Last January, less than a year after the most recent Winter Olympics which took place in Sochi, Russia, the NHL announced the return of the World Cup of Hockey for its third edition. The international hockey tournament previously took place in 1996 and 2004, and has been brought back amid speculation that the NHL will not permit its players to participate in upcoming Olympic tournaments. Unlike International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) sanctioned Olympic play, the World Cup will be played under NHL rules and regulations, and revenue will be controlled by the NHL and its owners. While it is not clear whether or not the NHL will allow its players to compete in upcoming Olympic tournaments, the World Cup of Hockey could be the permanent replacement of the Olympics in terms of highest-competition international hockey. If the NHL does permit its players to go to Pyeongchang and Beijing, the sites of the next two Olympic Winter Games, and decides to continue the World Cup of Hockey, we could see a major international hockey tournament every two years. One can dream.
I am as excited as anyone about the upcoming World Cup, but my one major complaint is the inclusion of the Under-23 North American Team. Not only is the team unlikely to compete for the championship, but it will take players out of the available pool for the United States and Canada, preventing either nation from icing the best possible players from within their borders. I think a seventh team representing another single country would be a more appropriate addition to the lineup of competitors. A Denmark, Slovakia, or Switzerland could compete with the Big 6 (the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Finland), and their inclusion could still allow for Team Europe to put a competitive team together for the tournament. If this generation’s inevitable Quebec sovereignty movement succeeds, this problem could eventually work itself out (if the hockey fan in you isn’t liking its lips at the thought of an independent Quebec team at a future tournament, I don’t really know what to tell you). In the meantime, The United States is likely the more affected of the two nations by the inclusion of the North American team, losing potential players like Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, and Brandon Saad.
Holyoke, Mass. native Dean Lombardi, president and general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, is the general manager of Team USA. He and his team chose former Rangers bench-boss and career side-show John Tortorella to coach the US in the tournament, another Massachusetts native. Tortorella has since continued his tendencies of underachieving mediocrity after becoming a punishment-hire of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Whether Dean Lombardi picked Tortorella because he was first in line at the unemployment office, or because more sensible options, like Dan Bylsma or Peter Laviolette, declined to participate in the event, is unclear. While much of the US coaching staff and other available American NHL coaches were untested going into this season, like Devils coach John Hynes (who was named an assistant to Tortorella earlier this month) and Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, he was chosen over Islanders coach Jack Capuano, who has also been named an assistant to Tortorella. Whether the defensive-minded team Tortorella and Lombardi will certainly assemble will be competitive and bring home a medal is unclear. We will find out if John Tortorella’s strategy of collapsing all five skaters into the slot and being condescending towards his players and the media will earn the United States its first major senior-level tournament win since the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996.
We are only nine months away from the start of the tournament, and discussions about who will be included on the rosters has gone from speculation to serious analysis with the first roster deadline on the horizon. On March 2nd, teams must submit a 16 player roster, with the remaining 7 players to be announced on June 1st. With the first deadline nearing, I thought I would take a shot at projecting the Unites States roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. I do not know if I am going to project all eight rosters. What is more likely is that I will focus on the Unites States, and do roster and match-up analyses as rosters become official.
Zach Parise scoring to tie Canada with 24 seconds left in the Gold Medal game in 2010 in Vancouver
LW – C – RW
Max Pacioretty – Joe Pavelski – Patrick Kane
Zach Parise – Tyler Johnson – Bobby Ryan
Nick Foligno – Derek Stepan- Blake Wheeler
James van Riemsdyk – Nick Bjugstad – Kyle Palmieri
Bubble: T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Kyle Okposo, Paul Stastny, Ryan Kesler, Jason Zucker, Anders Lee, Chris Kreider, Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Jason Pominville
The first thing I need to do is defend my inclusion of Kyle Palmieri in this group. A Devils fan adding a hometown guy who has been on fire for their favorite team seems a bit suspect, especially when most would consider Palmieri to have an outside chance at making the final roster. Palmieri certainly has played well enough and has the production numbers to this point in the season to deserve consideration for the World Cup roster. He has scored 20 goals and put up 35 points so far this year, giving him the 7th highest points-per-60 rating among American skaters. A guy like T.J. Oshie, who is included in most USA roster projections, does not have the same production numbers as Palmieri, and has been playing alongside much more talented line-mates in Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Decisions on the roster will not be based solely on the 2015-16 NHL season, but with the strong campaign Palmieri is having during the first season he has had the opportunity to produce at this level, don’t think his name won’t come up when this team is being put together. John Hynes will make sure he gets a serious look.
Centers David Backes and Ryan Kesler are definitely candidates to break into the roster over guys like Stepan and Bjugstad. Bjugstad is much more than a big guy, but his 6’6” frame could be a huge presence in between James van Riemsdyk and Palmieri. If his production doesn’t improve on what is a very strong Florida team, he might be on the outside looking in come June. Stepan isn’t having a career year either, but their talents and the production both have shown they are capable of in previous years could put them on the American roster over Kesler and Backes, who have both played major roles in the red, white, and blue in previous tournaments. The U.S isn’t deep at center, and Kesler or Backes could also be candidates to fill in that 13th forward spot over a Phil Kessel. Don’t count out veteran center Paul Stastny, either. Kyle Okposo is having another good year with the Isles and could knock out a Palmieri or Foligno. Tough guy and solid point producer Brandon Dubinsky, who Tortorella has coached in both New York and now Columbus, is just the kind of sleeper that would fit well in a Tortorella/Lombardi system. I would not be surprised if they found a spot for him on the roster to provide more grit and toughness on the narrower NHL ice.
Colonia (Woodbridge Township), New Jersey native John Carlson with team USA during the 2014 Sochi Games
Ryan Suter – Justin Faulk
Ryan McDonagh – John Carlson
Jack Johnson – Erik Johnson
Bubble: Andy Greene, Cam Fowler, Keith Yandle, Jacob Trouba, Dustin Bufyglien, Brooks Orpik, Jeff Petry
This is where it gets a little trickier putting together the American roster. The United States is incredibly deep on defense, and defensemen are frequently much more than their numbers. I think the bulk of the 2014 Sochi defensive corps will be intact, including Ranger Ryan McDonagh, who impressed many at the most recent Olympic Games. The Johnson pairing is the only change I have from the 2014 roster, as on the narrower ice, I think the two will form an effective shutdown pairing against top opposing lines, and is a group that can also move the puck, skate, and join the attack. Defensive groups are usually more stable tournament to tournament, and I think it is time for guys like Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik to be cycled off the roster. I would like to think Andy Greene will finally get his shot for Team USA after his snub at Sochi. He hasn’t quite had the season he had leading up to and following the last Olympics, but he still provides veteran leadership, a steadying presence in the back, and leads American defensemen this season in time-on-ice shorthanded. He could take Jack Johnson’s spot on the roster on the left side of the third pairing. Any of the bubble guys have a real shot at making the September trip to Toronto; Carlson and both Johnsons could see their spots in jeopardy if any or all of those guys impress from now until the tournament begins. I think Suter, McDonagh, Faulk, and Shattenkirk are likely locks to be included.
Johnathan Quick in goal for the United States in Sochi
Bubble: Craig Anderson, Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard
This one is pretty simple. The starting spot is going to either Cory Schneider or Johnathan Quick, and they will probably be joined by Ben Bishop, of course barring injury. Only 8 American goalies have appeared in 20 or more NHL games this season, and two of them, Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson, are ineligible for the United States due to their age. They will likely be two of the three goalies on the North American U23 team, and will probably be joined by Canadian Zachary Fucale. If they were old enough to play for the United States, one of the two might go in place of Bishop. All three have had excellent years, and own marginally different save percentages and goals against averages. If the tournament started today, Cory Schneider should be the number one for the United States. While Quick has done well backstopping the U.S in previous competitions, Schneider has the highest save percentage among American goaltenders, is first in games played, second in wins, and has the second highest goals against average among eligible goalies. Johnathan Quick does bring experience and a resume that includes two Stanley Cups and a Conne Smythe Trophy, and he will make sure Schneider is challenged for the starter’s role. No one knows how the rest of the season will transpire, and no one knows who will show up to the World Cup camp in better shape. The all-Hockey East tandem of Schneider (Boston College), Quick (University of Massachusetts) and Bishop (University of Maine), who all competed against each other in the college ranks, will be one of the best goaltending groups in the tournament.
The first thing a local hockey fan may notice about this group is the amount of players from the Tri-State area included. Nine total players in my projection are from one of New Jersey, New York Or Connecticut, making up more than one-third of the total 23 man roster. Four of these players are from New Jersey, two are from Buffalo, two are from Connecticut, and one is from West Chester County, New York, a direct suburb of New York City. In a sport that has historically been dominated in our country by players from Minnesota and New England, many players from our area have made their impact on hockey at the highest level, and that will be reflected on Team USA’s roster.
While I am not confident that Tortorella can effectively lead this group against the world’s best in tournament-style play, he has an available pool of players that are some of the best in the world, and have the talents to swipe gold from Canada on their home-ice in the reborn World Cup of Hockey. Six months is plenty of time for other Americans to step up and get their name into the roster conversation, and enough time for others to get hurt, play poorly, and lose what would be a chance to play for the U.S in this tournament. I am excited to see the group Lombardi, Tortorella and the rest of the staff put together, and am counting down the days to the opening puck drop on September, 17th. I look forward to hearing our readers’ comments about this projection, and would love to hear others’ ideas about what Team USA could look like in Toronto.