Can Anyone Beat Canada? The Best and Worst of the World Cup Teams
Down Goes Brown previews the World Cup of Hockey, breaking down each of the eight teams in the tournament.
Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
The World Cup of Hockey gets underway Saturday, with the start of a round robin that will see each of the eight teams play three times. The two best records in each group move on to the single elimination semis before a best-of-three final. If that sounds like a quick tournament, it is—the whole thing will wrap up in two weeks, tops, which doesn't leave much room for slow starts or building chemistry.
In theory, that means that anything can happen. In reality, this isn't exactly an even field. There's a clear favorite, a handful of teams with a puncher's chance, and some serious long shots.
Oh, and even though it's an international tournament, a quarter of the teams aren't real countries. Don't ask.
Today, we break down the best and worst of each of the eight teams.
Let's be honest... this group exists in order to get Team Canada and Team USA into the semifinals, potentially setting up the NHL's dream matchup in the final. It would be a surprise if it didn't play out that way.
International history: There have been 12 true best-on-best tournaments played since the inaugural Canada Cup back in 1976. Canada has won eight of those, including four of five since the turn of the century.
Biggest NHL stars: The entire team is packed with them, so much so that P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall and Kris Letang aren't here even though they'd all be first-line players on most others team in the tournament. They've got the best player in hockey (Sidney Crosby), each of the last two Vezina winners (Carey Price and Braden Holtby) and the reigning Norris winner (Drew Doughty). They're good.
Coach: Mike Babcock, who gets to spend two weeks with this group of all-stars and then go back to coaching the Maple Leafs.
GM: Doug Armstrong, with help from pretty much every other NHL GM other than Steve Yzerman, who bailed after leading Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals.
Strength: As always when it comes to Team Canada, the depth up front is ridiculous, so much so that when Jeff Carter got hurt, they just swapped in a former MVP in Corey Perry, and when Tyler Seguin went down this week, they could turn to one of the league's best two-way centers in Ryan O'Reilly. Think of this way: Depending on how the lines shake out, superstars like John Tavares, Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf will be asked to play supporting roles. That's scary.
Weakness: While the forward ranks are stacked, it's almost entirely with natural centers, which could create some issues with guys having to make quick adjustments to playing out of position. And the blueline, while good, is nowhere near as stacked as the rest of the roster.
Realistic best case: They run the table, going undefeated in front of the hometown crowd and winning yet another international title.
Realistic worst case: Pretty much anything short of that would be considered a disaster.
Most likely outcome: There are no sure things in international hockey, where every game can be crucial and one hot goaltender can singlehandedly stop a powerhouse. But it will be a surprise if Canada doesn't win it all.
Team Czech Republic
International history: They won gold at the 1998 Olympics, and have had four other top-three finishes (two of those as Czechoslovakia).
Biggest NHL stars: They've got the Flyers' Jakub Voracek up front and Wings' starter Petr Mrazek in goal. That's about it. Jaromir Jagr declined to play, and Tomas Hertl and David Krejci both had to bow out due to injury.
Coach: Josef Jandac, in his first major tournament since taking the job earlier this year.
GM: Former NHLer Martin Rucinsky, who was on the 1998 gold medal-winning team.
Strength: Between Mrazek and Michal Neuvirth, they've got goaltending that might be able to steal a game or two.
Weakness: In terms of pure talent, this is probably the weakest of the eight teams.
Realistic best case: Beating Team Canada in the opener will be a tall order, but if they can beat Team Europe in their second game that could set up a "winner moves on" showdown with the US in the final game of the round robin.
Realistic worst case: An oh-for-three round robin isn't hard to picture.
Most likely outcome: They play the favorites tougher than expected, but miss the playoffs.
International history: None, since they're not an actual country. None of the nations that make up Team Europe have ever had a top three finish at a best-on-best tournament, although Slovakia played for bronze at the 2010 Olympics.
Biggest NHL stars: There are more big names here than you might think, including Anze Kopitar, Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and Roman Josi.
Coach: Ralph Krueger, who you may remember from his brief coaching stint with the Oilers a few years ago.
GM: Satan himself! (Lightning and thunder echo ominously.) As in former NHLer Miroslav Satan.
Strength: While the roster is undeniably top-heavy, there's some decent veteran talent here. They'll be able to play shutdown hockey in a close game since Chara and Josi give them two studs on the blueline, while Kopitar and Hossa are two of the best two-way players in hockey.
Weakness: The goaltending is weak, especially after Frederik Andersen got hurt; none of their three guys would even make most of the other rosters. There's also the question of motivation—will this hodge-podge group be able to come together against teams that are playing for national pride?
Realistic best case: They face Team USA in the first game of the tournament, and in theory there's no better time for an upset than early on when players are rusty and nobody's had time to gel. If they manage the upset in that one, they'll be in the driver's seat to steal one of the two Group A playoff spots.
Realistic worst case: Last place in the division is a definite possibility.
Most likely outcome: They're a tougher opponent than expected and are able to at least make the US and Canada work for their wins, but a playoff spot is unlikely.
International history: They won the 1996 World Cup, and have been runner-up to Canada three times (in the 2002 and 2010 Olympics, and the 1991 Canada Cup).
Biggest NHL stars: They've got the reigning MVP in Patrick Kane and a trio of Vezina candidates in goal.
Coach: John Tortorella, who's never been head coach for a best-on-best before, but was an assistant with the silver medal-winning team in 2010. He has strong feelings about the national anthem.
GM: Cup-winning Kings GM Dean Lombardi.
Strength: The team seems to think that it's leadership, since they had to come up with a bizarre three-tiered structure to make sure nobody got left out. More importantly, that goaltending trio—Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop—is probably the best in the entire tournament.
Weakness: Lombardi has taken an old-school approach to building the roster, focusing on filling out specific roles rather than assembling as much talent as possible. He views that as the best way to beat Team Canada, but it's led to a handful of questionable picks, like Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky over Phil Kessel.
Realistic best case: They won't be the favorites, but this team has more than enough talent to have a legitimate shot at winning the tournament. The best path there would involve beating Canada in the round robin to win Group A and avoid a semifinal meeting with the Team B winner.
Realistic worst case: If a team that seems laser-focused on beating Team Canada were to stumble against the Czechs or Team Europe, it could cost them the playoffs.
Most likely outcome: A spot in the final seems likely, where there's a good chance they get their wish: A showdown with Canada.
This group features three traditional hockey powers, two of which have a realistic shot at winning the tournament. And then there's the event's biggest wild card...
International history: As the Soviet Union, they dominated international hockey for decades. But they've been surprisingly weak in best-on-best tournaments, winning only one (the 1981 Canada Cup), and failing to so much as medal at any of the last three Olympics.
Biggest NHL stars: The forward ranks have plenty of star power, including Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Coach: Oleg Znarok, who guided the Russians to medals at each of the last three World Championships.
GM: Znarok holds the GM title as well, while Russian legend Vladislav Tretiak is team president.
Strength: They've got more firepower up front than anyone other than Canada. And while goaltending has been a weak link for Russia in recent years, the trio of Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov and Andrei Vasilevskiy is solid.
Weakness: The blueline won't scare anyone.
Realistic best case: There's enough talent here to blow some teams out of the water. They should make the playoffs, and they'd have a good shot at beating anyone they ran into once they were there.
Realistic worst case: We've been down this road with Russia before, and in recent tournaments the sum has always ended up being less than the parts. If the goaltending doesn't hold up and the superstars up front can't find some chemistry quickly, it's plausible that they could flame out yet again.
Most likely outcome: They finish second in the group to set up a dramatic semifinal matchup with Canada or the US.
International history: They're the only member of the Big Six to have never won a best-on-best tournament. But they're always in the mix; they were the runner-up in the last World Cup, and their four medals in the NHL-era Olympics is more than anyone.
Biggest NHL stars: Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne will battle for the starter's job in goal.
Coach: Lauri Marjamaki, who's just 39 years old and has been described as a "coaching phenom."
GM: Three-time Selke winner Jere Lehtinen.
Strength: There's plenty of young talent up front that will be gaining some valuable major tournament experience, and the goaltending should be strong.
Weakness: They're low on star power outside the crease, with the defense looking especially thin.
Realistic best case: The Finns always seem to find a way to overachieve in these tournaments, so it's not out of the question that they could surprise Sweden or Russia and steal a Group B playoff spot.
Realistic worst case: On paper, a last-place finish in the group is in play.
Most likely outcome: Given the young roster, this feels like more of a building block for 2018 than a realistic chance at winning right now. They play everyone tough, but miss the playoffs.
Team North America
International history: None, because they're a made-up marketing proposal come to life. (The roster is constructed from Canadian and American players who are 23 years old and younger.)
Biggest NHL stars: Connor McDavid is the captain and the team's biggest name, but they'll also feature Johnny Gaudreau, Aaron Ekblad and Nathan MacKinnon.
Coach: Todd McLellan, McDavid's coach with the Oilers.
GM: Peter Chiarelli, McDavid's GM with the Oilers. Hey, I'm starting to sense a theme here.
Strength: They'll be fast and skilled. And based on some of their comments, they may be too young to realize they're not supposed to have a chance. That will help.
Weakness: When the concept was announced last year, it looked like goaltending could be a disaster. That's not the case anymore, thanks to Matt Murray's fantastic playoff run, but they're still weaker than most teams in the crease.
Realistic best case: There's little question that they're the tournament's biggest unknown. It's not hard to imagine them overwhelming teams with their speed, pulling off an upset or two and maybe even earning a playoff spot. Maybe just as importantly, a strong tournament could fulfill the NHL's hopes of helping to create a wave of new stars.
Realistic worst case: They get swept aside easily by their more established competition, and everyone realizes the NHL just made their next generation of stars look bad with a silly gimmick.
Most likely outcome: They're fun to watch, and everyone is secretly rooting for them because they make for a great story. They pull off a feel-good upset against one of the three real countries, but it's not enough for a playoff spot.
International history: They won gold at the 2006 Olympics, and were the runner-up at the 2014 Olympics and 1984 Canada Cup.
Biggest NHL stars: There's no shortage of big names, including Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson and the Sedin twins.
Coach: Rikard Gronborg, who served as an assistant in 2014.
GM: Veteran coach Tommy Boustedt, assisted by a trio of longtime NHL stars in Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom.
Strength: The defense is rock solid, featuring Karlsson along with Victor Hedman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It's probably the best blueline in the tournament.
Weakness: While there's plenty of talent in the forward ranks, they don't have the same sort of game-breaker up front that other teams have. Maybe you make a case for Nicklas Backstrom, but he's more of a set up guy, and there aren't any 40-goal snipers here for him to get the puck to.
Realistic best case: On paper, they're the best team aside frm Canada. They're absolutely good enough to win the whole tournament.
Realistic worst case: Lundqvist was hurt a few weeks ago, and while he's reportedly fine, it was a reminder that him getting hurt or struggling could cost this team a playoff spot.
Most likely outcome: This is the best team in the group, and should finish first in the round robin. The road to the final will be a tough one, but they've got as good a shot as anyone. A tournament win wouldn't be a shock, but runner-up status is more likely.