Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports
Hey, guess what – the World Cup is almost upon us! And by that, I mean the games that actually mean something in-tournament. Exhibition games for a preseason tournament is fun and all, but it makes for better competition when the results actually count, when winning a game actually means something beyond pride.
The tournament officially kicks off this Saturday, Sept. 17. The night game on Day 1 will feature Team Canada taking on Team Czech Republic. And hey, we here at the Nation Network cover mostly Canadian-based teams, so it stands to reason that a fair number of us are Canadian and will be rooting for the Canadian men’s national team. So let’s take a look at just what we’ve got to look forward to when it comes to the team representing our home and native land.
1. It’s the best with the best
Canadians love hockey and Canada produces more professional hockey players than any other country. So whenever there’s an international hockey competition, there’s always a lot of attention given to just who makes Team Canada’s roster. There are so many players to choose from, and a lot of elite level guys are inevitably left off the roster.
This isn’t the Olympics, but it’s kind of the next best thing. A 30 team salary capped league isn’t conducive to stacking all of the best players on one team together, so best-on-best international tournaments is our best chance to watch the best players in the world play on a team composed entirely of players that are ridiculously good at hockey.
Of course some players bowed out due to lingering ailments, but then again, this brings us back to the earlier point: elite players are always left off the roster, but Canada has enough elite depth that even when one bluechip talent goes down (Jamie Benn), there’s another player waiting to take his place (Logan Couture).
The Olympics are pretty much the only other time we get to see the very best playing alongside each other. (Well, that and the All-Star Game which is, uh, the All-Star Game.) Let’s embrace it while we can.
2. Fun line combos
A fun fantasy exercise is to imagine how certain players would perform together. We get dynamic duos in the NHL, like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but you know what’s fun? Seeing really, really talented rivals suddenly be forced to play on the same line.
Crosby on a team with Claude Giroux? Hell, yes. How about Crosby playing with Brad Marchand, a player everyone except Boston Bruins fans love to hate? Or with Joe Thornton, the very player he faced off against just in June in the Stanley Cup Final?
Team Canada has so many centres, a lot of them have to be relegated to the wing. They also have so many high-level players that they have a deadly power play pretty much by default. You’re going to get Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and John Tavares all on the ice together in five-on-four situations. At the same time!
That level of firepower on just one team is awesome. And the possibilities for Canada’s lineup are pretty much endless.
3. How’s the defence going to hold up?
T.J. Brodie. Mark Giordano. Kris Letang. P.K. Subban. All four are Norris-calibre defenseman and none of them are on Team Canada’s roster.
And sure, one could make the argument that it’s a case of Canada having so many good players that some high-end defenseman simply have to be left off the roster. But it’s more likely that Canada has simply chosen to go a suboptimal route, for some reason.
Chart via Corsica. Click on the chart for a full-sized version. Top left is most difficult circumstances, bottom right is comparatively easier; dark blue is a positive relative possession player, while dark red is negative.
I know I’m biased, but looking at a basic usage chart and seeing Brodie and Giordano somehow not on the roster is mind boggling. It’s especially confusing when you factor in Canada’s apparent obsession with keeping pairs together – the defence is comprised of two Blues, two Kings, two Sharks, and one
Predator Hab. Team Canada brought three pairs, but decided not to go with the duo that combined for 101 points while playing in the toughest circumstances, Marc-Edouard Vlasic aside? Sure. Okay.
It’s easy to quibble on this while forgetting that the seven defencemen Team Canada did select are all still very high level players, but that sort of second guessing is as much a national pass time as the game of hockey itself. What’s going to be interesting is to see how Team Canada’s defense hold up against the competition and whether or not the team incurs a cost for not choosing some of the best players available for the World Cup tournament.
4. Welcome back, Carey Price
In 2015, Carey Price did something only six goalies before him have accomplished: he won the Hart Trophy.
Price took Canadiens team that permitted shots against at a high rate and struggled to control the run of play and led them to the top of the Atlantic Division. He started 66 games for the Canadiens and allowed one goal or fewer in 29 of those starts. His .933 save percentage was the best among all regular starters; his .942 save percentage at even strength, the same. Price also got Montreal – almost singlehandedly – to the second round of the playoffs.
In short: the Canadiens would have been screwed without him. And indeed, in 2015-16, Price put himself in the running for the Hart Trophy once again. An MCL sprain kept him sidelined for most of the season, and without him, Montreal looked like the structurally flawed club they were all along. As Price convalesced, the Canadiens floundered after an excellent start (that Price was in net for most of, incidentally).
Now Price is healthy. He’s playing again for the first time since Nov. 25, 2015. And while there’s no doubt there’s rust to be shaken off, it’s going to be fun to watch the 2015 Vezina winner battle it out with his teammate, Braden Holtby, the 2016 Vezina winner, as he works to return to the form that unequivocally got him named to Team Canada.
5. Mike Babcock doing Mike Babcock things
The World Cup isn’t the Olympics. It doesn’t hold the same level of prestige; it probably never will. But Team Canada has the same head coach they’ve had in place when they won the Gold Medal in back-to-back Winter Olympics.
Remember how dominant Team Canada was in 2014? They didn’t score all that much and it didn’t matter. I remember that 1-0 semi-final win against the Americans and it was the most dominant 1-0 game I’ve ever seen. The result was never in doubt, even though all it would have taken was one shot to change things.
Or, to look at it from a different angle: Babcock is now one year into his tenure as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a notably terrible team. Before Babcock, in 2014-15, the Leafs controlled 46.43 percent of shot attempts at five-on-five and with Babcock in 2015-16 – with a roster designed to fail, mind you – they jumped up to 51.34 percent.
And now Babcock gets to work with actually good players again (and before Leafs fans get uppity, good players who are at the peak of their careers now, with no waiting required). It’ll be fun to see how it goes this time around. Can Babcock lead Canada to another tournament win?