Team North America.
It seems inevitable that North America's fast-skating, high-scoring offensive game will have to give way to a plodding defensive game if it's serious about winning.
Team North America has quickly become everyone’s favorite team in the World Cup of Hockey. It is certainly the fastest and most intriguing of the eight. And the one with the most earning potential.
It’s hard not to look at what you see and be impressed. The under-24s will be able to skate circles around everyone in the tournament and the best thing about this team is that it seems unwilling to show up for this event to simply pick up a Participant Badge. These kids really think they can win this thing and it would be wonderful to see them do just that.
They might. But then again, it might turn out to be like the semifinal of the 200-metre race at the Rio Olympics. You’ll remember that in the dying seconds of that race, Canadian upstart Andre DeGrasse pushed the pace and very nearly caught and passed the legendary Usain Bolt. The fastest man on the planet responded by giving DeGrasse a finger wag at the finish line. It was almost as though Bolt was saying, “Have your fun, kid. But there’s no way you’re beating me here. Then in the final, Bolt easily won by a 0.24 second margin over DeGrasse.
You wonder if that might not happen with Team North America once the puck drops for realsies in Toronto on the weekend. The juniors will receive a much more stern test, one would think, when they face the Czechs in their final tune-up game Wednesday night, but there’s a good chance they could enter the tournament without having faced a legitimate contender in this tournament. (As an aside, is it just me or is the pre-tournament schedule for this cash grab longer than the gestation period for an elephant?)
What your trusty correspondent fears for the North Americans is what most other people fear – that for all their speed, savvy and swagger – these kids won’t be able to hang with the big boys unless they fall in line and play the sleep-inducing type of hockey that wins in the NHL these days. There are a lot of people who want the North American team to zip its way around the ice and win games 6-4, the way they did against Team Europe after nearly blowing a 5-1 lead Saturday night. But once they get up against teams that can compensate for that with size, smarts, positioning and smothering defense, the fear is the kids will be exposed and suddenly out of their comfort zones. The kids have excelled in the first two games against Team Europe because they’ve found a willing dance partner, and old and slow team that doesn’t have near enough depth.
You might point to the Pittsburgh Penguins and how they turned the Stanley Cup final against the San Jose Sharks into a track meet last spring and find some hope. And that would be great. But one of the biggest reasons why the Penguins won the series was that their best player channeled his inner Bob Gainey and shut down San Jose’s top offensive players. That’s the way the game is played these days and we can all moan about it, but it wins.
Do you really think the top teams in the tournament are looking at the North Americans and shrugging their shoulders, saying there is no way they can compete with that speed? Not a chance. They’re plotting their defense of it as you’re reading these words. Take that to the bank. Hockey has become increasingly micromanaged and one need look no further than Team Canada to realize that. This is a team of the best players that has a head coach and four (four!) assistant coaches. There was no need for Canada to work on skill development or offensive systems in its preparation, so Mike Babcock had his charges working on line changes and other minutiae that wins hockey games and puts fans to sleep.
The North American team is going to have to play a much more well-rounded, and boring, game and its coaching staff knows it. So don’t be surprised if somewhere between now and the beginning of the tournament, this teams goes from cute and cuddly to predictable and boring. These kids are the best players in the world in their age group – and in some cases are among the best players in the world, period. They didn’t get there solely be freelancing and not listening to their coaches.
And somewhere along the line, they’ll have to find a way to fall into line and play the kind of hockey that wins these days. As much as we’d like that not to be the case, that’s the reality of the situation. These kids and their coaches would love to entertain everyone, but they didn’t start their season two weeks early to simply wow everyone with their skills and go home early from the tournament.