The 2016 World Cup of Hockey doesn’t officially begin until Saturday in Toronto, but we have had a number pre-tournament exhibition games over the past week to help the teams get some work in with one another in a game setting.
It has also given us an early look at what the teams are going to look like and how they are going to play.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the developments from these initial games.
Team USA cares about this tournament. A lot. The one thing that has stood out about the pre-tournament games is the players, at least as it relates to the United States and Canada, really seem to care about it and are taking it seriously. That intensity was on display in a pair of games this past week that did not resemble the exhibition games they were.
You can question the construction of the Team USA roster (in fact, you should question it), and there are a lot of reasons to doubt whether or not their desired style of play will actually work against teams that are more talented than them (unless they get amazing goaltending, it probably won’t). But whether it’s about winning and trying to get some sort of redemption for themselves after a disappointing showing at the 2014 Olympics, or just because they care about beating Canada and sending some sort of message to them, these guys have already bought into the style of play that the braintrust in charge of building and coaching this roster wants it to play.
If the first two pre-tournament games were played with that level of intensity, what are the real games going to look like?
Team North America looks like it can be scary good. Or at least really, really, really entertaining.
It certainly hasn’t hurt that their first two pre-tournament games were against what is probably the weakest team in the field (Europe), but the most impressive team so far has been the North American young stars team that has already scored 11 goals in two games and has played at an absolutely stunning pace.
While the United States team under John Tortorella is going to try to impose its will and inflict as much physical damage as it possibly can on its opponents, the North American team seems determined to just try and out-skate everybody.
They did exactly that in their first two games against Europe. Perhaps the most impressive thing about their goal output in the first two games is that they did it without their best player, Connor McDavid, recording a point. Don’t expect that goose egg to last next to his name much longer.
The idea of the North American and European teams has been a point of ridicule for critics of the tournament, but the reality is their creation has added a significant level of skill and entertainment to the tournament that may not have otherwise existed. A lot of these players would not have been playing in this if they were only eligible for the Team USA or Canadian rosters.
It has also been a great opportunity for Johnny Gaudreau to make a pretty big statement as he attempts to finalize a new contract with the Calgary Flames.
The Boston Bruins should probably be a little concerned about Zdeno Chara. While Team North America has looked great in its first two games, Team Europe, having been on the other side of those performances, has obviously looked like … well … kind of bad.
They just can not match the speed and skill of the North American team, and it is unlikely that is going to change when they run into any other top team in the tournament.
One player that seemed to especially struggle to keep up with the pace of the younger, faster skaters on the other side of the ice was Bruins defender Zdeno Chara.
Look, it’s only two exhibition games of a preseason tournament, so we don’t want to go overboard here. But Chara is 39 years old. He has already started to show signs of slowing down over the past year in the NHL. The Bruins, after doing almost nothing to fix a blue line that was by far the weak link of their team a season ago and significantly contributed to the team missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, are going to be relying heavily on him to still be a No. 1 defender. He just may not be able to physically play at that level anymore. That should be a pretty big point of concern with the start of the season just around the corner.
Team USA needs to just trust Max Pacioretty. At the 2014 Olympics Pacioretty was pretty much an afterthought when it came to playing time for team USA, mainly being relegated to fourth-line duty and only getting a little more than 10 minutes per game.
We’re not even into the actual tournament here and Pacioretty is already being challenged by Tortorella to show him more.
Together, it’s all a very weird approach to take with the player that has been — literally — the best the best goal scorer from your country over a five-year stretch. He has at least 30 goals in four of the past five NHL seasons, while his 154 goals are the fifth most in the entire NHL. He is tops among all American-born players and is one of only five American-born players in the top-30 of the entire league (and one of those five, Phil Kessel, is not even on the team).
Pacioretty is like any other goal scorer in hockey. He is not going to score every night, and when he doesn’t, it is easy to get frustrated with that and start picking apart other areas of his performance and concluding that you need more from him.
He is going to be streaky, and there are going to be a few cold streaks that you have to get through. Sometimes you need to be a little patient through the dry spells and wait for the inevitable hot streak where he can carry the offense. Especially when you are dealing with a roster that doesn’t really have a lot of players that are capable of putting together that type of hot streak.
Coaches and GMs around the league probably can’t wait for it to be over. At least the ones that aren’t involved in it. There have already been a handful of injuries in the tournament and more than a few scares, especially in the USA-Canada matchups, with top players like Shea Weber, Claude Giroux, and Logan Couture all taking massive hits. The Chicago Blackhawks, a team that really can’t afford to lose any forward depth, have also had a couple of players in Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa get banged up a little.
Hockey is a collision sport, and there are always going to be injuries. They are inevitable. But it still seems like it would be a little tougher to accept a potentially significant injury to a star player if it happened in a tournament game like this and not in a game for their own team and in a game that counts in the standings.
And as long as the USA and Canada try to beat each other up whenever they step on the ice together, there are probably going to be a lot of nervous coaches and GMs around the league.