(photo source: Twitter)

Some may not want to admit it, but the top team (in terms of interest) at the World Cup of Hockey is Team North America. Armed with a bunch of kids who only recently were playing video games until 2am in someone’s basement on New Year’s Eve, these young hockey players are fast and furious. Here are five things (plus a little more) we can all look forward to from the young guns.

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The tournament kicks off later this week:

  • Wednesday, September 14—Team Czech Republic vs. Team North America – CONSOL Energy Center; Pittsburgh. 3:30 p.m. ET – ESPN3, SN, SN1, TVA Sports.
  • Sunday, September 18—Team North America vs. Team Finland, 8 p.m., ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports.
  • Monday, September 19—Team Russia vs. Team North America, 8 p.m., ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports.
  • Wednesday, September 21—Team North America vs. Team Sweden, 3 p.m., ESPN, SN, TVA Sports.
  • Playoffs begin Saturday, September 24.
  • Source

1. How fast are they?

We know Connor McDavid is a bullet, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to have an extra step this summer. And those are just the Oilers! Johnny Gaudreau is fast as lightning and can stick-handle in a phone booth.

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Team North America has ridiculous quality and depth up front, to the point where a player like Nathan MacKinnon might have been overlooked—until the games began, leading up to the tournament. The Colorado Avalanche forwards has been a revelation on this roster, combining power, speed and skill to impact seemingly every shift.

Jonathan Drouin is still an emerging player but he adds to the track meet up front and young Auston Matthews is fast, quick and aggressive in all zones. In fact, you would be hard pressed to name a slow forward among these North American kids. Mark Scheifele’s early scouting reports listed it as an average tool, but he has long since left that criticism behind and emerged as a complete player.

I believe there is a real chance we look back on this forward group four years from now and talk about its awesome impact on the game. Honestly, there isn’t a weak link here, and they lack only the experience that will come in flying sorties during NHL games this winter. It is an awesome group.

2. We want 10!

As I watch this ridiculous group of talent skate circles around Team Europe (perhaps they should call them Team Old Europe), it occurred to me that scoring 10 goals in a game is possible.

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  • Connor McDavid: “We were up 5-1 after the first period and we lost some of our
    focus. We tried to make that one extra
    pass and we turned it over.”

Team NA scored four and then seven goals in the first two games against Europe, and as Mr. McDavid says it did appear that the team lost the script and began soloing. That allowed the veteran European team back in the game—suggesting at least a chance we could see a high-scoring game at both ends of the ice.

I am struck by the fact that many younger fans who didn’t get to see the 1980s offense may see this North America team as something new and exciting. As an older fan, it feels like 1985 all over again, and is a refreshing reminder about the game we left behind when the goalie equipment increased in size and the coaching became so concise.

Enjoy it, ladies and men. Once NHL camps retrieve these young men, it will return to hard nose the highway hockey across the continent.

3. Will they have to play Team USA?

Team North America’s style can best be described as ‘catch us if you can’ and clearly the answer from Europe is in (or at least was in during the pre-tournament). Team USA, who are in the other pool, appear to have adopted the mantra ‘no one gets out of here alive’ and that could impact the younger set.

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Intimidation is part of the game, but the observer can watch a confrontation between two veterans—say, Shea Weber and Ryan Kesler—and view it as somewhat even. However, a player like Auston Matthews—listed at 6.02, 196—has no NHL experience and could be susceptible to the ‘Torts aggressive’ style of Team USA.

We can talk about hockey players not being intimidated, but that kind of style can put a team—even a veteran one, like Team Canada—off its game and create long periods of ineffective play. If the Americans choose to play the game at the edge and beyond, the speed demon North America team may not have an answer.

One area the club could make Team USA pay? The power play. If the Americans end up in trouble due to an ineffective opposition power play, that can change the game plan in a heartbeat.

4. Can Ekblad play 50 minutes?

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In watching the early action in the lead-up to the tournament, I was struck by how mature Aaron Ekblad looked in the games. A bigger man who is mobile and owns a complete (if not fully developed) skill set, I think Jason Gregor put it very well in a recent article:

  • Gregor: The more I watch Aaron Ekblad the more I believe he will be the best
    D-man in the NHL in a few years. He is so smooth. He has an excellent
    shot and he’s physical when he needs to be. He doesn’t turn 21 until
    February. He’s becoming one of my new favourite players to watch. He
    will make Florida competitive for many years.

Team North America has some outstanding young talent on defense, but all are works in progress or not yet established at last year’s levels:

  • Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
  • Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers
  • Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
  • Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets
  • Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues
  • Morgan Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets

These are terrific talents who are not yet the sum of their parts. I think coach Todd McLellan is going to rely heavily on Ekblad (and possibly Ryan Murray) in the days to come. Colton Parayko also caught my eye during the pre-tournament.

5. How High Can They Fly?

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I confess: When this entire project started, I pointed at Team North America as being an obvious weak link. Lack of man strength, inexperience, lack of defensive and goalie depth, I had my arguments all in a row.

As we get closer to the event, I find this team the most interesting and have started to believe they could surprise. Consider Scott Cullen of TSN on the subject:

  • Ranked No. 3: It may very well be aggressive to place the Under-23 squad this high in
    the rankings, but the talent is here and they have elite skill players. The notion that these
    kids aren’t going to be able to compete against the best may run into
    problems when these brilliant young players pick up the pace.

I see it in a similar way, although it took me forever to come around to this line of thinking. When we talk about this team of youngsters, the first reaction is to say wait until a bigger, more mature team gets them one-on-one in a physical battle. The counter to that is they are going to have to catch them first, and that may be the greatest challenge of the entire tournament.

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    • The Soup Fascist

      100% correct.

      Jenny Hockey is the “KING of pre-overhyped tournament exhibition games against a mish mash of players from traditional non-hockey playing countries”.

      If that isn’t worth $8 million a year ……

      • Rock11

        No it wont be. Gaudreau is a nice LITTLE player but he will the equivalent of Hawerchuck to Mcdavids Gretzky. They will end up in entirely different tiers of NHL player.

        As an aside on Gaudreau signing. I expect that the dramatic home/road splits are very concerning to flames mgmnt. When sheltered and given prime matchups he produces but when the opposition coach is in control his numbers are closer to 3L than superstar. $8m for long term for a player with that resume seems like a recipe to get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs every year.

        • MontanaMan

          Well, the “little” player had 78 points last year, which would have been far and away the top point producer over the historical #1 “big” Oiler picks including 13 points more than Hall; 17 points more than Draisaitl; 30 points more than McDavid (shortened season); 31 points more than Eberle; 43 points more than RNH and a whopping 55 points more than Yak. So when we’re talking about “bigger” men that generally have been in the league much longer than Gaudreau, the comparison is pretty obvious. I don’t think Flames management is too concerned.

          • Arminius

            Read a good article on hockey writers .com about Johnny being doubted every step of the way. Would make for good Coilers reading material as they doubt him every day.
            Ushl championship.
            Ncaa championship
            World Junior gold medal
            Mvps at every level to go with a hobey baker.
            2nd nhl season ppg player. 24 goals as a rook, 30 as a soph..sophomore jinx be DAMNED And 2 all star games.
            Keep doubting him…

  • jakethesnail

    Yowsers! Coach NA (also known as head coach of the oilers) is juggling lines so he can get McDavid on the scoreboard. Doesn’t want to see his star held pointless heading into the season!

  • BobbyCanuck

    Fist of all, I am stoked by baby Nuge’s play, looks like he is getting ready for a career season!

    Today’s game against Team Czech Republic, will be the best yet test for this team, they let Euro back into the game last time, will be interesting to see how they do against a team that plays a little bit more physical

    My game checkbox would indicate that the Czechs will have to check a lot if they hope for a checkmark in the win column. Sorry

    • 24% body fat

      if you are going to do FIST, this is the way to do it.

      Not just posting the word, or a stupid one line pun(though this post has quite a few).

      Make a meaningful comment that the nation is behind and you will not get trashed for the fist. Take the risk someone might post before you.

    • Hockeyfan

      Nugget played 12+ min today. Where that impressive play? nugget = 6 million dollar muffin. JG, on the other hand, continues to lead team NA by more skill than both 6 mil muffins combined. Too bad the Moneyman aint cenetr for JG, then real skill would be on display, eh Mcminus and the muffins. Sounds like a girl band.

    • Arminius

      Surprising we don’t have any report of who’s got points through the prelims as there was mention of all the goals scored by the team so far. Oh but it’s written from ON so that explains it.

      Gaudreau 3 goals 1 assist –
      McPassenger Nothing

      In case anyone is wondering

      • #97Train/McDavidCopperfield

        Outside of Calgary nobody cares that Gaudreau has 4 points in two exhibition games. When it comes to crunch time McDavid will be there leading the charge. When they talk about speed or defense or a 200 foot game McDavid is always mentioned and will be a complete player in this league. The same is never mentioned of Gaudreau .

        • Burnward

          McDavid: the “next one” since he was 10.

          Gaudreau: 4th round!!!

          That Johnny is even in one promo on Sportsnet ahead of McDavid is crazy. Shouldn’t even be in the same discussion. But yet, here we are.


    • jakethesnail

      …yeah in the real tournament! Finland,Russia, Sweden – no ordinary pushovers like Team Europe…
      the pop Team NA had against Team Europe could fizzle fast

  • Johnny Gaudereau has been doing a great job backchecking, great job rushing and attacking, and is being effective every time he’s out there. Personally I think he’s been one of the best NA players out there. Perhaps one of the more effective players this entire tournament.

    Yet at the same time, one of the dumbest players on the team, and in the tourny.

    If he signs for less than $9.5 million, he’s a boneheaded clown.

  • Parallex

    They’ll be fun to watch… but ultimately unsuccessful. They’re not gonna beat Canada, the Swedes, or the U.S. and if you can’t beat those three then you can’t win.

    That being said they’re the only team I’m interested in watching. The whole tournament is a joke but it’ll probably be the only time we’ll ever get to see Gaudreau and McDavid play together in a game where the intensity level will be vaguely decent.

  • madjam

    Europe shadowed McDavid in second game as all clubs must do to cut down on the damage he can create . Anyone playing with him gets additional space and better scoring chances playing with him as focus is on Conner . Even Maroon found that out , as well as Yak . He is the real deal , and a cut above the rest . Should be interesting this afternoon how much special attention the Czechs pay to Conner . With so much emphasis on Conner , rest of NA team can/should flourish . The game I’d like to see is the physical play of USA against the younger NA team , and see how well they can handle it . If they can handle it well , then they are in good shape to win the tourney .

    Tourney style gives less physical clubs a better chance to win than a seven game series does .

    • Arminius

      So that’s the built in excuse for Conners poor numbers is it? Because he’s so good it’s his linemates that score any points at all? Wow interesting that’s a new one. Especially for a generational player.

      Wasn’t it you Train that said Johnny would never be out with Conner because he can’t skate and they want players with speed to play with him?

      Lol..good one. He looked fine to me. You?

  • dabears318

    that picture with chiarelli and mclellan flanking captain connor brought chills down my spine

    edit: originally had mactavish instead of mclellan… would have been a different kind of chill…

  • MontanaMan

    The unfortunate part for me is the focus on McDavid, Gaudreau and a few others. This team has depth and I’ve been impressed with many others including Murray, Ekblad, MacKinnon and many more. We’ll be watching these kids for years.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      Matthews has had so much attention, but he isn’t even in the top 5 there. MacKinnon has been great. Ekblad is killing it. Larkin is great. Have not really been impressed with Drouin, but that is just me. Scheifele was one of the better ones in game 1 and no real complaints in game 2. I liked Paryanko for his defensive ability.

      It’s nice to preview a #1 pick and talk about how he is going to be a lifesaver for the Leafs, but he isn’t the story.

    • piscera.infada

      Yeah, Ekblad is an absolute stud–and I say that fully acknowledging that I thought he was over-hyped in draft year (I will hang my head in shame for it…).

      I’ve been very impressed with how poised Seth Jones has looked as well.

      That one thing I will say though, is that among the defensemen, Morgan Rielly appears out of his element. I don’t really like his game anyway, but he’s going to be exposed hard by some of the better teams.

    • FISTO Siltanen

      I can believe he’s an ass. I really can’t imagine him as anything but an ass. There is nothing that can’t happen in this world that Torts won’t make about him.

      He’s the weak link for the Americans

  • OilCan2

    Speaking about getting checked out of the game I think team NA knows how to deal with cheap shots. Everyone of those guys was a target for physical and dirty tactics for their entire junior careers. Look for them to dish what they get served against USA.

  • Getrdone

    you mention the aggressive play of the Americans put the Canadian team off their game, I thought the Canadian team answered in spades in the second game. Team North America may be intimidated by heavy hitting, but you have to catch them before you can hit them and these young guns not only seem to be elite fast but also very elusive.

  • Stan Smith

    While I am excited to watch this tournament, and especially this team I am not sure about the wisdom of the timing and the concept. You mention the Americans are probably going to play them rough. I expect team Canada to do the same. What happens if one of the young guys, gets hurt, possibly badly?