We’re now almost three full days into the 2016 edition of the World Cup of Hockey, every team has played at least one official tournament game, and all things considered, the tournament’s going as well as possible.
The main concern going into this rebooted World Cup, aside from it being looked at as an NHL cash grab, was the two “gimmick teams,” Team North America and Team Europe.
As we all know by now, Team North America is comprised entirely out of players raised in either the Canada or United States and are aged 23 and under.
Team Europe is a ragtag group of players from all the European countries whose national team didn’t make the cut for this tournament. Meaning, any European player not from Russia, Finland, Sweden or the Czech Republic was eligible for this team.
Understandably, the initial reaction to these squads being announced was lukewarm at best.
There were major concerns for both teams, detractors of Team North America said they lacked experience, and sure, they’re fast and can score, but can they keep the puck out of the net?
As for Team Europe, critics pondered if these players from a bunch of different countries would truly care about this tournament, and if they did, would they mesh together with little to no prior experience playing with each other, contrary to typical national teams?
Just three days into the World Cup, we can now confidently say that we took these teams a little for granted.
Team North America was an offensive juggernaut in the pre-tournament, and continued their success with a 4-1 drubbing of Finland in their first real tournament game. As I’m writing this, North America’s speed and puck moving ability is currently giving Russia fits as they exit the first period with a 1-0 lead. As mentioned before, there was no real concern regarding North America’s speed, scoring ability, and finesse. Goals from bona-fide stars like Johnny Gaudreau and Nathan MacKinnon have already shown that.
However, the main concern was the defensive side of the game, starting from the net out. Then last season happened.
Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray went from third-stringer to leading the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship. Anaheim’s John Gibson ended up in the All-Star Game. Even the third goalie in the group, Connor Hellebuyck, proved himself to be Winnipeg’s goalie of the future with a successful mid-season audition.
Team North America & Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray
Even with the goaltending situation looking solidified, people were still wondering how a young, relatively unproven d-core would fare against constant top-notch opposition. It’s a fair question, until you take a deeper look at the defensive lineup.
Aaron Ekblad is already a legitimate number one defenceman, leader, and steady all-round on-ice presence at the ripe old age of 20. It’s hard to believe he’s still so young since he manages to look, act, and lead like a man well into his NHL career.
So you’ve got your number one defenceman, and he happens to be the kind of guy teams build around, much like what’s happening with Ekblad’s NHL team, the Florida Panthers. But Ekblad aside, there were still plenty of questions regarding the rest of the teams d-core.
Enter Shayne Gostisbehere and Colton Parayko. These two young men were not exactly household names entering last season, but both players cemented their status as future stars by the end of the year.
The two players are polar opposites, Gostisbehere being a product of the new NHL, an undersized player with elite vision, puck moving and scoring ability, and Parayko being a 6”6 physical beast with a heavy shot and a mean streak.
The two players might be quite different, but both made a significant impact immediately upon entering the league, both ended up on the NHL All-Rookie Team, and Gostisbehere came in 2nd in Calder Trophy voting.
Philadelphia Flyers & Team North America defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere
Okay, so looking back, it may have been foolish to immediately dismiss the Young Guns as a legitimate threat, any team with the likes of the aforementioned players, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Dylan Larkin, Morgan Reilly, Seth Jones & Co. has to be taken seriously.
The knock is “lack of experience,” a slight that I feel is completely unwarranted. Every single player on this team has big game experience, ranging from the World Juniors, to NHL playoff action, to World Championships, to Swiss Cup action. Yeah, there’s a lack of experience compared to the older guys, that’s the same as in any field, but to assume that these young men are severely lacking in big game experience is a completely naive notion.
With the reduction of clutching, grabbing, slow-footed goons patrolling the ice, and the game becoming faster and more open on the whole, the NHL has been trending younger. A player at age 32 now is considered old and we’ve seen guys, Curtis Glencross for example, retire at around that age due to their jobs being stolen by the kids. We’ve seen young players over the years emerge as leaders, Jonathan Toews, Gabriel Landeskog and Connor McDavid being a few quick examples, and hockey at this point is most definitely a young mans game. So why be so quick to discredit the kids?
This team is the real deal, and has the potential to shock a lot of teams and pundits throughout this tournament.
Now, how about the other gimmick squad, Team Europe?
For starters, it has to be hard for these guys to care about this tournament the same way they care about something like the Olympics or World Championship. There’s something about putting your country’s jersey over your head and representing an entire nation. I’m sure Marian Hossa would rather be playing for Team Slovakia, Anze Kopitar would rather play for Team Slovenia, etc, etc. Putting on a unified, Team Europe jersey just isn’t quite the same, that’s easy to understand. However, it’s not like these players don’t have something to prove, or a country or continent to represent.
Team Europe & Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar, of Slovenia
These players are still representing their nations, the Team Europe crest on the front doesn’t change that. Mark Streit’s still Swiss. Frans Nielsen’s still Danish. Zdeno Chara’s still Slovak. Yeah, their respective countries may not be deep enough to field a full team in a competition this exclusive, but these players are still representing those countries, their own flags still on their jersey’s in shoulder patch form. If you don’t think a proud Slovak like Marian Gaborik doesn’t feel the weight of a nation on his shoulders in any international tournament you’re kidding yourself. It just makes it that much more special for the players that did make this team, they are the best their country has to offer in a sport where they aren’t a powerhouse, and any country and player representing their country has to feel pride behind that.
Depth was a concern for Team Europe entering the World Cup, and just by glancing at the roster you know they’re not as deep as a Team Canada or a Team Russia. It goes without saying that the likes of Christian Ehrhoff or Pierre-Edouard Bellemare aren’t coming close to making Team Canada, but that doesn’t mean this team can’t contend with the best. Their 3-0 blanking of Team USA and their 2-0 record thus far proves that.
There’s legitimate talent on Team Europe, superstars like Kopitar, reliable vets like Streit and Nielsen, dynamic scores like Mats Zuccarello, and bottom-six stalwarts like Bellemare.
Just because some of these guys aren’t making some of the other teams in this tournament doesn’t mean they’re a bad team. In fact, if there’s one thing that Team Europe has an advantage in, it’s that these players are likelier to really know their roles.
For example, Team Canada is filled with superstars, the talent there is undeniable, but often times players on a team built out of pure stars struggle to find a role. A player used to playing 22 minutes a game will sometimes be put on fourth line duty. There’s little danger of that with Team Europe. A guy like Bellemare, or Jannik Hansen, or Christian Ehrhoff knows their role is rather limited in comparison to Anze Kopitar. This team is built solidly in every aspect, first line down to fourth line, top pairing defenceman down to the third pairing, and most of the roles these players are playing are not very different from their roles on their respective NHL teams.
Team Europe’s surprised so far, winning their first two regular tournament games after a bumpy pre-tournament, and a big part of their victories thus far have been Dennis Seidenberg. The same Seidenberg that just got bought out by the Boston Bruins and is currently without an NHL contract. Christian Ehrhoff is in a similar position. Both men have played rather impressively thus far, and are likely due to receive some NHL interest after the World Cup ends.
Team Europe & ex-Boston Bruin defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, of Germany
Seidenberg and Ehrhoff’s play made me realize that perhaps this ragtag group of Europeans actually have more to prove than a team like Canada.
Everyone knows Canada can win at hockey, you just have to look at the past two Olympics’ to see that. The players on that team have won, are all NHL stars, all have massive contracts or paydays incoming, and have great job security. Not everyone on Team Europe is in the same boat.
As previously stated, Seidenberg and Ehrhoff are fighting for their NHL lives. Leon Draisaitl is trying to prove that he’s the real deal. Roman Josi is looking to prove that he’s more than just Shea Weber’s wingman. Thomas Vanek and Marian Gaborik have more to prove to their detractors than any player on Canada. And every single one of these guys is trying to show that there’s legitimate hockey talent in their respective countries.
If anything, Team Europe’s hunger has been evident thus far throughout the tournament, and it’s resulted in two straight victories and a lot of surprised faces in Toronto.
When Team North America and Team Europe first got announced, the initial reaction was a laugh. This is a farce, what a joke, they said, this whole tournament is a gimmick, they said.
Oh how those haters have been proven wrong.
These teams are a legitimate threat, the games so far have been incredible to watch, and at this point I don’t think it would shock many to see one or both of these teams upset a team or two.
Enjoy the games, there’s no guarantee that these two teams will be back in the next instalment of the World Cup. So let’s just sit back and enjoy history being made in the meantime.