You can tell that the hockey-loving public — especially the crew in Canada — is itching for some puck when practices make the lead in the sports highlight reels.
Camps for all eight participants in the new-and-improved World Cup of Hockey opened this weekend and the major networks sent correspondents to far-flung places like Helsinki to cover them. Reports were also filed from favorite Team Canada’s camp, as well as those of the U.S. team, Sweden, and Team North America.
Much oxygen was expended giving us the low-down on who’s in, who’s out and who’s trending at the first team workouts in advance of this week’s exhibition matches. The tournament, which will see teams in two groups (boringly named ‘A’ and ‘B’) play a round robin format, starts on Sat., Sept. 17.
Since this tourney is much like the Olympics, many stars — and future stars — will be on display. We earmarked two from each team to pay special attention to — and it was difficult paring things down.
16. Sebastian Aho – Finland
The future of Finnish hockey is in very, very good hands. A couple of those mitts belong to world junior sensation Sebastian Aho. The teenage star-in-the-making, selected 35th overall by Carolina in 2015, led his Finnish pro league team Karpat in scoring this past season. He scored 20 goals and 25 assists in 45 games and another 15 points in 14 playoff games as Karpat won the league title. At the international level, the Rauma native was equally superb, scoring seven points in 10 games as the Finns won silver at the IIHF world championships and an incredible 14 points in seven games for the gold medal winning Finnish junior team. The ‘Canes signed him in June, with the expectation he plays in the NHL this season.
15. Patrik Laine – Finland
Group B at the WCH could be considered the “Group of Death.” It includes Finland, Russia, Sweden and Team North America. If anything, speed and skill will be the order of the day. Giving Finland a fighting chance will be it’s most popular player right now, Patrik Laine. One of the best pure shooters out of Finland since Teemu Selanne, Laine set the world juniors on fire, scoring seven goals and adding six assists in seven games for the champion Finns. He followed it up with a 12-point (seven goals) performance at the IIHF worlds this past spring, helping Finland to silver. He capped his superlative year by being selected second overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2016 draft. Teams will have to pay special attention to this kid.
14. Vadim Shipachyov – Russia
Could he be the next Artemi Panarin? Shipachyov, a talented 28-year-old centerman led St. Petersburg SKA in scoring with 60 points (17 goals) in 54 games, and was fourth overall in league scoring. He beat superstar teammate Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 49 points in 50 games for St. Petersburg. He won’t get the chance, however, to skate with Kovalchuk on Team Russia, as Kovalchuk was left off. A rumor earlier this year said the Florida Panthers were interested in the undrafted yet exceptionally talented forward, however, he has chosen to remain in the KHL instead of taking a one-year deal. He’s one of those unknown guys we think might make a big difference, as other teams focus on keeping Ovechkin, Kucherov, Kulemin and Tarasenko in check.
13. Nikita Zaitsev – CSKA Moscow
The World Cup of Hockey “Group of Death” will be hell on NHL caliber defenceman. None more so maybe than newly minted Toronto Maple Leaf Nikita Zaitsev. Never drafted, the 24-year-old former CSKA Moscow star defender will have his feet held to the fire in Toronto going up against the speed of forwards from Sweden, Finland and the U-23 young guns of Team North America. Zaitsev has had plenty of exposure to international competition, as well as elite level forwards in the KHL, so he should be able to adjust. He was on Russia’s U18 and U20 hockey clubs (including the gold medal winning team in Buffalo in 2011) and the entry at the world championships this spring. In what was likely his last season in the KHL in 2015-16, Zaitsev scored 26 points and was +21 in 46 regular season games. He added four goals and nine assists in 20 games for league finalist CSKA.
12. Victor Hedman – Sweden
The Swedish defence is said to be the class of the tournament, on paper at least. The core includes stars Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Victor Hedman. We believe that the glue that will hold this group together is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Hedman. He plays big minutes, is outstanding defensively (+21 last season), can score when counted on (47 points during regular season, 14 points in 17 playoff games) and is a leader on and off the ice. Entering his eighth season, the giant (6’6″) native of Ornskoldsvik has really come into his own the past three seasons and was rewarded with an eight-year contract extension worth $7.875 million per season.
11. Henrik Lundqvist – Sweden
Team Sweden may boast arguably the best defensive corps in the tournament, but they’ll be dead in the water if Henrik Lundqvist lays an egg at crunch time. Hank had a miserable playoffs with the Rangers this past spring, however, he should be more than capable of backstopping Sweden to wins at the WCH if his defence plays as it is capable of. A reported injury, courtesy of a puck to the ribs during a practice last week, won’t keep the veteran New York Rangers’ netminder from donning the Tre Kronor. As we see it, if the former gold medal winning goalie at the 2006 Olympics can’t go, the Swedes won’t get the same mileage out of Jhonas Enroth or Jacob Markstrom. As Hank goes, so go the Swedes.
10. Auston Matthews – North America
The kids are all right. If you don’t believe us, just wait for Team North America’s games in the “Group of Death.” A hybrid U-23 team comprised of Canadians and Americans, this fresh-faced bunch will kill unprepared teams with speed and skill. Just think about the impact young NHLers Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Mark Scheifele, Shayne Gostisbehere and Matt Murray have already had. Then add this year’s no. 1 pick (Toronto Maple Leafs), Arizona native Auston Matthews. The teen sensation passed on college hockey and junior to turn pro with Marc Crawford’s team in Zurich, scoring 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games in the Swiss loop. The kid will be under heavy scrutiny in Toronto, playing in a world class tournament in front of scores of Leafs’ fans. Will he handle the pressure? We think he can.
9. Matt Murray – North America
He hasn’t played a full season in the NHL yet, is still eligible for the Calder Trophy this coming season and already Matt Murray has won a Stanley Cup. And, he could win a World Cup before his first real season of action. Crazy. The Thunder Bay native set the hockey world on its ear by usurping starting goalie honors from Marc-Andre Fleury and then leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first title since 2009. Murray saw action in 13 games with the Pens in the regular season, going 9-2 with a .930 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average. The former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound was even better in the Penguins run to lifting Lord Stanley’s mug, getting into 21 games, winning 15 and posting a goals against average of 2.08 and save percentage of .923.
8. David Pastrnak – Czech Republic
It’s been a long, long time since the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. That was the last time a big-time team from the Czech Republic won anything of consequence, that being a gold medal (they did win Bronze at Turin, but who’s counting?). For the World Cup of Hockey, the Czechs go in as heavy underdogs in Group ‘A’ which includes Canada, the U.S. and Team Europe. This is a team in a state of flux, with no household names on it like Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek, or in the case of this squad, David Krejci. This team will feature a mish mash of NHLers and KHLers, the focus on changing the guard. David Pastrnak, Boston’s first round pick in 2014 (25th overall), is one of the newer faces and will be relied upon to score. He already has 53 points in 97 NHL games and is a veteran of many international tournaments from U-16 on up. Just watch him go.
7. Michal Kempny – Czech Republic
The Chicago Blackhawks are masters at mining talent in Europe and Russia. Last year, the Hawks brought previously undrafted Artemi Panarin to the Windy City from the KHL and the rookie surpassed their expectations, scoring 30 goals and 77 points on the way to a Calder Trophy. Kempny, who will be 26 on Sept. 8, is an undrafted left-shooting defenceman who has bided his time in the Czech league (six seasons) and with Omsk Avangard in the KHL last season. He impressed enough to be included on the Czech roster for the IIHF Worlds this past spring. Kempny had 21 points in 59 KHL games, including a +18 rating. He added two goals and two assists in 11 playoff games. He was signed by the Blackhawks to a one-year deal after the worlds, where he scored two points in eight games.
6. Anze Kopitar – Team Europe
Team Europe is the United Nations of World Cup of Hockey teams. It features players from France, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway. Speaking of tiny Slovenia, the best and most recognizable player on the team hails from there. Anze Kopitar, the biggest the thing to come out of Slovenia since the Lipizzan Stallion, has been a major part of two Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup winning teams and is a superstar in the NHL. Drafted 11th overall by the Kings in 2005, Kopitar cut his teeth on pro hockey with Sodertalje of the Swedish Eliteserien, then immediately paid dividends to the Kings from the 2006-07 season on. Kopitar has scored 243 goals and 441 assists in 764 NHL games, along with 20 goals and 44 assists in 75 playoff contests.
5. Zdeno Chara – Team Europe
Even though he’s 39 and showing his age, Chara will be counted on by Team Europe brass to defend against the best that the U.S., Czech Republic and Canada can throw at him. This is no doubt the best international outfit Chara has had the pleasure to play on, as his native Slovakia rarely does all that well internationally, especially in the previous incarnations of the World Cup (7th in 1996, 8th in 2004). Chara will anchor an international stew of defencemen which includes guys like Roman Josi (Switzerland; Nashville Predators), former Boston teammate Dennis Seidenberg (Germany) and Mark Streit (Switzerland; Philadelphia Flyers). The Euro squad is definitely in tough and Chara will be counted on to weather the storms coming at his team.
4. John Carlson – Team USA
In an area the Americans could be decidedly thin, Washington Capitals’ rearguard John Carlson has a chance to shine. The Yanks have stalwarts like Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Suter on the backend, helped ably (we think) by Ryan McDonagh an Matt Niskanen. However, veterans Erik and Jack Johnson have not been consistent over the past few seasons. Which brings us to Carlson, who has expanded his role with a very good (but not great) Capitals team. The Natick, MA born Carlson has improved year over year, and if not for missing 26 games due to injury in 2015-16 may have matched the career high in points (55) he put up in 2014-15. He improved on both sides of the puck, such that the minus ratings of a few years ago have been turned into +11 in 14-15 and +16 this past season. He’ also proven big time in the playoffs, scoring 12 points in 12 playoff games this spring.
3. Patrick Kane – Team USA
This time last year, Patrick Kane was busy answering questions from law enforcement and being pilloried on social media about sexual assault allegations. The gong show that followed the accusations tainted his early 2015-16 season, so it’s realistic to think this off-season has been nice and quiet. Which also means that Kane should have laser-like focus for hockey. John Tortorella, a task-master if there ever was one, has already gone on record as saying he’s going to stay out of Kane’s kitchen so that he can be as creative as he wants to be on the ice. The U.S. will need every trick in his bag, too. They are a fairly skilled lot, but not near the level the Canadians will bring. Kane’s expertise with the puck will have to be top notch if the Americans want to advance. Kane did win a scoring title last season (106 points) and a Hart Trophy as MVP, despite all the hullabaloo. Look out, Canada.
2. Carey Price – Team Canada
The big question on everyone’s mind, from Victoria, B.C. to St. John’s, NFLD and all points in between is: Will Carey Price be able to shoulder Canada’s goaltending load at the World Cup of Hockey. The Montreal Canadiens’ all-world netminder is coming off a lengthy layoff (almost 10 months) and is expected to be no. 1 for the Canucks. Before he was injured early in the 2015-16 season, he was putting up the Vezina-Hart like numbers he did in 2014-15. Price had 10 wins and two losses in 12 games for the humming Habs, along with a 2.06 goals against average and .934 save percentage. The Habs, as all hockey fans know, went in the toilet when Price went down. On the international stage, Price has been stellar as well. In his only Olympic experience, he went 5-0 in Sochi, with two shutouts, a tiny 0.59 goals against average and incredible .972 save percentage. A healthy Price spells trouble for Group ‘A’ shooters.
1. Steven Stamkos – Team Canada
Canada is so deep up front, they could have a ‘B’ team of 12-13 guys who could beat a few teams in this tournament. As such, this is an all-star line-up that has names like Crosby, Toews, Getzlaf, Giroux, Bergeron, Seguin and Thornton. All eyes, though, will be on Stamkos, who missed his chance at gold in Sochi with a broken leg and a considerable chunk of the past season due to blood clots. Now confirmed healthy, Stamkos is champing at the bit to display his considerable scoring talents against the best in the world. He’s also newly signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning, finally putting to rest all the supposed ugliness of his free agency period. Team Canada brass is no doubt hoping Stamkos vision and shot will work well on the powerplay.