8 people under the bright spotlight at the World Cup

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price talks about having defenceman Shea Weber playing in front of him.

The round robin portion of the World Cup has officially hit the halfway point. And that means that for four of the eight teams, the tournament itself is half over, since they’ll be going home empty-handed once the round wraps up on Thursday night.

We don’t know which teams those are yet, and there’s still plenty of time for this year’s tournament to take a few more twists and turns. But it’s fair to say that the pressure is building. And for some of those who are front and centre in this tournament, the pressure has been higher than for others.

So today, let’s take a look some of those who find themselves under an especially bright spotlight this week. Here are the eight names who have the most to gain – or lose – from their time on the World Cup stage.

Team Canada: Carey Price
Canada is a bit of a funny team to find a pick for. As the host team and overwhelming favorite, there’s no team in the tournament that’s under more pressure as a group – even one loss will be reason for panic across a nation. But the roster is stacked with so much talent that few individual players really stand out as being directly under a microscope.

But Price is an exception. After missing most of last year with an injury, his performance in the tournament will be watched closely for any hint that he’s not 100 per cent back to his old Hart Trophy form.

Fans of Team Canada will want to see him do well, although with Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford waiting in the wings, it’s not make-or-break. But fans of the Montreal Canadiens will be living and dying with each shot on net, hoping that their franchise player looks like his old self.

Saturday’s opening-night shutout against an overmatched Czech squad was certainly a good sign. If Price is back to his old tricks, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But if he struggles, even briefly, well…. Montreal fans aren’t the sort to panic, right?

Honourable mentions: When Habs fans need a break from overanalyzing Price, they can overanalyze new acquisition Shea Weber. Sidney Crosby will be under the spotlight because he’s Sidney Crosby. And after taking over the GM duties from two-time winner Steve Yzerman, Doug Armstrong will take plenty of heat if Canada doesn’t win it all.

Team USA: John Tortorella
We tend to focus on players in these sort of pieces, but there’s no question that coaches and GMs can come under just as much scrutiny, if not far more. That’s especially true for a team like Team USA, who made plenty of roster decisions that were widely questioned, all in an apparent effort to build a squad that would have the best chance at beating Canada.

After Saturday’s disastrous opener that saw them drop a 3-0 decision to an underdog Team Europe, the Americans are in serious danger of missing the playoffs.

The heat on the management group has been cranked up, and there’s lots more to come if Team USA can’t come through in a literal must-win against Canada tonight. Plenty of that will fall on the shoulders of GM Dean Lombardi, who had the final call on the roster. But Lombardi still has two Cup rings in the last four years and plenty of credibility to draw from, so he’ll get at least some benefit of the doubt.

Not so for Tortorella. He may have a Cup ring of his own, but 2004 was a long time and three jobs ago, and his reputation has taken a beating in recent years.

The coach already put himself in the spotlight earlier in the tournament with his musings on the national anthem, and he made that spotlight even brighter with some odd lineup decisions, including Saturday’s puzzling scratch of Dustin Byfuglien and tonight’s apparent line combos.

Tortorella’s hard-nosed style is well-known, and he has a team that seems to have been designed in his image. If that team turns out not to be good enough, the coach will end up wearing that.

Tortorella still has his defenders, and Team USA can silence the doubters with a big effort tonight against the team they were built to beat. But if they can’t pull it off and end up going home before the final four, there will be plenty of finger-pointing to go around. And a lot of them will be aimed behind the bench.

Honourable mentions: Yet another Hab makes an appearance, as Max Pacioretty was called out by Tortorella during the exhibition round. Patrick Kane will be under plenty of pressure as the team’s best player, and his ugly defensive gaffe in the opener didn’t help matters.

Team Czech Republic: Vladimir Sobotka
The Czechs sent one of the weaker rosters, have already lost twice and were all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention by midway through the tournament’s third day, so it’s tempting to be kind and just give them a pass here. But nobody wants any pity, so we’ll pick somebody, and Sobotka is as good a choice as anyone.

His “will he or won’t he” dance with the Blues continues, with hopes for an NHL comeback starting to fade due to contractual wrangling. He never put up big numbers in St. Louis, but he flashed just enough potential to make a return seem enticing.

A goal or two at the World Cup would remind a few NHL fans that he exists, and maybe generate some excitement for an eventual return. Barring a miracle, he’s got one game left to make it happen.

Honourable mentions: Normally we’d talk about players looking to get noticed, but the third pairing of Roman Polak and Michal Kempny would probably prefer to go through a game without making any highlight reels. They struggled against Canada, and were on the ice for both of Team Europe’s regulation goals yesterday. You can work around a weak pairing most nights in the NHL, but in an all-star tournament, there’s nowhere to hide.

Team Finland: Pekka Rinne
Granted, you could pick a goaltender from any team and they’d work as an under-the-spotlight pick. That’s the nature of the position. But Rinne fits the bill more than most.

That’s partly because he seems to be one of the tougher active goaltenders to find any sort of consensus on. Many fans still view him as an elite performer, while others point to his lackluster numbers last season as proof that he’s dropping off with age. He still earned the starting nod over Tuukka Rask in Sunday’s opener, and was pelted with 43 shots in a 4-1 loss. Even in that game, his performance was divisive – some saw a goalie who was fighting the puck, while others saw the only player keeping Finland from getting truly embarrassed.

It’s possible that Finland could decide to turn to Rask for today’s crucial matchup with Sweden, and if he plays well then we may have already seen the last of Rinne in the tournament. But the odds are we’ll get at least one more chance to watch him in action. And we probably won’t agree on what we see.

Honourable mentions: Patrik Laine will get plenty of attention. Aleksander Barkov feels like he’s close to breaking through as a genuine star, and a strong tournament could help make that happen.

Team North America: Peter Chiarelli
It’s tough to pick a player off of this team who really has their reputation on the line. Sure, Connor McDavid will be under a microscope, but even if he had a terrible tournament, he’s still Connor McDavid. Even the crustiest hockey fans tend to be more forgiving to young players, and it’s hard to imagine anyone on this roster getting savaged when (or if) they eventually bow out.

So instead, let’s turn the spotlight on Chiarelli, who put the group together. It was a tough job that didn’t have a blueprint, given that we’ve never really see this type of team at this level. And at 1-1, they certainly haven’t embarrassed themselves so far.

Chiarelli is one of the NHL’s more well-respected GMs, but his reputation has absorbed some dents over the last year thanks to yet another disastrous Oilers’ season and a Taylor Hall trade that virtually nobody seemed to like.

Assembling a team of young guns that ended up surprising the world would help repair some of that damage.

Honourable mentions: Matt Murray may still have some doubters after last year’s Cup run. First overall pick Auston Matthews will have his every move scrutinized since we’re in Toronto. Johnny Gaudreau wouldn’t mind a big performance while he continues to wait on a new contract.

Team Europe: Thomas Vanek
When did you fall off the Thomas Vanek bandwagon? For some, it was when the Sabres traded him to the Islanders, and he reportedly turned down a massive contract offer. For others it was the disappointing playoff run in Montreal. Maybe it was the underwhelming first year in Minnesota, or the even worse one last season that ended in a buyout.

But at some point, everyone seems to have checked out on the 32-year-old former 40-goal man. At this point, at least among NHL fans, he’s largely a punchline, if not the poster child for overpaid and underachieving forwards.

And maybe that’s deserved. But the Red Wings still felt like he was worth a gamble, signing him to a one-year deal this summer, and their fans would love to see some signs that the move could pay off.

While bigger name teammates like Zdeno Chara and Anze Kopitar don’t have much left to prove to anyone, Vanek’s reputation could use plenty of rehabilitation. A big performance, or at least a clutch goal or two, could provide some. Failing that, some indication of a pulse would be nice. An assist on the opening goal yesterday was a start.

Honourable mentions: Jaroslav Halak has been a bit of a forgotten man in recent seasons, but he knows a thing or two about getting hot at the right time, and his 35 save shutout against Team USA was an indication that he could do it again. Ralph Krueger’s coaching has the team on the verge of a playoff spot, and has already created some buzz about an eventual return to the NHL.

Team Sweden: Erik Karlsson
The general consensus is that Sweden has the tournament’s best blue line, and Karlsson is a key part of that. Unlike in Ottawa, he’ll have enough support around him that he won’t be expected to do it all, and a high-skill tournament like this should be an ideal fit for his speed and playmaking ability.

But this is Karlsson, and we all know how the narrative goes. We’re a few months removed from the great Norris Trophy debate of 2016, in which Karlsson’s game was relentlessly compared and contrasted with eventual winner Drew Doughty‘s, but the scars are still there.

Somehow, a guy who’d just put up one of the best offensive seasons by a defenceman in history wound up getting ripped by fans and media who preferred to nitpick his every defensive shortcoming.

This tournament marks the first chance to see Karlsson in meaningful action since then, and if he can be as dominate as he was last season, Sweden has a real shot at winning it all. But if he makes even one small defensive mistake along the way, don’t be surprised if we all never hear the end of it.

Honourable mentions: Henrik Lundqvist has the ability to steal a game or two on his own, although he’ll need to get healthy first. Loui Eriksson‘s ability to mesh with the Sedin twins on the top line will be a major story to watch for Canucks fans.

Team Russia: Alex Ovechkin
There may not be an easier pick on this list. Ovechkin is Russia’s best player and biggest star, and he’ll get a big chunk of the credit if they do well. But if their tournament ends in disappointment, we know who’ll take much of the blame.

So far, those disappointments have been Ovechkin’s legacy, at least in terms of best-on-best tournaments. He’s tasted international success, winning three world championships to go with world junior gold. But in three trips to the Winter Olympics, he’s come up empty, with Team Russia failing to medal even once.

Is that Ovechkin’s fault? Not entirely, and he’s put up decent numbers in Olympic play. More importantly, it’s somewhat silly to assign individual blame for failure in a team sport like hockey. But that doesn’t mean fans won’t do it. And when you mix in Ovechkin’s NHL story, one featuring fantastic numbers and plenty of individual awards but no Stanley Cup rings, and the narrative has already been laid out.

Fair or not, he’s been labeled as the superstar who can’t win the big one.

All those themes played out in Sunday’s opener, which saw Ovechkin score once and nearly add another in the dying seconds, but still skate off with a tough loss against a Team Sweden that was without their top goaltender. The Russians rebounded with last night’s win over Team North America, but likely still need a win on Thursday to make the playoff round.

Ovechkin has never hidden how much playing for Russia means to him – he recently said that he’s going to the 2018 Games even if the NHL doesn’t.

The World Cup isn’t the Olympics in terms of international prestige, at least not yet. But a big tournament from Ovechkin that ended with a Russian win would go a long way toward finally changing that stubborn perception that he’s not a big game player.

Honourable mentions: Oleg Znarok holds both the coach and GM titles in his first best-on-best tournament appearance. Nikita Kucherov still needs a new contract, and a big performance here could help nudge up his asking price. Vladimir Tarasenko took some heat towards the end of last year’s Blues playoff run.

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