James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

World Cup of Hockey provides glimpse of Finland’s rising star power


Look, Finland might not fare that well at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Bovada gave them middle-of-the-pack odds, and even with the wave of injury ask-outs in mind, there are some issues with that team.

(As there are with any squad that isn’t Canada, really.)

Still, the tournament looms as yet another showcase for the rising power that is Finland.

Established names like Mikko Koivu, Tuukka Rask and Sami Vatanen make it so Finland isn’t just a different-flavor under-23 team, but it’s those futures that makes this group so exciting.

Aleksander Barkov is a rising star. More than a few people entertained the notion that Patrik Laine might not be that far behind Auston Matthews. Rasmus Ristolainen is already racking up points at the NHL level.

So, yeah, that will be exciting.

You can also view Finland’s rise merely by glancing at the upper ranks of the 2016 NHL Draft. Laine went second overall, people were stunned that Jesse Puljujarvi “dropped” to fourth and then Olli Juolevi went fifth. Finland churned out three of that year’s top five picks, and the likes of Barkov mean that it wasn’t just a one-year wonder.

Watch Laine light up scoreboards and dislodge Gatorade bottles is more fun than considering how a nation takes the next step … but the story of Finland’s rise is still pretty fascinating.

Seriously though, Laine should be fun to watch. He’ll also be fun to listen to.

“In my opinion I’m funny, but I don’t know what everybody else says—maybe sometimes funny,” Laine said to Sportsnet in a Q & A. “And the kind of guy who if he decides to do something, he will do it. And the kind of person who wants to win and who never quits. That’s me.”

From baby steps to leaps

For some time, Finland felt like a solid, grinding machine that also happened to pump out goalies with disproportionate success.

As the Hockey News’ Matt Larkin found out, the nation began to generate more high-end types in part thanks to a summit cited by Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting.

“They changed the way of training, so now the Finnish players, the coaches, are trying to teach the young Finnish players more individual skills than before,” Stubb said. “And of course, that was exactly what Sweden did 10 years ago. They are delivering the most players from European countries nowadays, so it’s kind of a Swedish model that the Finns have taken.”

(Gasp, Finns following a Swedish model?)

Twenty-eight full-time skills coaches really helped propel that growth, too, according to this interesting Canadian Press article. It makes you wonder if other struggling hockey nations would be wise to spring for similar “summits.”

Then again, the rise might have a lot to do with what makes Finland tick.

Ken Campbell details how Finland generates rather inane Olympic medals per capita in this Hockey News article, but you can’t really top this specific paragraph:

There’s a lot we know about Finland. It has the highest child literacy rate in the world. It’s the only country that fully repaid its debt from World War II and it did so in an incredible seven years. It is home to the greatest number of off-the-grid world championships in the world – including global tournaments in wife carrying (where the winner gets his wife’s weight in beer), mobile phone throwing, mosquito catching, swamp soccer, sauna and air guitar. It was the first country in the world to make internet access a legal right and it is a global leader in recycling, which explains why Teemu Selanne kept making all those comebacks.

Everyone, prepare for the reign of our swamp soccer-loving, air-guitaring overlords.

Flyers consider Radko Gudas week-to-week


It’s easy to scoff at players pulling out of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey – especially if you’re the cranky type who makes a lot of noise on the Internet – but plenty of guys probably really do need the extra time.

From the way the Philadelphia Flyers are depicting the situation, it sounds like defenseman Radko Gudas is one of them.

The Flyers provided some additional information about the brute beyond Gudas being unable to play for the Czech Republic.

Here’s the statement from GM Ron Hextall:

“Radko Gudas sustained an upper body injury during his offseason training and will be evaluated on a week to week basis. We are hopeful and optimistic that he will not miss any regular season games.”

Week-to-week doesn’t sound especially promising.

The Flyers signed Gudas to a contract extension back in June, so they have to hope that any missed time is minimal.

(Unless you’re of the opinion that they’re better off without him … although it’s a little late for that considering the extension they gave Gudas.)

Don’t be shocked if you see multiple ‘Captain Connor McDavid’ stories


Sometimes you just need to acknowledge the obvious.

Yes, some might bristle at the idea of Connor McDavid becoming the captain of the Edmonton Oilers at age 19. Maybe it would advance the argument that the franchise has been guilty of giving young players too much too soon.

On the other hand, would it be any more honest to hand the “C” to a veteran just because, especially after things went so disastrously for Andrew Ference?

McDavid is a focus for the Oilers, and might be their biggest leader already. He’s already a selling point for the likes of Milan Lucic.

Those are considerations that the Oilers are likely batting around as they consider their next captain, but interestingly enough, it’s not the only McDavid captaincy question that head coach Todd McLellan must ponder.

McLellan acknowledged the possibility of the 19-year-old wearing the “C” for North America to Postmedia Network’s Michael Traikos.

“The captain of the Oilers? We’ll figure that out at training camp,” McLellan said. “The captain at the World Cup? We’ll find out this week.”

As much as people make anthem/lack of history jokes about World Cup squads like Team North America and Team Europe, that really would be something: McDavid possibly being named the captain of two significant groups … maybe in the same month.

That isn’t likely to be the most impressive accomplishment of the budding superstar’s career, but it might just be the most unique.

If he dons either “C,” mind you …

(H/T to The Score.)

Report: Henrik Lundqvist did not suffer a golf-related injury


There were rumblings that Henrik Lundqvist might be added to the growing list of players bowing out of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but apparently that’s not true.

ESPN’s Joe McDonald reports that Lundqvist did not suffer an injury playing golf. He’s expected to practice on Monday and it sounds like he’s good to go for Sweden.

Now, if there are any further developments, PHT will pass along word. At the moment, it sounds like a dodged bullet for Sweden, Lundqvist, the New York Rangers and fans of high-level goaltending.

Sorry, Erik Johnson, it looks like you’re still pretty lonely when it comes to golf injury jokes.

Victor Rask says he’s ready for Hurricanes training camp

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As curious as the Carolina Hurricanes’ decisions were to bring back Cam Ward and give Raffi Torres a tryout, neither of those decisions are necessarily far-reaching.

No, the boldest move might have been stating firmly that Victor Rask is a core guy; he gives the Hurricanes just four players who have contracts covering at least the next three seasons after signing a six-year, $24 million extension in mid-July.

That term and money will shine a brighter spotlight on the 23-year-old, but what about that surgically repaired shoulder?

Rask told the Raleigh News & Observer that his shoulder is “100 percent” and that he’ll be ready for Hurricanes training camp.

He also seems at least somewhat aware of what that new contract means for his future and his connection with Carolina.

“I wanted long-term and I’m happy that they believe in me,” Rask said. “I’m just excited for the future and I think we’ve got something really good going on here … It feels like home for me, so it’s very nice to come back here.”

With a foundation of young players and sneaky-impressive possession numbers since Bill Peters took over, the Hurricanes are becoming a chic pick to make some gains in 2016-17.

Rask would be an integral part of such a turnaround, so Carolina needs him to be healthy and productive. So far, it sounds like he’s in a good position to enter next season without lingering effects from that injury.

Of course, we’ve heard plenty of players claim to be “100 percent” and then see their seasons go off course, so it remains to be seen if Rask’s optimism is actually justified.