John Gibson (Photo by Brad Watson/NHLI via Getty Images)
The idea of an Under-23 North American squad is fun and the roster will have plenty of star power, but the lack of a standout netminder could keep the youthful team from being a true challenger for the World Cup crown in 2016.
Steven Stamkos asked the question everyone was thinking when it comes to the World Cup. “Whose anthem do they play if they win the tournament?” Stamkos asked, referring to Team Europe. It’s pretty slim pickings to be sure – perhaps A Song for Europe by Roxy Music for Team Europe and Young Turks by Rod Stewart Team North America.
There’s a pretty good chance we’ll never find out because both Team Europe and Team North America stand almost no chance of winning the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, informally known by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association as Cashapalooza. But that doesn’t mean both teams won’t strike some fear in their opponents, if for no other reason than the expectations on them will make them the two least burdened teams in the tournament.
And if it weren’t for that nagging goaltending issue, it would make them both potentially scary. Both Team Europe and Team North America are playing with house money and they’ll just be happy to be there, unless of course you’re Connor McDavid and you’re cheesed off that you didn’t have a chance to play for your national team simply because of the date on your birth certificate.
There’s no doubt both rosters will be entertaining and intriguing, but I’m not sure I agree with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that the under-23 North American team would be better than a national team from Switzerland or Slovakia. There is an impressive pool of talent to be had from the European countries that are not Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic and just as much from the under-23 team. In fact, the under-23 team, reckons GM Peter Chiarelli, will likely not have room for Auston Matthews, who will be plying his trade in Switzerland this season and is expected to be the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft. “He’s eligible,” Chiarelli said of Matthews, “but he’s unlikely.”
Team Europe will be an interesting mishmash of players that will come into the tournament as a rag-tag mongrel, but could have the potential to do some damage. “I think it’s a great position to be in to not have any expectations,” said Team Europe GM Miroslav Satan. “Some of the guys from Europe might be disappointed they didn’t get their own team so now we have to play together. It’s going to be a lot of countries and our issue will be how quickly we make a team and have an identity.”
The team will be coached by Ralph Krueger, an excellent choice given his experience in both the NHL and in the European game. Satan lives on Long Island these days so he’ll be able to keep tabs on NHL players more easily and has a pool of about 40 NHL players from whom to choose. Not a bad place to start.
And where Team Europe will have a huge advantage on Team North America is in goaltending. Satan will have a group to choose from that consists of Fredrik Andersen, Jaroslav Halak, Jonas Hiller, Thomas Greiss and Reto Berra. The North American team, by contrast, will have John Gibson and a bunch of other guys who have played fewer than a handful of NHL games. Depending upon where Gibson ends up on the Anaheim Ducks depth chart this season, Team North America could enter the World Cup without a single legitimate NHL goalie within its ranks. (This is not a slight on Gibson. Expecting a 23-year-old with limited experience to excel in that kind of environment against the best players in the world is asking too much.)
So if the organizers are going to play fast and loose with the rules of international hockey, does it not make sense for them to give Team North America the opportunity to at least compete in this tournament? Conditioning, skill and NHL readiness will not be a problem for Team North America, but goaltending will. In fact, if there’s a team that needs superior goaltending in this tournament more than any other, it’s Team North America. And the team that needs goaltending the most will be the one with the shallowest pool of talent.
Organizers considered allowing Team North America a couple of roster spots for players older than 23 or a wildcard goaltending selection, but ultimately decided against it. It’s not too late to reconsider if they want to give Team North America a fighting chance of being competitive. They have a built-in captain in two-time Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad, but what this team will need most is a goaltender who can calm things down.
“If you look at our mock roster, everyone can skate,” Chiarelli said. “We’re going to have a really fast team. We may have a certain edge in games because the guys are younger and have younger legs.”