World Cup Preview: USA-Europe and Czech Republic-Canada kick off Saturday


Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid

Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are two prominent names featured on Team North America in what shapes up to be an exciting tournament in Toronto for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. thehockeynews.com Getty Images/AP

Lately, I’ve been fighting writer’s block. Hence the lack of posts. We’re already into mid-September. The rookie camps have started. Traverse City just began. The Rangers lost their first game. I heard good reports on Jimmy Vesey. I don’t put too much stock in the tournament. But at least it’s a chance for some of our prospects to show what they got.

Speaking of big tournaments, the World Cup of Hockey finally gets going this afternoon. After all the warm ups including a USA split with Canada that resulted in an injury KO-ing Tyler Seguin (replaced by Ryan O’Reilly), Team USA will take on Team Europe at 3:30 EST on ESPN2. It’s part of group play. They’ll also battle Canada and the Czech Republic in the round robin format. Canada hosts the Czech Republic at 8 PM. With ESPN having a full slate of college football, that game can be seen on ESPNews. A channel virtually everyone gets.

It looks like John Buccigross and Kevin Weekes are the number one broadcast tandem who’ll be calling USA games. That’s good. I heard them for a warm up and they had good chemistry. Buccigross is hockey at ESPN. He remains as passionate as ever about the sport despite Bristol, Connecticut being out of the loop since ’04. Weekes is just awesome in any role. He excels. His instant analysis and insight is second to none. Honestly, I would love to see him one day replace Ed Olczyk on NBC. Sorry Pierre haters. He’s the best at his gig. But I doubt it’ll happen with Weekes contractually obligated to NHL Network. He’s the man!

Team B features old hat Steve Levy with Barry Melrose. Levy remains a good call who makes games exciting. Melrose is better suited for the studio where he excelled on NHL2Nite on the Deuce. He’s too chatty and isn’t a natural in the booth. I’ve seen plenty of complaints already about him and Levy. Here’s my take. It’s a cool hockey tournament that distracts us from the usual boring training camp crap and preseason yawn fest. If you really dislike what you hear that much, there’s a mute button. Or you can stream the games and maybe catch the Canadian Sports Net feed.

Honestly, I want to enjoy these two weeks for what they are. It’s not quite the Olympics. However, with the creativity of having fresh talent with North America featuring prominent emerging stars Jack Eichel, Aaron EkbladJohnny Gaudreau, John GibsonShayne GostisbehereNathan MacKinnon, Auston MatthewsConnor McDavid, Matt Murray and many others including Jonathan Drouin and Brandon Saad, it definitely gives the 2016 World Cup a unique appeal. Having a bunch of kids 23 or younger team up on what should be a really entertaining team bodes well. I can’t wait to see what they add. So much young talent and skill on one roster. That’s who I’m pulling for.

I also love the idea of Team Europe. A concept that needed to happen with Euro-stars from other countries such as Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), Thomas Vanek (Austria) and Mats Zuccarello (Norway). A better idea that watching Slovakia which still features Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa get eaten up. Unfortunately, Frederik Andersen (Denmark) is out leaving goalie duties to Islander tandem Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. Caps’ backup Phillipp Grubaeur (Germany) is the emergency backup.

In assessing the Czechs, gone are the classic days of hockey legends Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek. Astonishingly, Jagr still plays at a high level for the Panthers. If only he could score a goal in the postseason again. If Florida gets there for a second straight year, he’ll be 45. It’s also sad that Patrik Elias is no longer part of Team Czech Republic. His status remains uncertain on returning to the Devils. But I believe something will be worked out so the all-time franchise scoring leader can go out on his own terms.

The Czechs features vet Tomas Plekanec along with Eurostar Roman Cervenka. They don’t quite have as much high end skill. They’ll get by on more grit featuring Michael Frolik and Martin Hanzal. Hopefully, Ales Hemsky and Jakub Voracek will finish. Who knows about Milan Michalek and older sibling Zbynek Michalek. Ondrej Palat brings plenty of speed and penalty killing. They’ll rely heavily on starter Petr Mrazek. with Ondrej Palec and Michal Neuvirth other options.

When you compare that to a loaded Canadian roster featuring Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Logan Couture, Drew Doughty, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude GirouxCorey Perry, Alex PietrangeloSteven Stamkos, John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews and Shea Weber, it’s clear who the favorite is. The goalies are Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford. It doesn’t matter who isn’t participating. No Jamie Benn, Seguin or Duncan Keith. No problem. Canada is so rich in talent all over both Northern, Central and Northwestern parts that everyone else including America pales in comparison. That’s why they’ve won golds in the last two Olympics and three of four. Only Sweden has gotten one doing so in ’06 on the back of Henrik Lundqvist by edging classic rival Finland.

USA has a very good roster. Even with Kevin Shattenkirk being passed over and Phil Kessel unable to participate due to off-season surgery, any team featuring rating NHL MVP Patrick Kane and ever clutch captain Joe Pavelski has a shot. Under demanding coach John Tortorella, they do play an in your face physical style at both ends. You know what. It works because the pieces fit. When you boast behemoth Dustin Byfuglien and most hated American Ryan Kesler, you can play a grinding style. The key will be to finish their checks and remain disciplined. Judging from the lines they used in exhibition, there’s chemistry. James van Riemsdyk and David Backes looked good. So did T.J. Oshie, who has a knack for big goals. Zach Parise is back too along with Blake Wheeler. He’ll do whatever it takes to score. If Max Pacioretty fits in, then they should have enough firepower. Derek Stepan adds creativity while former teammate Brandon Dubinsky should wreak havoc. Kyle Palmieri can do a bit of everything and Justin Abdelkader is a nuisance.

If there are two areas that are overlooked, it’s on the back end and in net. A blue line that includes John Carlson, Byfuglien, Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Suter should fare well. Matt Niskanen is overlooked. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick gets the nod to start with the capable Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider proven.

It shapes up to be an exciting tournament. I’ll have recaps of the games I catch. Plus more on what to expect from proven rivals Finland and Sweden. Plus a very talented Russia, who’s always interesting to follow in such tournaments.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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