Flush with exciting young talent and brimming with consequence, the 2016 IIHF World Championship begins Friday in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia.
With individual performances possibly impacting the World Cup, the NHL Draft and free agency, boy, are there some interesting story lines at play this May.
Here are 10 reasons we’ll be watching.
1. Auston Matthews vs. Patrik Laine
Top NHL prospects 1 and 2 looked like the instant pros they are projected to be in Tuesday’s exhibition game between USA and Finland. Each notched an assist in a 3-2 overtime beauty that had no business being so entertaining for a meaningless warm-up match.
Sliding onto the right side, Laine was placed on a line with Panthers teammates Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. He set up a nice goal with a bullet pass between a defender’s legs and showed off some fancy dangles.
Both countries are in Group B. Round 2 of Matthews-Laine goes Monday in round-robin action. Giddy up.
2. Bonus McDavid!
Injury limited Calder finalist Connor McDavid to just 45 NHL contests, so we’re thankful to see a few extra scoring chances generated from Mr. Generational. In a 3-0 exhibition victory over the Czech Republic, McDavid formed a dangerous trio with Matt Duchene and ol’ world juniors pal Max Domi. During a late rush, McDavid split the defence and potted one top-shelf.
Round-robin play assures McDavid and Team Canada a close-up look at both Matthews (May 6) and Laine (May 17). We can already see the comparisons and conclusions that will be drawn from a sample size of one.
3. The battle for World Cup roster spots
Seven roster spots still need filling out for the each of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey’s eight teams, and a few bubble candidates have chosen to participate in the worlds, in part, to make their case.
Duchene, Corey Perry, Brad Marchand, Ryan O’Reilly and Brendan Gallagher will all represent Canada, while one wonders if the decision to not fly to Russia will harm the World Cup bids of P.K. Subban, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie.
Perry, who failed to score in the playoffs and had to watch buddy Ryan Getzlaf get an invite, should feel the need to prove himself. As for Marchand and Gallagher, we see there being one spot for those two agitators to fight over on Canada’s September roster.
Keep an eye on emerging stars like Matthews, Sam Reinhart, Max Domi, Cody Ceci, Mathew Dumba, Noah Hanifin, and Mark Scheifele. All could have a shot at a cracking Team North America if they stand out in the next two weeks.
4. Incredible pressure on Russia to win
This year’s host nation finished second to Canada in 2015, which tasted so awful, many of the players skated off during “O Canada.” As we learned in Sochi, the pressure for Russia to win gold on home ice is massive.
“Last year’s silver in Prague was kind of bitter. Canada has gathered a very tough team. But the people were not happy: ‘How come only silver?’ ” Ice Hockey Federation of Russia president Vladislav Tretiak explained. “Nowadays any medal is achieved through hardships.”
5. Can Canada repeat, crown more Triple Gold members?
Our home and native land won the 2015 World Championship, which gained Sidney Crosby entry into the 26-member Triple Gold Club and snapped Canada’s five-year medal drought.
Can Canada defend its title, as it did the last time it claimed gold in 2003 and 2004?
“We are only to get better as the tournament goes on,” Duchene promised Tuesday after the team’s exhibition win.
Fun sidebar: Will any playoff-eliminated Canadian stars (Drew Doughty? Jeff Carter?) join Olympic and Stanley Cup champ and anointed captain Perry in Russia for a shot at Triple Gold?
6. The Radulov rumour mill
Russia curiously did not name any KHLers to its early World Cup roster. Alexander Radulov would’ve been at the top of the list, and now he’s confirmed his intent to rejoin the National Hockey League in 2016-17.
Bitter after losing the Gagarin Cup in an airtight seven-game series, free agent Radulov is playing for a new contract. It’ll be fun to see how he performs on the international stage with money on the line. Update: If he performs at all…
7. Unofficial GM meetings plant seeds for trades
Scouts and NHL front offices flock to the world championship to observe prospects but also trade targets. For what it’s worth, Canada’s Duchene and Taylor Hall have been rumoured trade bait. Dumba’s name has also been tossed out there recently, too.
Russian forward and Edmonton flame-out Nail Yakupov makes his debut for his country’s senior national team this week, too.
“In Edmonton there were some good moments. But unfortunately there were also some bad ones, which I want to forget, to start with a clean slate,” Yakupov told the IIHF website. “I did not have that much of a chance to build a line with someone. The players in the trio constantly changed, the line was disturbed. There is no desire to remember it.”
Bet on some trade and signing rumblings leaking from overseas.
8. Late arrivals to the rescue
What if the Washington Capitals are eliminated by Pittsburgh? Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov could hop on a flight and give the Russians a talent injection.
Team Canada suddenly becomes even more dangerous in Jamie Benn or John Tavares hop aboard.
The possibility of a nation improving on the fly, or right before the medal round, adds a nice plot twist to the tournament.
9. Fare thee well, Magic Man
Pavel Datsyuk has one more season remaining on his contract with the Detroit Red Wings. He has said he’ll wait until after he competes at the worlds before meeting with GM Ken Holland and making a final decision on his future. This will be the last chance to watch him play with the hope that he might give NHL fans a farewell tour in 2016-17.
10. Day games
Can’t wait till NHL playoff hockey at night? The World Championship’s European time difference gives you a good distraction at work.