It’s easy to forget what young players can accomplish.
Wayne Gretzky, Jarri Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr all could have played for an under-23 team the fall before the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. The same is true of Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy at the start of the New York Islanders dynasty. For a more recent example, look at the key stars in both Chicago and Pittsburgh when those teams’ current cores started winning.
Those teams weren’t made up exclusively of young players, but they do give evidence that young teams can go toe-to-toe with more experienced clubs and still come out on top.
That’s what Team North America will try to do at this month’s World Cup. The following is a suggested blueprint for the youngest of the eight entries to win it all.
Game 1: September 18 vs. Team Finland
The U-23 team is in Group B, which automatically avoids the Canadians and Americans through the preliminary round. Still, they probably need to win two of their three games to advance to the semifinals, and the Finns are (on paper at least) their weakest opponent.
Finland has a long history of over-performing in international play, but they are beatable, and as long as Connor McDavid can hold his own against their top forward line and defence pair the Young Guns’ depth should be able to win the game.
The Finns have three decent forward lines, but only three proven NHL defencemen, making their second and third pairs on the blue line vulnerable to North America’s balanced attack. Players like Nathan MacKinnon and perhaps Auston Matthews, both expected to play on lower lines, will be critical here.
Game 2: September 19 vs. Team Russia
The Russians, as always, are terrifying on the attack with a dizzying array of individual talents. Both they and Team North America will be coming off a game the night before, so there won’t be much of a rest advantage, but that shared fatigue should make it easier to grind down a suspect defence.
Andrei Markov, likely to be Russia’s best defenceman, turns 38 in December. Dmitri Orlov and Kulikov anchor the other two pairs. That isn’t inspiring. As long as the Young Guns’ defence can hold down the fort—and with Aaron Ekblad, Jacob Trouba, and Seth Jones all anchoring pairings that should be possible—an aggressive attack could win the day.
Matt Murray, who saw a lot of Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov in the playoffs (and lots of Evgeni Malkin at all times) is the logical starter here. Ideally he’ll be fresh, with John Gibson getting the start against the Finns a night earlier.
Game 3: September 21 vs. Team Sweden
The Swedes should be North America’s strongest preliminary round foe, but the schedule maker has given them a little help. While the Young Guns will come into this game with a day’s rest, Sweden played the previous day against arch-rival Finland, which should leave the team a little tired both emotionally and physically.
It may also potentially mean a chance at a weaker goalie. Assuming that Henrik Lundqvist faces off against the Finns, Sweden will have a choice of running out a tired ‘tender or playing backup Jacob Markstrom. Either way, the U-23 team benefits.
North America will need that help. Even without Henrik Zetterberg and Alex Steen, Sweden will ice four very good forward lines and has arguably the best defence corps in the tournament.
This is where McDavid will need to be brilliant. He’s the single-best individual talent on either team and will be relied upon to break through the Swedish defence. Murray should get the start in this one, too, and has familiarity with scorers like Nicklas Backstrom and Patric Hornqvist.
Game 4: Semifinal match, September 24 or 25
If North America wins all three of its preliminary round games, which is possible if not probable, it would mean playing Group A’s second-best team in the single-elimination semifinal.
Team USA would be the likely opponent in that instance. Its management has opted for a gritty, two-way approach to the tournament, leaving them a little light on offence. The loss of Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Brandon Saad to the U-23 team hasn’t helped either. In a game against the U.S., the Young Guns would have an edge in offensive firepower.
On the other hand, there is a distinct possibility North America will end up playing against Canada. The Canadian roster is the strongest in this tournament top-to-bottom, but in a single elimination event anything can happen. North America has depth at all positions and a hot goaltender could help pull off the upset win.
Games 5-7: The Final, September 27 – October 1
It is impossible to plan for the best-of-three final without knowing what has transpired over the first four games of the tournament, but if the U-23 squad makes it this far it will be reasonable to conclude that its roster is living up to potential.
That means a balanced attack up front. McDavid and the all-American second line have already been mentioned, but strong performances from third and fourth lines with two-way ability will be important, too. Centres Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sean Couturier both have good reputations for playing mature defensive games and will need to set the tone for their respective lines.
On defence, Ekblad and Morgan Rielly have played minutes and roles well beyond their years and may end up as the de facto shutdown pairing. Jones and Ryan Murray have the advantage of familiarity, which can be huge in a short tournament. With Trouba, Shayne Gostisbehere and Colton Parayko rounding out the group there is no obvious weakness here.
Goaltending was a concern when the tournament was first announced, but a Cup win for Murray has alleviated that to a great degree. He and Gibson are both capable NHL starters and either could potentially backstop the Young Guns to a title in this event.
If this team can gel quickly, it could be shockingly good. Offensively, it can go head-to-head with nearly anyone, it has balance and depth at all positions and enters the tournament with the league’s last Cup-winning goalie in net. It does have a legitimate path to victory over its more proven rivals.