Toronto Maple Leafs Tattoos II
Kirsty Williamson, United Kingdom
Toronto Maple Leafs Tattoos II
Kirsty Williamson, United Kingdom
Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty
Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty
Team Europe has their work cut out for them in the World Cup final against an all-world Canadian squad, and it's going to take near-perfect play for Team Europe to take the World Cup title.
You’d think after beating Team Sweden in the semifinal of the World Cup of Hockey, in overtime no less, would have the boys from Team Europe strutting a little more proudly, perhaps making the odd boastful proclamation or two.
Not happening. Team Europe has defied the odds getting to this point and it knows that better than anyone. This is a team that trailed 9-1 after four periods of its first two pre-tournament games, a rag-tag team that was basically placed in the tournament as fodder from the traditional hockey countries. Eight days and eight wins later, on the heels of a stunning 3-2 overtime victory over Sweden in the semifinal, it finds itself sharing the stage with the world’s most dominant hockey country.
Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said before the tournament that he had a pretty good idea of what the top four teams were. When asked if Team Europe was one of those teams, Babcock was rather coy. But it’s pretty clear he didn’t expect to be facing this team in the final. “I think on three out of four, I was right, so not right on one,” Babcock said. And which team would that be? “That’s one of those things,” he said.
And there is certainly not a lot of delusion going on here. And there likely won’t be any in the day off leading up to the first game of the best-of-final Tuesday night. “We want to give Canada and the world a really good final,” said Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger. “We still have hockey to play here and we want to be competitive. We want to make it difficult for Canada to win the World Cup and we’d like to get in the way of that.”
Notice he didn’t say anything about actually winning the World Cup? Some might take that as Krueger being a defeatist, others might think he’s being realistic. But one thing is certain. Being the plucky underdog nobody expected to win has worked marvelously for Team Europe to this point in the tournament, so there’s really no need to change things now.
And, let’s face it. Team Europe is playing with house money here. It has already accomplished more than it set out to do simply by showing that a collective of small hockey countries could even compete with the best. There is absolutely zero pressure on this group at the moment. There is nothing to be lost by continuously foisting more pressure on Canada. It may not make a difference, but, hey, that’s why they play the games. That’s why they played this game.
“It’s probably the best team ever,” Team Europe winger Mats Zuccarello said of Team Canada. “We have to play a perfect game and we have to be lucky. The puck is going to have to bounce our way. When you play hockey, anything can happen, so we just have to stay positive and give it our best…but to have (Sidney) Crosby and all those great players – (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Shea) Weber, (Drew) Doughty – it’s an all-star team out there, but we’re going to play hard and see at the end.”
When asked what would have to happen in the next two or three games in order for Team Europe to compete with Canada, Team Europe captain Anze Kopitar succinctly said, “Everything? There’s no secret to it. I mean, they pretty much bull rushed through everybody right to the final and we’re going to have to play our very best. There can’t be an area where we can’t be good. So we’re going to have to play a solid game.”
And even that might not be enough. As Zuccarello pointed out, this might just be the best team ever assembled. Period. At any level of hockey for any event. But perhaps everyone is selling Team Europe short. After all, it was one of only four teams in the tournament – Canada, USA and Sweden were the others – that had established, full-time NHL players at every position. It has five players who have won Stanley Cups, it has more international experience than any other team in the tournament and a group of players motivated by the opportunity to finally have a chance to win an international tournament. Most times, these players are using all their energy just trying to qualify for major events or avoid relegation.
And, like its opponent in the final, it has gotten better with each passing game in the tournament. “You put all those countries together and there are a lot of good players,” Babcock said. “I like their back end and I like their goaltending. I think they’ve done a real good job through the middle of the rink. They’ve got a real good looking team.”
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Team Sweden came into the tournament as a favorite to make the final. And now it's out because of the way it approached the game.
Let’s get something straight here. Sweden did not lose the semifinal game in the World Cup of Hockey because of a disputed goal in overtime. It did not lose because it failed to score on the power play. It didn’t lose because all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist dropped his stick at one of the most inopportune times of his career.
The Swedish players are heading to NHL training camp instead of the best-of-three final in the World Cup of Hockey because they decided - or probably more accurately, had it decided for them - that they were going to play chess until the third period of their 3-2 overtime loss to Team Europe. They played the game afraid to lose and that’s exactly what happened. It was a display of a dull, turgid, safe and utterly ridiculous brand of hockey given their level of talent that came back to haunt them.
And for that we should all be grateful. Even if you’re Swedish. Because perhaps the people who run the national program in Sweden will go back and realize what an opportunity they frittered by taking a bunch of thoroughbreds and forcing them to trot their way around the track. That’s not how these players play in the NHL. That’s not how they’re wired. Players such as Erik Karlsson have to go and holding them back should not be rewarded.
And it this case it was not. Had Sweden somehow underachieved its way to the World Cup final, it would not have highlighted how absolutely terrible this approach was. Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog, who told Scott Oake of Hockey Night in Canada after the first period that, “We kind of stood around waiting for each other,” capsulized the game plan right there. Then he added: “We’re in the World Cup of Hockey semifinal. You’re not going to give them anything just to play beautiful hockey.”
Sweden was outshooting Team Europe 10-5 after the first period, then took a 1-0 lead 2:31 into the second. Perhaps thinking one goal would be enough to win, the Swedes eventually shut it down and collapsed, sending the game into a lull of ennui that made it darn near unwatchable. And if they had won, they would have been rewarded for it. But they didn’t, so that’s a good thing. Only after Tomas Tatar made it 2-1 12 seconds into the third period did the Swedes decide they needed to play with just a little more urgency. And by that time, Team Europe goalie Jaroslav Halak had found his groove. If not for a Karlsson floater that hit Roman Josi’s stick, the overtime wouldn’t even have been necessary.
The Swedes obviously saw this game a lot differently than your trusty correspondent did. When asked why with all this talent, and a brain trust that included Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom, his team could play the way it did, Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg responded by saying he thought his team played well.
“I don’t think we were passive. I think you’re wrong there,” Gronborg said. “We need to show patience, and I think we showed patience. But at the end of the day when they’re scoring six goals against us in an exhibition game, we didn’t show patience. That’s what happens. This is a very good team we’re playing against. What we wanted to do was obviously make sure we don’t get turnovers and we don’t get odd-man rushes against, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight. We put ourselves in a position of winning this game. In the offensive zone we don’t put reins on our players. We don’t put defensive assignments in the offensive zone. So I don’t think I agree with you there.”
Looks like we weren’t watching the same game. Nobody said the Swedes had to get all turnover happy and turn the game into a round of pond hockey, but at some point, don’t you realize you’re better than the other team and play to your strengths. The Swedes lost 6-2 to Team Europe in the final pre-tournament game and instead of using that game as a lesson on how to manage the puck better, it responding by thinking it couldn’t try anything creative.
“That’s what teams have done against them and that’s why they lost against this team,” Daniel Sedin said. “They’ve been playing a full-out attack and you can’t do that against this team. They want us to make mistakes and we played a patient game thinking it was going to pay off in the end and it didn’t. It’s easy to say after the game that we should have attacked more.”
Actually, it was quite easy during the game to say that. Anyone who was watching could see where that game was going. And the fact the way it went the way it did is a setback for Sweden, but a triumph for the game. Sweden teased us all tournament, telling us they still hadn't played their best game. They certainly didn't do that Sunday and now they won't have a chance to do it again in the World Cup.
The way Sidney Crosby and Brad Marchand are meshing at the World Cup, it's easy to envision Marchand in a Penguins' sweater. One problem. It'll probably never happen.
There's no doubt that Sidney Crosby and Brad Marchand have talked about it. They skate together in the summer and are making magic in the World Cup of Hockey. Lots of it. And with just 263 shopping days left until Marchand stands to become an unrestricted free agent, it’s never too early to start envisioning Marchand playing alongside Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After all, Marchand is the winger Crosby has never had. Throughout his international career, the challenge has been finding a winger that meshes with Crosby and that search has often been a challenging one. But here at the World Cup, Crosby, with some help from Marchand, delivered on the big stage and was the biggest reason Canada won its 14th straight best-on-best game dating back to 2010 in Vancouver and will advance to the final against either Sweden or Team Europe starting Tuesday night. There were a lot of contributors to Canada's 5-3 win over Russia in the semifinal, but it was Crosby and Marchand who provided the spark.
“That’s a long ways away,” Marchand acknowledged when asked last night about the possibility of playing with Crosby. “There’s championship games here, we got to think about that first. But we’ll deal with whatever needs to be dealt with down the road. But it’s a lot of fun playing with Sid, there’s no question about that. But for now we’ll keep that to here.”
He kept that open-ended enough, didn’t he? So let the Brad Marchand Free Agent Watch officially begin. It makes so much sense on so many levels.
Except there’s almost no chance it’s going to happen. The Boston Bruins, who must be growing weary of losing star players as salary cap casualties, seem to finally have their financial house in order. There has been an ongoing dialogue between the Bruins and Marchand all summer and all signs point toward him signing a long-term deal in Boston, likely for eight years and somewhere in the range of $6 million per season. In fact, don’t be surprised if something gets done with Marchand before the start of next season.
And that’s a good thing for the Bruins. Smart call on their part. Because Marchand’s play in the World Cup has been nothing short of brilliant with Crosby. And if he has another season in 2016-17 like he did in 2015-16, the price would continue to rise. Marchand is on a very team-friendly deal in Boston and deserves a raise of at least $1.5 million on a long-term deal. In fact, the first couple of years of that deal might be a bargain for the Bruins still.
So we’ll have to be content with Crosby, Marchand and Patrice Bergeron being a marvel for Canada. And while both Marchand and Bergeron have been terrific, Crosby has been otherworldly. When asked why Crosby has been so good in the World Cup, Canadian defenseman Shea Weber mused, “Because he’s only had a month-and-a-half off? I don’t know. It looks like he just kept skating.”
Indeed. In fact, it looks as though, at the age of 29, Crosby might actually be getting better. The 2016 playoffs will be remembered as the point in his career when Crosby channeled his inner Steve Yzerman. His impressive two-way play was the main reason he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last spring. But when you watch him strip the puck off Dmitry Kulikov, drive to the front of the net and make a poised 1-on-1 play the way he did on Canada’s first goal of the game, it sure looks as though he may not have actually hit his ceiling. When Crosby struggled through Vancouver, and to a lesser extent Sochi, he might not have scored a goal like that one. Add to the fact that he went 12-5 in the faceoff circle and you may be seeing a player who is actually approaching his apex. It’s little wonder that Crosby and Marchand are running 1-2 in tournament scoring at the moment.
“I just think he knows how good he is and he’s more patient with what he’s doing,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said of Crosby. “When things don’t go well, he doesn’t get frustrated. When people crosscheck him he doesn’t get riled up. He just knows he’s going to have success over time. The other thing that happens when he plays with Toews and not on the same line, but Toews does a lot of stuff so he can do what he does. So to me that's a pretty good one-two punch.”
Crosby is part of a core group – Bergeron, Weber, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are the others – who have been together through both the Vancouver and Sochi Games and on this team. That certainly helped Canada when it went down 2-1 in the second period and things were looking dicey for, oh, about five minutes there. Seventy-two seconds after Evgeny Kuznetsov put the Russians ahead 2-1 late in the second period, Crosby dug out a loose puck and sent it to Marchand for the easy goal.
And that Crosby vs. Ovechkin thing? Well, that’s becoming as big a rout as Canada vs. Russia, isn’t it? Crosby has bettered Alex Ovechkin in two playoff series and in international competition, his Canada teams are 4-0-0 and have outscored Russia by a 25-8 margin. “I don’t think it’s over,” Crosby said when asked whether Canada-Russia as a compelling game has run its course. “If you look at their team, they have some pretty special players, a lot of talent, a lot of skill, exciting guys to watch and it’s great hockey.”
Particularly when Crosby is playing in it.
The Maple Leafs' rebuild continues and another last-place finish is very likely, but this year, thanks to an injection of young talent, they will improve, and be fun to watch.
THN is rolling out its 2016-17 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of 2015-16 overall finish, until the start of the season. We start with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished in 30th last season.
THN's Prediction: 8th in Atlantic
Stanley Cup odds: 90-1
Key additions: Auston Matthews, C; Matt Martin, LW; Nikita Zaitsev, D; Roman Polak, D; Frederik Andersen, G; Jhonas Enroth, G
Key departures: P-A Parenteau, RW; Jonathan Bernier, G; Michael Grabner, RW; T.J. Brennan, D
-Who is Toronto’s No. 1 center? Technically, it’s going to be Nazem Kadri again. Yes, highly vaunted rookie Auston Matthews arrives, but he’ll need to be protected at least somewhat, just as Buffalo has Ryan O’Reilly for Jack Eichel. Kadri has been playing some of the toughest competition and coming out with good possession numbers, so really, nothing will change. But make no mistake: in a year or two, Matthews takes over. If his World Championship performance with Team USA was any indication, you basically just have to tell Matthews when it’s time to take over a team and he’ll do it. Must be nice.
-What is the next step for Morgan Rielly? Toronto’s best defenseman at 22, Rielly plays tough competition and drives possession. His offense is pretty decent for a blueliner, but the next mission will be to kick it up another notch. The Leafs were starved for scoring last year, and the power play was a drag. Rielly had eight points with the man advantage. He’s capable of improving on that, and once he does, his totals will be more in line with what they should be. Breaking 40 points should be the goal to begin with.
-Is Frederik Andersen the answer in net? He could be, but don’t expect too much this season. The Maple Leafs may have landed Matthews, but they’re still in the midst of a rebuild that will see them take on more water before the leaks get plugged. Anaheim was a slightly better possession team than Toronto and gave up fewer shots against, so Andersen will be busier. Plus, he'll coming off an injury sustained at an Olympic qualifying tournament. As long as he doesn’t take this year’s stats personally, the workload could help him in the long run.
Player projections are based off a three-year version of Game Score (which you can read about here) weighted by recency and repeatability and then translated to its approximate win value (Game Score Value Added or GSVA). Team strength was derived from the combined value of every player’s GSVA on a team. The season was then simulated 10,000 times factoring in team strength, opponent strength and rest.
There’s a lot of pessimism surrounding this team, which is fair because, well, they were the worst team in the league last season, but Toronto will be much improved this season. The Leafs were one of the unluckiest teams last season thanks to abysmal shooting and save percentages, both of which should bounce back this season. The latter should especially improve with the addition of former Duck goalie Frederik Andersen.
There’s also a huge injection of talent coming into the lineup that should boost them higher up the standings. James van Riemsdyk missed half the season last year and his presence alone should be enough to provide a spark. Then there’s the big three prospects who likely make their full season debuts for the team. The trio is oozing with a dynamic offensive skill-set that was sorely missed last year.
Based on his limited NHL playing time, Nylander looks to make the biggest projected impact of the three, and on the team for that matter. He only played 22 games, but it was enough to impress this model into believing he’s already a first line talent. The other two don’t have any NHL experience, so their impacts were based on their projected points combined with the average Leaf forward’s possession driving ability. (Projected points were based on a combination of NHLe and our own Poolbook’s projections.)
Based on that method, the Leafs likely have three of the top five rookies this season with their combined impact being worth roughly seven standings points. (NHLe for players from the Finnish league are usually low so that skews Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho lower than expected).
It’s a lot to expect out of three kids, none of whom can even drink at a bar during any road trips to an American city, but these aren’t three ordinary kids. The Leafs still won’t be a good team – especially considering their putrid defence core – and there’s still plenty of pain on the horizon, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism too. This team could surprise this season, although a lot depends on what the lineup actually looks like. They likely won’t repeat as the league’s worst team, but a bottom five finish is still probable.
Up next: Edmonton Oilers