Hockey is back!
The NHL managed World Cup of Hockey officially begins on Saturday, September 17 and will run for two weeks. It will include eight teams — Team Canada, Team Czech Republic, Team Europe, Team Finland, Team North America, Team Russia, Team Sweden and Team USA — and feature more than 170 of the best players in the NHL. All tournament games will be played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
As expected, the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals have numerous players participating, including Alex Ovechkin (Russia Captain), Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden), Braden Holtby (Canada), John Carlson (USA), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Russia), T.J. Oshie (USA), Matt Niskanen (USA), Dmitry Orlov (Russia), and Philipp Grubauer (Europe).
Pre-tournament games, which will all be televised on ESPN’s network, will be played in the following cities: Columbus, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City; Prague; Gothenburg; Helsinki; and St. Petersburg. The first three pre-tourney games are on Thursday, September 8th starting with Team Russia vs. Team Czech Republic in St. Petersburg at 12:30 pm on ESPN3, so you can tune in and watch the Gr8 already. Team USA plays its first pre-tourney game against Canada this Friday, September 9th in Columbus at 7 pm on ESPNU.
The Verizon Center will host two games next week, both at 7 pm. On Tuesday, Team USA will face Team Finland and on Wednesday, Team Sweden will take on Team Europe. Tickets are available.
The tournament will be grouped into two divisions of four teams, as follows:
Group A: USA, Canada, Czech Republic, and Europe
Group B: Sweden, Russia, Finland, and North America.
The top two teams in each group will advance and then play a single elimination semi-final round before the World Cup is decided in a best of three series. This should be an exciting way to break into the NHL season!
Over the next week, I’ll provide you with my analysis of the teams and I’ll start with my rankings by squad in terms of their defensive corps, starting from the worst to the best.
Eighth – Team Czech Republic: Zbenyk Michalek (AZ), Radko Gudas (PHI), Michal Kempny (CHI), Jakub Nackladal (Free Agent), Michal Jordan (Free Agent), Andrej Sustr (TB), and Roman Polak (TOR). Woah, not much there on the blueline, so it’s easy to see why this is the weakest group of seven in the tournament. If only this was basketball and they had “THE” Michael Jordan.
Seventh – Team Finland: Jyrki Jokipakka (CGY), Olli Maatta (PIT), Esa Lindell (DAL), Sami Lepisto (Free Agent), Ville Pokka (CHI), Sami Vatanen (ANA), and Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF). Vatanen has the potential to be a star in the league, but after that, I don’t see anything here that will scare the likes of Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin over the next several weeks.
Sixth – Team Russia: Dmitry Kulikov (FLA), Dmitry Orlov (WAS), Nikita Zaitsev (TOR), Alexey Marchenko (DET), Alexei Emelin (MON), Andrei Markov (MON), and Nikita Nesterov (TB). There are some good young players here on this defensive roster, but outside of Markov and Emelin, there isn’t a ton of big game experience. This will definitely be the weakest part of Team Russia and if they don’t advance to the semi-finals, this position will likely be the main reason why they won’t win on the world stage, once again.
Fifth – Team Europe: Andrej Sekera (EDM), Luca Sbisa (VAN), Mark Streit (PHI), Christian Ehrhoff (Free Agent), Zdeno Chara (BOS), Dennis Seidenberg (Free Agent), and Roman Josi (NAS). This crew has several players that are long in the tooth, but that brings experience. Josi is the best player of the group and his stock in the NHL is rising quickly.
Fourth – Team North America: Seth Jones (CMB), Colton Parakyo (STL), Aaron Ekblad (FLA), Jacob Trouba (WPG), Ryan Murray (CMB), Morgan Reilly (TOR), and Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI). Lots of upcoming talent here, but they are certainly inexperienced. That’s to be expected for a team that is comprised of players aged 23 and under. Ekblad is a stud on the back end and “Ghost” carried the Flyers to the playoffs last spring. Jones is a future star, too.
Third – Team Sweden: Niklas Hjalmmarsson (CHI), Anton Stralman (TB), Mattias Ekholm (NAS), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (ARI), Hampus Lindholm (ANA), Erik Karlsson (OTT), and Victor Hedman (TB). Outstanding crew of defensemen here led by Hedman and Karlsson and it was hard to put them third, but the other two teams are just slightly better as a whole. Karlsson has the Norris Trophy notoriety, but if you ask me, Hedman might be as good as any defensemen in the NHL outside of Drew Doughty. The guy is just awesome on the back end and plays a lot of minutes.
Second – Team USA: Matt Niskanen (WAS), John Carlson (WAS), Jack Johnson (CMB), Ryan Suter (MIN), Ryan McDonagh (NYR), Dennis Byfuglien (WPG), and Erik Johnson (COL). There isn’t a “Wow!” factor with this crew, but each one of these blue liners is very good and experienced. Carlson is a top dozen defensemen in the NHL, in my book, but he doesn’t get a lot of publicity. He continues to get better and better and will be on the top pairing with either Suter or McDonagh.
First – Team Canada: Jay Bouwmeester (STL), Shea Weber (MON), Jake Muzzin (LA), Drew Doughty (LA), Alex Pietrangelo (STL), Marc-Edouard Vlassic (SJ), and Brent Burns (SJ). TONS of ability and experience here led by the best defensemen in the NHL in Doughty. This blue line is ultra deep and keep in mind they left Kris Letang of Pittsburgh and P.K. Subban of Nashville off of the squad. I probably would have had both of them on the team, but GM Doug Armstrong and Coach Mike Babcock are calling the shots for this tournament. Bottom line, Canada is loaded on defense (and at other positions too!) and they easily could put another group of seven together that wouldn’t be too far behind Sweden and the USA.
On Thursday night, I’ll rank the goaltenders for each team.