Canada remains the odds out favorite in the international* ice hockey tournament run by the NHL, officially starting three weeks from saturday.
I'll give you a minute to adjust to such a concept.
The team as it stands is one that is largely designed to give Team Canada the biggest pre-season walk in the park one could give a bunch of star players. The team is loaded front to back with some of the best talent you could possibly hope to have in a tournament for the world's tackiest vase.
Look how happy he is to win it!
The real killer for Team Canada at this point is deciding which of their three-four first lines anywhere in the NHL gets to start first and kick off a bunch of curmudgeonly articles written about the disrespect a player here or there gets from the Canadian hockey authorities because your favorite canadian all-star didn't get as many minutes as this canadian all-star.
This isn't about Team Canada. Or at least, this isn't about whose playing for Team Canada.
While I wish our dearly beloved Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand luck and all the scoring they'll inevitably receive working with Sidney Crosby, this article is instead about all the other teams. The hapless morons and the hopeful youths that get to try and bring it to the Red and White and hopefully knock them off in an upset on their home turf. We're gonna take a look at the chances of all the non-Team Canada WHOC teams on beating the all-star squad the Great white north has brought.
* = Citation needed
Team Czech Republic
Team Strength: Forward
Team Weakness: Goaltending, potentially tournament sinking last D pairing
Best players in NHL: David Pastrnak (obviously), Jake Voracek, Jakub Nakladal
I swear I didn't start with them because it meant I got to talk about David Pastrnak.
The Czechs are in an interesting position because their team is one that could honestly be a good contender for an upset. The signs are all there anyway. A talented top six with plenty of good players to choose from, least of which likely being a line of David Pastrnak, Jake Voracek and Tomas Hertl who will be enshrined into the Czech hall of fame shortly after their first game*. The rest of their forwards are a solid collection of players that, if brought together, would make a fairly solid NHL squad. Nakladal as he's coming off a great year was smart, Krejci/Pastrnak already have chemistry, Voracek's one of the best players in the league, Ales Hemsky could help cover up for defensive issues...There's a lot here to be proud of on the the forward side of things.
That said, their defense could be better.
While again, Nakladal is gonna be great and should be able to make up for any perceived issues a player like say...Radko Gudas might have on defense, they might have to, in the worst possible scenario, play a defense pairing of Roman Polak and Andrej Sustr. A pairing that haunts my nightmares as a viable possibility. In goal, you have the adherent to league average goaltending performance Petr Mrazek, then a "good in backup" Michal Neuvirth...and then Ondrej Pavelec.
Pray to whatever god you think loves you that Pavelec does not start, Czech fans. Pray to all of 'em, in fact.
I'd say chances are good for them to be a thorn in Canada's side, but ultimately the game they play will be close only to collapse on two goals scored within seconds of each other.
Team (Rest of) Europe
Nation Strength: Forward, Semi-competent goaltending
Nation Weakness: Defense
Best NHL players: Zdeno Chara, Marion Gaborik, Marion Hossa, Anze Kopitar, Andrej Sekera
Team Europe better be thanking their lucky stars they have a bunch of great forwards because that's probably the best thing you can say about the team. Their forwards through the first three lines seem like a fairly competently put together group that will absolutely lose most of their games in crushing, 6-5 defeats.
The reason I am saying this is 39 year old, heavily worn down and multiply injured Zdeno Chara is still probably the best defenseman on Team Europe. That is a bad. If Team EU is smart, they can just bundle Chara/Sekera as one pairing and give them the brunt of the minutes, because honestly after them it gets really ugly in a hurry.
Having a bunch of unassuming goaltenders like Frederick Andersson and Jaroslav Halak isn't gonna make it any better.
Team Europe doesn't have much of a chance, I'm sorry to say. The team just doesn't have much other than a bunch of old, but good, forwards and a Slovenian possession zombie. Everything after that will likely have the two-toned club out of the running fairly quickly.
Team Strength: Forwards, Goaltending
Team Weakness: Defense is young, Goaltending after Rask
Best NHL Players: Tuukka Rask, Aleksander Barkov, Jyrkki Jokipakka
Team Finland is an interesting creature. A solid forward corps boosted by the ever stalwart (if not always upright) Tuukka Rask gives the impression that Suomi has potential to really take it to the teams gathered in Toronto/Montreal. The defense is not necessarily a bad in this case...but it's definitely up in the air, bringing Esa Lindell, a Stars prospect, and Sami Lepisto from Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL, of whom played in the mid 2000s on chicago and phoenix.
the Goaltending side of things, while good, could use some shoring up. Bringing another KHLer and the mercurial Pekka Rinne along for the ride may mean the mystery defense of Finland may end up with more than they can handle.
But with all that said, there is plenty of good talent on Finland's roster that would absolutely give Canada a run for their money. I don't think they could win when it came down to an elimination game, but they'd get close.
They got a great theme song, though.
Team North America (AKA The Young Guns)
Team Strengths: Pretty much every position
Team Weakness: "Experience"
Best NHL Player: All of them, but Aaron Eckblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Couturier, Matt Murray...
If there ever was a team that could seriously contend against Canada...this might be it. Maybe.
The names on this list are something else. Connor McDavid gets to play with Nathan MacKinnon, Brandon Saad and whatever crazy combo they can come up with. The team front to back has a great amount of talent. Mostly. It's pretty loaded either way.
Complimenting this is a defense comprised of a ton of potentially franchise names: Seth Jones, the previously mentioned Eckblad, Colton Parayko, Shayne Gostisbehere etc. The goaltending having a very recent stanley cup champion in Matt Murray, an up and coming young Connor Hallebucyk, and a damn solid backup-ish player turned starter named John Gibson.
This is a team stacked to the brim and Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman should be proud of their efforts.
The question is no longer can they compete...the question is really...is it enough? Do these young studs have enough to pull off an upset? Maybe. It seems like the team has plenty of opportunity and the tools to prove that they can beat almost everyone in the tournament. They just actually have to go out and do it. And then they have to play Canada...which will be a question.
I'd almost say yes, but part of me wants to genuinely look at how they'd do before I commit to it.
Team Strength: Offense. In a big way
Team Weakness: Defense (mostly), Goaltending isn't stellar, That's a lot of KHL guys not used to playing good canadians.
Best NHL Players: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Artemi Panarin, Vlad Tarasenko, Dmitry Orlov
Just look at that best nhl players. Russia's gonna be in this to the finish, in my opinion.
Russia's product is bolstered by some of the best talents to play the game today. The team's offense is going to be an absolute destroyer of a team that will no doubt make their motherland a very happy nation. Panarin's revelation in chicago makes this already heavily bolstered team that will have the terrifying first line of Ovie, Geno and Vlad gives the impression that most teams will be thrown for a loop in playing Don Cherry's worst nightmare.
Defense on the other hand...might be tricky.
Like many teams in this tournament, while the offense seems to be pretty cut and dry, the defense has some headscratchers. Dmitry Kulikov, while a servicable guy, has largely played on bad Florida teams and never exactly made teams around him better by his presence. Emelin has been struggling mightily in recent years, and players like Nikita Zaitsev are sort of new to the whole north american rink thing. The best pairing here is Markov-Orlov, and it's not close.
Their goaltending isn't exactly confidence inspiring, either. Varlamov has been up and down, Bobrovsky's been hurt a LOT and can find himself giving up boneheaded goals, and while Bolts fans do like Andrei Vasilevskiy, he hasn't faced a team like this before. Or probably since.
Plus...there are an awful lot of KHL guys in this. who have either been targeted but not signed or signed but not brought over to the NHL/AHL rinks.
Or to it's play.
Or to how different it can be.
I think Russia might get a little shocked here. They are a good team, no doubt about it, but there's some question marks here that give me the impression that, if Canada were to face them in elimination time, the Russians might find themselves desperately needing pieces they don't have.
Team Strength: Defense, Goaltending.
Team Weakness: Forward backchecking...I guess.
Best NHL Players: Mattias Ekholm, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Henrik Lundqvist, Victor Hedman, Marcus Kruger
Sweden makes good hockey players. Many of them are great at defense. This gives them a major edge where most of the rest of the teams are concerned.
Tre Kronor is gonna make scandinavia's middle ground quite proud in this tournament. Their ever stalwart goaltender and model Henrik Lundqvist will have a king's ransom worth of defensive support from some of the best players on defense the NHL and Sweden can provide. Some of whom play on the same team, so some pairings and lines might as well be automatic. This team has also seen some variation of what the IIHF/Swedish Olympic Committee sanctioned as their squads, so many of these players are used to playing together and used to being successful together on an international scale.
The only real weakness I can put together for this squad of swedes is not all of their forwards are great at defense? Maybe? They're all able to make up for it on sheer offensive talent but there might be a few more shots than Sweden's comfortable allowing in there. Otherwise...they're probably the best bet they can put together to take the fight to Canada. They play tough and skilled, they have some of the most impenetrable defense imaginable, and they have Henrik Lundqvist.
Canada will have to put a real good fight in front of them if they wanted to. I think Tre Kronor is gonna bring the fight to them.
Team America: Mall Cop (Team USA)
Team Strength: Goaltending, first line will be great
Team Weakness: Left better players at home, team defense, team philosophy, many players who aren't nearly as good without their linemates who are sizeably better than they are, defense gets real bad after a certain point...
Best NHL Players: Joe Pavelski, Max Pacioretty, Matt Niskanen, Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Suter
I'm gonna be honest with you. This roster sucks for a bunch of different reasons.
Oh sure, it has guys like Max Pacioretty and Joe Pavelski and that ever vaunted Patrick Kane and all that, but this is a John Tortorella team Dean Lombardi constructed under the guise of Brian Burke's eternal wisdom, and it shows. It's telling when they get a pretty alright dude in Brandon Dubinsky, but when he couldn't play, they sent someone much, much, much worse than Dubinsky is as a player; Kyle "I got boosted so hard by PDO" Palmieri. Justin Abdelkader is fine-ish, but he's not Phil Kessel, who will have to sit out due to an injury. Derek Stepan is not as good as he is often advertised, and the defense? oooooho ho. The Defense.
Here are the good defensemen on USA's Squad. Niskanen, Byfuglien, Suter. They are players who help make their squads a lot better with their inclusion. They are charged with dragging around the following:
- John Carlson, who is a one note offensive defenseman in the worst way imaginable.
- Ryan McDonagh, who in spite of receiving top billing in NY is a generally low level defender in his metrics that ends up scoring way above his pay grade.
- Jack Johnson, whose existence as a member of this team is either proof there is no loving god, or that there is a god, and he hates you on a deeply personal level.
The best thing you can say is that the usual trio in goal of Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop, and Cory Schneider will be around, so they can at least say that if the defense is flagging, they can hopefully be bailed out by a trio of goaltenders that tend towards quality.
The ugly problem about Team USA is that it still refuses to adapt, believing whatever Brian Burke's saying about hard work and all that in the face of the fact that many of these "Gritty" and "Hard Working" NHL personalities may not be the best man for the job. Even if some of the players like Phil or say...Nick Leddy, Kyle Okposo, Kevin Shattenkirk, or Justin Faulk who would've absolutely benefitted from the attention (and deprived Jack Johnson a roster spot) couldn't show up due to injury or because of prior commitments, I would've accepted that they prioritized their time or their health over an idealized version of Team USA's roster based on what Dean Lombardi, a human stick grenade, and a deeply over the hill exec believe Team USA should be.
They want to slow down a number of teams that will stick it to the teams through physicality and strength. None of which (with exception) appears to get them the puck faster. With an all-star Russian, Swedish, Czech, and Finnish team. Sure, Brian. That's definitely gonna work in the age of 6'2-6'5 220-pound super mutant athletes who can take the force of an oncoming train and keep possession.
Team USA's gonna get lit up like a Christmas Tree in their big marquis game against Canada. It will not be pleasant. It will not be pretty. And everyone involved (save the players who got roped into this) will absolutely deserve it. Hopefully it forces Team USA's management structure to be shaken up from the beating it takes.
If you wanna stay on-continent for a team? Go root for Team NA. They'll at least give you a fighting chance.
But hey, it's an international tournament in preseason. Anything can happen...right?