Mike Halford

wch2016

Here are PHT’s World Cup of Hockey predictions

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As evident in last year’s playoffs, the PHT staff is very mediocre at predictions. So let’s see if we can keep it going!

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey begins Saturday. The eight competing squads have been split into two groups:

Group A
Team Canada
Team USA
Team Czech Republic
Team Europe

Group B
Team Finland
Team North America
Team Russia
Team Sweden

The top two teams from each group will advance to the tournament semifinals, and the semifinal winners will compete in a best-of-three finale.

So, who’s going to win?

Jason Brough: Canada

North America’s speed and skill is impressive, and Sweden has the best blue line. But I can’t pick against Team Canada. The overall talent level is just too high. The only way I see the Canadians losing is if they run into a hot goalie. That happened in their first exhibition game when Jonathan Quick shut them down, so it’s definitely possible. But that’s always possible in a short tournament — just ask the 1998 Canadian Olympic squad that ran into Dominik Hasek. Most of the time it’s the team that controls the puck that wins, and I’m fairly confident that that will be Team Canada.

Mike Halford: Finland

Look, sometimes you gotta go off the board, and that’s what I’m doing here — though to be honest, it’s not even that far off the board. The Finns always perform well at these best-on-best international events. In fact, NHLers have competed in the last five Olympic Games, and no country has medalled more. I also really like the makeup of this squad. Led by the likes of Patrik Laine, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mikael Granlund, Sami Vatanen and Aleksander Barkov, it’s younger, faster and more dynamic than previous, grinding Finnish squads. Barkov, in particular, is a superstar in the making. This tourney could be his launching pad.

Adam Gretz: Canada

Team North America is going to be the most exciting team in the tournament, but Canada still has an obscene level of talent at pretty much every position, one that nobody else can match. Canada’s roster construction is always put under a microscope, and there are always a couple of head scratching decisions — not taking P.K. Subban or Kris Letang, for example — but it never makes a difference in the end. When Joe Thornton is skating on your fourth line, “loaded” doesn’t even begin to describe your team.

Cam Tucker: North America

More than ever before, hockey is about speed, skill and youth. Team North America has an abundance of all three. Nathan MacKinnon was right to call them the most skilled team in the tournament. They should enter this event highly motivated, too — they’re not the favorites, but what this team might lack in experience is made up with a dynamic roster, one that has something to prove.

Joey Alfieri: North America

North America is the squad I was most looking forward to watching and, through a couple of pre-tournament games, they haven’t disappointed. With youth and speed on their side, they can compete with anyone in this tournament. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup with speed and skill in 2016, and Team North America is loaded with players possessing both: Connor McDavid, Mark Scheifele, Jonathan Drouin, Jack Eichel and Shayne Gostisbehere, to name a few. In goal, Matt Murray is fresh off a Stanley Cup run, and that certainly doesn’t hurt.

James O’Brien: Sweden

Chemistry and goaltending are strong pluses for Sweden, but my goodness, look at that defense. Erik Karlsson is basically on another planet and he’s joined by other standouts such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Victor Hedman. From explosive offensive ability to sound positional acumen, this group has it all. A mobile, creative, puck-moving back end is more and more important these days, and Sweden is flat-out loaded.

Russia names Bobrovsky starter for World Cup opener

Sergei Bobrovsky
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No surprise here, really — one day after Sergei Bobrovsky starred in a 3-2 OT loss to Canada, head coach Oleg Znarok said Bobrovsky would start when Russia opens the 2016 World Cup of Hockey against Sweden on Sunday.

Bobrovsky received the majority of minutes in Russia’s exhibition campaign, making 29 saves in a win over the Czechs and a whopping 45 against Canada last night.

“It was interesting,” Bobrovsky said, per NHL.com. “It’s always a big challenge when you play against Canada, they have so many great players. It’s very interesting to test yourself against them.”

Semyon Varlamov was the only other Russian goalie to see time during the exhibitions — he received all 60 minutes in a shootout loss to the Czechs, but played very well, stopping 33 of 34 shots faced.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, the No. 3 goalie on the depth chart, didn’t see any action.

Znarok did leave the door open for a potential goalie switch during the tournament, saying he would see how things go after the Sweden game. This wouldn’t be anything new for the Russians.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Varlamov played the first group game, Bobrovsky played the second (the epic shootout loss to the U.S.) and Varlamov returned to play the third.

Bobrovsky then retook the net for a qualification playoff win over Norway, only to cede it to Varlamov for a quarterfinal loss to Finland (Bobrovsky did replace Varlamov against the Finns).

World Cup exhibitions are over, and here’s what we learned…

NHL players pose for a photo following a televised event promoting the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The 2016 World Cup of Hockey will get underway on Saturday, but all eight teams have already played a trio of exhibitions in advance.

From those tilts, a few key takeaways…

Canada and the U.S. don’t like each other

The two teams combined for 83 penalty minutes while splitting their opening exhibition games (though Canada did win 7-6 on aggregate. Just saying.)

Ryan Kesler was tossed from the opener for boarding Shea Weber, then got a rough ride from John Tavares and Joe Thornton in the rematch. There were plenty of big hits, face washes and post-whistle scrums, highly unusual for exhibition games but perfectly normal for what’s become a terrific grudge match.

“It’s a pretty good rivalry,” Team USA head coach John Tortorella said, per the Globe and Mail. “It kind of just lights itself up.”

Fans won’t have to wait long for the next installment. The U.S. and Canada face off again on Tuesday.

“They’re the fastest kids alive”

The biggest revelation of the exhibition campaign wasn’t the U.S.-Canada beef — that had been well established.

No, the biggest revelation was the speed and skill of Team North America, who burst onto the scene by crushing Team Europe by 4-0 and 7-4 scorelines in their opening games.

Everybody was raving about how good “TNA” was.

And that includes the players themselves.

“This team is the fastest I’ve ever seen,” said J.T. Miller.

“I don’t think there’s a more skilled team than ours,” said Nathan MacKinnon.

The 23-and-under squad was brought back to earth in the exhibition finale, however. Running up against a pair of hot netminders in Michal Neuvirth and Petr Mrazek, Team North America lost 3-2 to the Czechs and learned a valuable lesson in the process — a good offense can be neutralized.

“I think it was a real eye-opener for us for the way the tournament’s going to go,” Connor McDavid said, per Yahoo. “We’re not going to play every game 7-4 or 4-0, so it’s a good test for us.”

Speaking of McDavid, he went pointless through the three exhibition games. That’s a scary proposition for TNA opponents — the captain and arguably the team’s best player, McDavid is going to break out offensively at some point.

Some important guys got hurt

The biggest fear for all 30 NHL clubs heading into the World Cup was one (or more) of their players getting injured.

For a few unfortunate teams, it happened:

• Canada’s Tyler Seguin tried to play through an ankle injury, only to be dropped from the roster and replaced by Ryan O'Reilly. Though the decision to drop Seguin was made by Hockey Canada, one suspects the Dallas Stars — and in particular, GM Jim Nill — might’ve had a say, given Seguin missed nearly all of last year’s playoffs with an Achilles ailment.

• Sweden’s Rickard Rakell suffered an illness — believed to be in relation to a March appendectomy — that forced him out of the tournament. Rakell, who registered an assist in Sweden’s first exhibition game, was replaced by Patrik Berglund.

• Vladimir Sobotka, rumored to be re-joining the Blues in the fall, was hurt in the Czech Republic’s first exhibition against Russia. Though the Czechs kept Sobotka on the active roster, he didn’t play in the rematch against Russia or Wednesday’s win over Team North America.

• Chicago got a scare when Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger were banged up in their first games for Team Europe and Team Sweden, respectively. Both remained with their clubs, though Kruger sat out an ugly 6-2 loss to the Europeans earlier this week.

Goaltending pictures came into focus

• Though Finland head coach Lauri Marjamaki wouldn’t confirm, it sure looks (and sounds) as though Pekka Rinne will get the nod ahead of Tuukka Rask. Rinne started the exhibition opener and closed things out as well, looking sharp along the way. Rask, meanwhile, struggled in his lone appearance, allowing five goals on 28 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Swedes on Saturday.

• Like his Finnish counterpart, Team Europe head coach Ralph Krueger wouldn’t anoint his starter — but, like Finland, Europe’s No. 1 seems obvious. Jaroslav Halak played the majority of exhibition minutes, and Krueger said “the writing was on the wall” as to who his starter would be. That would put Thomas Greiss in a backup role, after Greiss allowed four goals in just over 10 minutes in an ugly loss to Team North America.

• Based on Wednesday’s 3-2 OT loss to Canada, Russia will probably go with Sergei Bobrovsky as its starter. Bobrovsky was terrific against the Canadians, making 45 saves, and played the majority of minutes during the exhibition campaign. Semyon Varlamov got the second of a back-to-back against the Czechs, and Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t play at all.

• Speaking of the Czechs, there’s some legitimate intrigue as to who’ll be the starter. Michal Neuvirth was fantastic throughout the exhibition campaign, especially in Wednesday’s win over North America, but Petr Mrazek has been strong as well. If we had to guess, it’ll be Neuvirth against Canada on Saturday, but assistant coach Vinny Prospal said the decision still hasn’t been made.

• Prior to the tournament, four starting spots  appeared to be locked in: Carey Price for Canada, Henrik Lundqvist for Sweden, Jonathan Quick for the U.S. and Matt Murray for North America. Those four all remain locked. It is worth mentioning, though, that Lundqvist has looked shaky and his backup, Jacob Markstrom, looked pretty good in limited minutes.

More World Cup of Hockey:

Five early observations

After talking the talk, Laine ready to walk the walk

Steen shoots down reports of contract ultimatum

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 29:  Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues at American Airlines Center on September 29, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Heading into the last of a three-year deal that pays $5.8 million annually, Alex Steen has made it clear he’d like to re-up in St. Louis.

And he’s also made it clear he doesn’t need a contract extension before the season starts.

“I don’t know where that surfaced, that’s not something that’s come from me,” Steen said of rumors that he won’t negotiate during the season, per the Post-Dispatch. “I want to be in St. Louis and the organization knows that.

“I’m sure we’ll get to it when we get to it, so we’re not stressed about it.”

This situation will be one worth monitoring.

Steen turns 33 in March, and while he’s been a very productive player — a career-high 33 goals in ’13-14, and a career-high 64 points in ’14-15 — he’s also had major health concerns, missing 37 games over the last three years combined.

That trend carried over to this summer, as shoulder surgery prevented him from representing Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey.

(Steen did tell the Post-Dispatch he plans to be ready for the Blues’ season opener, though.)

It’s hard to look at the Steen situation and not think about how David Backes‘ time ended in St. Louis. Like Steen, Backes was a vested, veteran leader and, like Steen, Backes was pretty long in the tooth heading into the final year of his deal.

Eventually, GM Doug Armstrong made two difficult decisions: One, he kept Backes past the trade deadline, putting Backes’ value towards a playoff push ahead of his value on the open market.

Two, Armstrong let Backes walk in free agency, explaining that the two sides “haven’t been able to find that common ground.”

That led to Backes joining the Bruins on a lucrative five-year, $30 million deal.

There’s a youth movement at play in St. Louis, make no mistake. Armstrong has parted ways with the older, face-of-the-franchise types like Backes, T.J. Oshie and Barret Jackman, and ushered in a new leadership group spearheaded by the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko.

On that note — and in relation to Steen’s contract situation — it’s worth noting that Parayko needs a new deal for next season as well. Same goes for offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Related: Blues GM says he might just keep Shattenkirk

After talking the talk, Laine ready to walk the walk at World Cup

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Patrik Laine gives an interview after being selected second by the Winnepeg Jets during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON (AP) Patrik Laine isn’t afraid to be himself, whether he’s talking or playing hockey.

The No. 2 pick in the NHL draft thought he deserved to be No. 1 and said so. His on-ice persona is just as confident, and it’ll be put to the test playing for Finland at the World Cup of Hockey.

Laine is the youngest player in the tournament, and the Winnipeg Jets prospect is eager to show he belongs with the best.

“I’m going to have to prove that to everybody, and I’m going to show that when the tournament starts,” Laine said.

Laine’s offensive arsenal has more moves than his surname, which is pronounced Line-EH. He can shake defenders out of their skates but is best known for a wicked shot, which he used to beat Jonathan Quick in Finland’s exhibition game against the United States on Tuesday.

On a team that lacks the talent on paper of Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Russia, Laine has the ability to singlehandedly take a game over, despite being just under 18 years, 5 months old.

“When we named Patrik (to) this team, we know that he (had) good offensive-game skills and that shot was unbelievable,” coach Lauri Marjamaki said. “Of course he’s a young guy, but he has something we need and we’re trying to find some new elements about our offensive game.”

Picking Laine was a risk, though he earned it by scoring seven goals and adding five assists in 10 games at the world hockey championship in the spring. It was no surprise that he lit up the world juniors over the winter, but he had grown-up production playing with and against grown men.

Laine’s influence has continued leading up to the World Cup, as he struggled in the first two exhibition games before finding a groove.

“He’s just 18 years old, and I think he plays like a major player,” linemate Aleksander Barkov said.

Laine is a major player for Finland and could start the tournament alongside Barkov and either Teuvo Teravainen or 19-year-old Sebastian Aho. He’ll have chances to back up his braggadocio from before the draft, when he said the Toronto Maple Leafs should have selected him first overall instead of Auston Matthews. He’s not shying away from that, even while older teammates tell him players weren’t like that back in their day.

“I know that’s how good I am, and I can say that,” Laine said. “It’s not a problem for me. And if that’s a problem to somebody else, it’s not my problem. I don’t care what people think. I know that I’m a good player and I’m going to stick with that.”

Laine’s talent isn’t debatable, but there are questions about adjusting to smaller NHL rinks and, in this tournament, fitting into Finland’s team-first, stringent structure. The Finns’ hallmark is to play stronger as a group than as individual players, so it’s on Laine to fit into that concept without losing his creativity.

“He plays structure as good as anyone,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “But for sure when you get a skillset like that that can make a difference in a hockey game, I think you’ve just got to be careful when you use it and where.”

While plenty cocky about his game, Laine still has his teenage moments. His mother is moving to Winnipeg with him to help him adjust to North America, and after practice this week he stared in awe at some teammates’ lockers – after watching them in the NHL, he’s now playing with them.

Laine gets the benefit of plenty of veterans on and around Finland, most notably Teemu Selanne, who set the rookie goal-scoring record with 76 back in 1992-93 playing in, of course, Winnipeg. Selanne plans to talk with Laine about the NHL, Winnipeg and more during the World Cup.

“Everybody in their lives can’t speak with those kind of players,” Laine said. “It’s so good to have that kind of opportunity to talk with him and discuss about games and everything.”

For all his boasting, Laine concedes he has plenty of learning to do. He expects to get better game by game, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the teams in the World Cup and the NHL.

“People sometimes forget the guy’s 18 years old playing here,” forward Lauri Korpikoski said. “I’ve been really impressed by him. He’s got a really bright future ahead of him.”

Related: Not lacking confidence, Laine’s goal is to be drafted No. 1