Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson.
Does Sweden have the World Cup's best group of defensemen? Will Russia's ragtag blueline go boom or bust? These two questions could decide the whole tournament.
Thursday's World Cup Media Day was as a microcosm of tournament expectations at times. As each country paraded out its entire rosters for interviews, two groups stood out in their demeanor. One was standoffish, touchy, eager to get in and out of conversations as quickly as possible. The other: relaxed, charismatic and confident.
The first group: Team Russia's defensemen. The second: Team Sweden's defensemen. And it was all too fitting, as they represent wild cards that could determine the tournament victor.
Sure, Canada remains the significant favorite to win this thing. But with no Jamie Benn, no Tyler Seguin and no Duncan Keith, we aren't seeing the absolute best Canada we can see. The door has been nudged ajar for rivals.
The Russians are the team best equipped to compete with Canada offensively. In Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin, they boast four of the NHL's top 15 scorers from the 2015-16 campaign. Only Canada placed more names in the top 15, with five. And that Russian quartet excludes the also-otherworldly talents of Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov and Pavel Datsyuk, to name just a few. Russia has goalies good enough to get hot in a short tournament, too, with Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
But there's an elephant in Russia's dressing room, and it's the aforementioned defense corps. Compared to some teams' star-studded groups, it's a bit of an eyesore. A 37-year-old veteran leads the way in Andrei Markov, joined by stay-at-home grinder and Habs teammate Alexei Emelin; steady if unspectacular Dmitry Kulikov; emerging but relatively unproven Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Nesterov and Alexei Marchenko: and Nikita Zaitsev, yet to play any North American pro hockey and a complete unknown to those unfamiliar with the KHL.
There's no need to sugarcoat. On paper his blueline looks like it'll get swallowed whole in Group B with North America, Finland and Sweden, who can throw the likes of Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine and Nicklas Backstrom at them.
"We'll see," said Zaitsev, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick. "It's a hard question. I don't understand it. We haven't started the tournament yet, so how can we talk about it?"
In fairness, Zaitsev and several of his teammates could blame a language barrier on some of their guardedness Thursday. But many members of the D-corps gave off prickly vibes, like they felt disrespected by the notion of being an underdog. Several of them, from Zaitsev to Orlov to Emelin – championed the defense-by-committee system as a path to victory, calling to mind the recent success of Mike Sullivan's Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That group had only one stud in Kris Letang. It arguably didn't look like a top-15 defense corps in the NHL entering the post-season. Yet the Trevor Daleys, Ben Lovejoys and Brian Dumoulins of the world flourished by rapidly rifling pucks up to their fleet-footed forwards. The Russians are blessed with the same kind of wheels up front, so a similar strategy could help their D-men overachieve.
"Hockey is so fast, you know?" Emelin said. "And we try to play fast with the puck, too."
Zaitsev specifically mentioned quick puck movement, too. And Orlov pointed out that this is a younger group than we've seen from Russia in other recent major tournaments. The average age is 26.9. Remove Markov's 37 years and that number shrinks to 25.1. Russia's Sochi defense corps had an average age of 29.25. So maybe a younger, fresher, quicker Russian blueline surprises in this tournament.
At the same time, the current group of seven has combined for 2,057 NHL games, zero major NHL awards, zero Stanley Cups and two All-Star Games. By comparison, mighty Canada's blueline, even minus Keith, has 4,642 games, a Norris Trophy, three Stanley Cups, and nine All-Star Games.
And it's quite interesting to throw the Swedish defense resume into that mix. The World Cup group of seven combines for 2,926 games, two Norrises, three Cups and three All-Star Games. The Swedes had four of the top-15 blueline scorers in the NHL last season. Of that group, Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Victor Hedman made the World Cup roster. To think that one of those three perennial Norris candidates (or, in Karlsson's case, two-time Norris winner) won't even crack his team's top pair puts into perspective how stacked Sweden's blueline is. Add in Anton Stralman and Hampus Lindholm and you have a team of dominant possession drivers. Especially with Keith out and with Letang and P.K. Subban not making the team, it's time to ask…is this the first time Canada doesn't have the premier defense in a best-on-best tournament involving NHLers? The Swedes absolutely have a horse in that race. And they even know it. They don't scoff at the notion. Karlsson described their group as "very high in experience yet very young in age."
"Being the small nation that we are, it's great to see that we can produce so many quality young defensemen who are making a statement in this league, and even the guys that aren't on our roster are really good," Karlsson said. "We have a lot of guys right now playing key parts on their teams over here in the NHL, and that's more of a statement than anything else. Coming from where we come from, not having that many hockey players, it's pretty extraordinary to have as many impactful players in the league as we have right now, particularly defensemen."
None of Sweden's blueliners would come right out and say they're tops in the tournament as a group, but those I spoke to – Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson and Mattias Ekholm – agreed emphatically this is the best national team blueline they've ever been a part of.
"We have to thank Nick Lidstrom for that," Ekman-Larsson said. "I watched him a lot growing up, and that's why I'm playing 'D' right now. But, back to our team – we have seven good defensemen, and we have to really use that in the games to create some offense. Our job is to defend, but we have to join rushes and get a lot of pucks to the net."
There appears to be no weak link on Sweden's blueline, no matter how coach Rikard Gronborg decides to deploy his charges. Even the most rugged member of the group, Niklas Hjalmarsson, earned rave reviews from teammates on Media Day. He's a three-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the NHL's elite shot blockers.
Sweden's blueline has potential to change this tournament. It's the only group that looks good enough on paper to match up with Canada's superstar forwards. On the flip side, we know the Russian forwards can bring the offense, so if they get even average contributions from their obscure stable of D-men, they can challenge for the podium, too.
But that's enough talk, as Zaitsev would say. Time to play the games and see which theories become realities.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin