World Cup of Hockey: 2016 Tournament Preview

Twelve years. It’s been that long since the last World Cup of Hockey tournament, with Canada taking down Finland for the rights to the Cup trophy after finishing as the runner up to the United States in the inaugural event of 1996. While the international hockey competition was in hibernation mode, we shed tears over Hurricane Katrina, crazed over the advent of the iPhone, voted in Barack Obama for two Presidential terms, and celebrated the lives of sports legends, including the likes of Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe. Despite all the change that naturally comes with passed time, six Canadian players from the winning 2004 squad remain active in the NHL, and two of those original cast members — Jay Bouwmeester (STL) and Joe Thornton (SJ) — will be involved in the competition a second time. The action officially begins Sept. 17 and lasts through Oct. 1, 2016 with Toronto playing host. Judging on exhibition play, one can expect a level of intensity that leaves NHL GMs praying for their players to come out unscathed. Here is a breakdown of the eight teams (countries) involved in the best-on-best, round-robin competition:

Predicted outcome: North America effectively uses its youth and wheels to roll past Canada in a stunning upset.

Wikipedia has the full World Cup of Hockey rosters.

Group A

Team Canada

Will have a close eye on: Tyler Seguin (C DAL) — A superb playmaker who netted nine goals in 10 games for Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championships. He’s been bothered by leg injuries the last two seasons, including injuries to his Achilles and calf, with the latter limiting him to one game in the 2016 postseason.

Editor’s note 9/15/16: True to form, Seguin has dropped out of the World Cup due to a lower-body injury. He will be replaced by Sabres pivot Ryan O’Reilly. I’ll put some extra attention on defenseman Jake Muzzin, who registered nine assists in time games  in the 2015 IIHF World Championships.

Might underperform: Carey Price (G MON) — This pick won’t be popular given how Price took home gold in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but I wanted to select someone. Here’s a guy who hasn’t played in a game that counts since last November due to a knee injury. He held up in his exhibition showing against Team USA on Sept. 9, but the rust was evident as Canada was downed, 4-2.

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Might surprise: Shea Weber (D MON)– With P.K. Subban being a notable omission from Team Canada’s roster, the onus is on Weber to make an instant impact for his country, and particularly fans of the Habs, as he was involved in that straight-up trade for Subban this offseason. Weber wears the leadership hat a bit better than his predecessor, and that shouldn’t be overlooked on the international stage.

Team Czech Republic

Will have a close eye on: Petr Mrazek  (G DET) — Mrazek is expected to enter the 2016-17 NHL season as Detroit’s No.1 netminder, leaving veteran backup Jimmy Howard as the league’s most expensive backup (AAV: $5.5 million). The World Cup will serve as a more rigorous version of training camp for general manager Ken Holland to decide whether he truly wants to designate this Czech puck plugger as his top dog between the pipes once the season gets underway for the Wings on Oct. 13.

Might underperform: Michal Jordan (D FA) — Jordan is currently an unrestricted free agent in the NHL. Lacking physicality, he was unable to parlay his offensive talent into production at hockey’s highest level of competition and ended up posting a minus-14 rating in three short seasons with the Hurricanes. He’s going to have one heck of a time keeping up with All-Star caliber opponents.

Might surprise: Milan Michalek (LW TOR) — Michalek has extensive experience playing internationally at both the junior and senior levels, including winning the bronze at the World Championship in 2011 and 2012. Even though he only grabbed 16 points in 45 games between the Senators and Leafs last year, Michalek should have success in this tournament as he’s over the knee injury that shortened his 2015-16 campaign and gets to play with his brother, defenseman Zbynek Michalek.

Team Europe

Will have a close eye on: Jaroslav Halak (G NYI) — Halak fashioned a franchise best 38 wins in 2014-15, but a multitude of injuries limited him to 36 games for the Isles last season, which opened the door for Thomas Greiss, who is also on Team Europe’s roster, to garner a more substantial role. It will be important for Halak to have a strong World Cup while proving that there’s no lasting effects of a groin injury that prevented him from suiting up in the NHL postseason.

Might underperform: Zdeno Chara (D BOS) — Chara is 39 years old. It was painful watching him try to start his engine against Team North America’s 23-and-under squad in exhibition play. The massive Bruin (6-foot-9, 255 pounds) will need to be darn near perfect with his positioning on the blue line in order to be an asset for Team Europe.

Might surprise: Leon Draisaitl (C EDM) — At the tender age of 20, the big German center should stand out on a European team otherwise chock-full of veterans. Draisaitl is versatile and quickly picking up the defensive nuances of the game. He racked up 51 points for the Oilers last season, despite the club being without Connor McDavid for 37 games.

Team USA

Will have a close eye on: Ryan Kesler (C ANA) — Kesler is one of the best two-way players in the NHL, a statement best exemplified by his winning the Selke Trophy in 2011, but sometimes he can go overboard with his physical play. Case in point: Kesler was ejected in a pre-tournament World Cup win against Canada on Sept. 9 for boarding Montreal’s Shea Weber. Will Team USA be able to control their emotions when the games count?

Might underperform: Jack Johnson (D CLM) — While he’s adept at moving the puck for scores, Johnson is an awful defender, having posted a minus-126 rating over a decade’s worth of NHL service time split between the Kings and Blue Jackets. Still, it’s no surprise that he was added to the World Cup roster given that he’s appeared in 74 games internationally between the junior and senior ranks.

Might surprise: James van Riemsdyk  (LW TOR)– JVR was limited to 40 games for the Leafs last season due to a non-displaced fracture in his left foot, but he’s healthy and ready to make up for lost time at Air Canada Centre, his home rink in Toronto. A skilled sniper with slick hands, fantasy owners are drooling over the possibility of JVR playing alongside No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews in the upcoming NHL campaign.

Related content: RotoWire’s Paul Bruno & AJ Scholz break down the NHL’s Atlantic Division and World Cup on the latest hockey podcast.

Group B

Team Finland

Will have a close eye on: Joonas Donskoi (RW SJ) — Donskoi has made tremendous strides since the Sharks used a fourth-round pick on him in the 2010 draft. Last season, as a rookie, he played on a scoring line with Logan Couture and made quite the impression with 36 points in 76 regular-season games in addition to 12 markers in the playoffs.

Might underperform: Any defender — Finland’s blue line is largely comprised of inexperienced defenders (Ville Pokka, Olli Maatta) and Jyrki Jokipakka is one of the few shutdown options.

Might surprise: Patrick Laine (RW WPG) — Laine looked sluggish in Finland’s pre-tournament contest against Sweden, having gone 15 minutes without so much as a single shot on goal. Still, there’s a reason why the confident sniper was named World Championship MVP at the age of 18 and was taken second overall (to the Jets) in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Give him time.

Team North America

Will have a close eye on: — Connor McDavid (C EDM) Who else? The 19-year-old phenom has been appointed captain of the 23-and-under World Cup team, and hockey fans abound are itching to see more of him after he averaged more than a point per game for Edmonton in an injury-shortened rookie season. Remember, McDavid was granted Exceptional Player status by Hockey Canada — only the third player in history to earn that distinction — allowing him to enter the OHL at the age of 15. You know you’re special when you’re being mentioned in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky.

Might underperform: John Gibson (G ANA) — The sentiment is less that Gibson will struggle than it is being concerned about the possibility of a light workload. A clear No. 1 backstop for the Ducks, Gibson watched Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray work a shutout in the first exhibition contest against Team Europe, and unselfishly told reporters that Murray “definitely deserves” to be the starting goalie for Team North America in the World Cup.

Might surprise: Dylan Larkin (C DET) — Larkin was a healthy scratch for North America’s pre-tournament win over Team Europe on Sept. 8, but the fleet-footed Red Wing lit the lamp twice against them in the next contest. No team will be able to match the blazing speed and energy from North America and Larkin should be the X-factor.

Team Russia

Will have a close eye on: Nikita Zaitsev (D TOR) — There will be immense pressure on Zaitsev to make an impression for Team Russia as he’s playing in Air Canada Centre, where he’ll suit up as a Maple Leaf for his first NHL season. While he projects to be a top-four defenseman with a deadly shot, the Russian could run into trouble in the tournament in the likely event that he’s asked to do too much.

Might underperform: Sergei Bobrovsky (G CLM) — It’s been six years since Bob’s been involved in an international tournament, and he’s looked like a shell of the goalie that claimed the Vezina Trophy in 2013, with his save percentage shrinking in three straight seasons as a member of the Blue Jackets. To be fair, chronic groin injuries have gotten in the way.

Might surprise: Dmitry Orlov (D WAS) — Orlov is a true scoring threat from the blue line who will benefit from playing with Capitals teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.

Team Sweden

Will have a close eye on: Erik Karlsson (D OTT)–  According to an English to Swedish translator: Han är duktig means “Damn, this kid’s good.” The Senators have just one player participating in World Cup of Hockey action and it’s none other than Karlsson, arguably the best defenseman in the NHL. Sweden’s blue line is stacked to the max with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman  and Mattias Ekholm, among others, in the fold. Karlsson averaged a point per game in a full season with Ottawa last season and it will be interesting to see just how much he separates himself from his similarly talented defensive partners for Sweden.

Might underperform: Marcus Kruger (C CHI) — Team Sweden is packed with two-way, possession players but despite entering the NHL in 2009 with promise as a reliable defensive forward, Kruger has skated to a minus-5 rating with the Blackhawks in each of the last two seasons. If Sweden is to go far in the tournament, they must get consistent production from forwards like Kruger.

Might surprise: Patrik Berglund (C STL) — Berglund will take the spot of Rickard Rakell, who has withdrawn from the tournament due to a stomach virus. While the hulky center recorded just 15 points in 42 games for the Blues in an injury-plagued regular season of 2015-16, he finished the last campaign in impressive fashion, having secured four goals, five assists and a plus-4 rating while averaging less than 15 minutes per contest over 20 playoff games. It feels like this guy has been in the NHL forever, but he’s just 28 and may be an sneaky threat on special teams for a banged-up Sweden team.