Callahan hadn’t needed hip surgery, but he was replaced by Kyle Palmieri.  While the top of the Americans’ forward group has plenty of skill in the likes of Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Zach Parise, and Max Pacioretty, the big question is who will step up and provide some timely secondary scoring?  Will it be Blake Wheeler?  Perhaps James van Riemsdyk or Derek Stepan?  Maybe T.J. Oshie?  Or maybe one of the defenseman like Dustin Byfuglien or John Carlson?  Either way, teams will key on the likes of Kane, Parise, Pacioretty, and Pavelski, so someone on the second, third, or fourth lines is going to have to step up.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Saturday, 9/17 vs. Europe, 3:30 pm, ESPN2

Tuesday, 9/20 vs. Canada, 8 pm, ESPN

Thursday, 9/22 vs. Czech Republic, 8 pm, ESPN

 

CANADA – Can anyone actually knock this team out of the tournament?

Last, but certainly not least, we arrive at the prohibitive favorites of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.  First, let’s get the injury casualties out of the way, as Jamie Benn, Jeff Carter, Duncan Keith, and Tyler Seguin are all out, having been replaced by Logan Couture, Corey Perry, Jay Bouwmeester, and Ryan O’Reilly.  Not really that much of a drop-off, if any at all.  When it comes to forwards, the only team that can hang with Canada is Russia, and even the Canadians have the edge in that department, as no team is deeper or more balanced top-to-bottom up front.  The thing that jumps out the most about their forwards is how many natural centers they have that will switch to the wings and still not have any kind of a decline.  Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, and Claude Giroux would be right at home on any All-Star team.  Throw in the likes of solid two-way guys like O’Reilly and Patrice Bergeron, the skill of Couture and Matt Duchene, and the combo of skill and grit you get with Brad Marchand, Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf, and you’ve got a four number-one lines that will give goalies nightmares for days.  And we haven’t even gotten to the blue line, which features Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty, Norris finalist Brent Burns, as well as Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jake Muzzin, Alex Pietrangelo, and Bouwmeester, who are a virtual All-Star group themselves.  The only question is whether or not goalie Carey Price can bounce back from the lower-body injury that ended his season last November.  And even if he falters, Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford are your next two options.  Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and Crawford has two Stanley Cup rings.  Good luck to the other seven teams in the tournament.  You’re gonna need it.

Preliminary Round Schedule

Saturday, 9/17 vs. Czech Republic, 8 pm, ESPNEWS

Tuesday, 9/20 vs. USA, 8 pm, ESPN

Wednesday, 9/21 vs. Europe, 8 pm, ESPN2

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