By Mark Spector – Sportsnet
For those who say that the Under-23 Team North America is just a World Cup of Hockey gimmick, we would ask you this:
Would you rather watch Team Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia or Latvia try to steal a win from the world powers of hockey? Because those countries make up the next group whose national teams are being replaced by Team North America and Team Europe in this tournament.
Led by Connor McDavid, this team will be as fast as any in the World Cup, and will be the dark horse in their pool, hoping to knock off two of Russia, Sweden and Finland in order to advance.
With the World Cup around the corner, here’s a look at Team North America.
Training camp site:
Montreal (Bell Centre): Sept. 5-7
Quebec City (Videotron Centre): Sept. 8-10
Montreal (Bell Centre): Sept. 11
Pittsburgh (CONSOL Energy Center): Sept 12-14
• The biggest story for Team North America actually happened this past spring, as Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray established himself as a Stanley Cup winner during the Penguins’ Cup run.
Remember, shortly after the U-23 concept was raised co-GMs Stan Bowman and Peter Chiarelli petitioned tournament organizers for an age exemption in goal, where they feared they wouldn’t have a candidate that would allow them to compete against the best players in the world.
Now, with Murray having stolen Marc-Andre Fleury’s job while becoming a Conn Smythe candidate, and Anaheim’s John Gibson (.920, 2.07 GAA) having taken over the No. 1 job in Anaheim, the kids might just have enough goaltending to make a run.
• At the time of this writing, neither Winnipeg defenceman Jacob Trouba nor Calgary winger Johnny Gaudreau have signed contracts with their clubs. Both are restricted free agents expected to sign soon, and each will be provided with insurance (by the NHLPA and NHL) should they remain unsigned when the tournament begins.
Both have committed to play in the tournament, but the contract situation will be a distraction for both — especially considering that short window between the end of this tournament (possibly Oct. 1) and the NHL regular season opener on Oct. 12.
• As it turns out, Auston Matthews’ first game at the Air Canada Centre won’t be in a blue and white uniform after all. The Toronto Maple Leafs No. 1 overall draft pick debuts in the black, grey and neon orange of Team North America, which might just provide a convenient break-in period for the pressure he’ll be feeling once the NHL season starts for real in Toronto.
“I think it’s great for Auston,” said Leafs and Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock on a Team Canada conference call. “I don’t know what his role is going to be, but he’s going to learn from this tournament and he’s going to get better every time out.”
• Perhaps the most intriguing part of this concept will be to see Matthews, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel potentially on the same powerplay. Particularly Eichel and McDavid, who spent their rookie seasons being compared to one another.
“I’m definitely excited to play with him and get to experience to be on the ice with him on the same team as opposed to playing against him,” McDavid told the Toronto Sun in August. “I think we’ve always been tagged as kind of rivals and all that but I definitely don’t see that or think that.
“It will be cool to play with him.”
Team captain: TBD
Assistant captains: TBD
• Co-GMs: Stan Bowman and Peter Chiarelli
• Head coach: Todd McLellan
• Assistant coaches: Jon Cooper, Dave Tippett, Gerard Gallant, Jay Woodcroft
Sean Couturier sprained his shoulder on a hit by Alex Ovechkin in Philadelphia’s playoff opener and did not return in Round 1. He’s ready to go now, as is teammate Shayne Gostisbehere, who had hip and abdominal surgeries in May.
McDavid returned last season from his broken collarbone and is fine as well.
Key storylines entering camp:
1. The defence
Can a defence comprised wholly of 23-and-under players allow this group to compete against the best players in the world? Put it this way: Of the seven players named to the team — Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, Colton Parayko, Morgan Rielly, Gostisbehere and Trouba — how many would vie for a spot on their national team if this team North America didn’t exist?
With Murray having emerged in goal, the question becomes if this defence can weather the storm against pressure from the best veteran players on the globe.
2. Matt Murray
What if Murray was a “one spring wonder?”
What if, like Antti Niemi’s wonderful run with the Blackhawks in 2010, Murray can’t follow up with a sustainable level of play the following season? That would leave Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck to tend the North American twine, but in a short tournament, by the time you figure out your No. 1 isn’t good enough, it might be too late to recover.
3. The competition
Team North America finds itself in a bracket with Russia, Finland and Sweden, and only two teams emerge to face the top two clubs from the opposite bracket (Canada, USA, Czechs and Team Europe) in the two semi-final games.
Can this group pull off two victories to get through to the semis? They’ll have to use every ounce of their speed and youthful exuberance to make that happen.
Exhibition/preliminary round schedule:
**Sept. 8: Team Europe vs. Team North America, Videotron Centre, 8 p.m.
**Sept. 11: Team Europe vs. Team North America, Bell Centre, 6 p.m.
**Sept. 14: Team Czech Republic vs. Team North America, CONSOL Energy Center, 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 18: Team North America vs. Finland, 8 p.m.
Sept. 19: Team Russia vs. Team North America, 8 p.m.
Sept. 21: Team North America vs. Team Sweden, 3 p.m.