The World Cup of Hockey makes its return in Toronto after a 12-year hiatus. Here’s a look at the eight teams involved in the tournament, which opens Saturday:
The unquestioned favorites, Canada will try to recapture the World Cup of Hockey after winning the last edition 12 years ago.
The Canadians boast the deepest pool of talent in the tournament, stacked with Art Ross, Hart and Norris trophy winners, as well as the last two goaltenders to win the Vezina. The puzzle pieces should be interchangeable for coach Mike Babcock with just about every player capable of taking on a role or position as needed. Twelve of the 13 forwards have scored at least 30 goals in an NHL season.
Canada offered one of the stingiest defensive showings ever at the 2014 Sochi Games, yielding a mere three goals all tournament. The World Cup defense took a hit with Duncan Keith sidelined by injury, but Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Drew Dougthy, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester all return. Jake Muzzin adds defensive stability while Brent Burns injects an air of enthusiasm and offensive pep.
Carey Price should be a lock to start in goal. Canada also has Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby along with two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford.
The North Americans could be the most exciting team to watch.
Built with players 23-and-younger from Canada and the U.S., the team has some of the brightest young talents in hockey, from Connor McDavid to Aaron Ekblad, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Nathan MacKinnon. Imagine Auston Matthews paired with fellow No. 1 overall picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and MacKinnon or Eichel teamed with the shifty Gaudreau.
The defense is young and inexperienced, led by Ekblad, the Florida Panthers’ 20-year-old standout along with Morgan Rielly of the Maple Leafs and Seth Jones from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Matt Murray, the Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, and Anaheim’s John Gibson could be busy.
Silver medal winners in Sochi, the Swedes are a good bet to challenge for the World Cup crown.
The defense is led by superstar Erik Karlsson and all-around Tampa Bay Lightning stalwart Victor Hedman, complemented by Anton Stralman, Hampus Lindholm, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Every member of the group skates well and moves the puck easily.
Up front, the Swedes are led by the still-productive Sedin twins as well as Nicklas Backstrom and Loui Eriksson, and emerging talents such as Filip Forsberg and Gabriel Landeskog.
It’s a smart, responsible group with just enough firepower to complement that fine defense and goaltending, which comes once again from Henrik Lundqvist.
The Americans have the reigning NHL scoring champ and Hart Trophy winner in Patrick Kane, the deepest goaltending in the tournament and a grind-it-out roster run by coach John Tortorella.
The Americans finished a disappointing fourth in Sochi, edged 1-0 by Canada in the semifinal before getting stomped 5-0 by Finland in the bronze-medal game. They opted against bringing back Phil Kessel, their leading scorer from that tournament, and will rely instead on feisty, blue-collar types such as David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky, Justin Abdelkader and Ryan Kesler.
Beyond Kane, Jets winger Blake Wheeler, Montreal captain Max Pacioretty, Wild star Zach Parise, and Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk, there’s just not the same level of high-end skill on teams such as Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia and North America.
The defense is solid, if unspectacular, with Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh as well as a potential game-changer in Dustin Byfuglien. With Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider, the Americans have three of the best goaltenders in the tournament.
With medals at five of the last six Olympics, the Finns are unlikely to go quietly.
This isn’t the aging roster led by Teemu Selanne that won bronze in Sochi. It is brimming with youth, including Winnipeg Jets sensation Patrik Laine, Panthers center Aleksander Barkov as well as young defenders like Olli Maatta and Sami Vatanen. Thirteen players on the 23-man roster are aged 25 and younger. That should offer the Finns, who have always relied on savvy defense and stable goaltending, a little more pep and excitement.
Finland is especially young on the back end, which could put more pressure on either Tuukka Rask or Pekka Rinne in goal.
Perhaps no team in the tournament can boast game-breaking talent like the Russians.
From Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to Vladimir Tarasenko and Nikita Kucherov, Russia is loaded with offensive talent. Of course, that’s usually the case with the Russians, who have underperformed the past two Olympics, including a fifth-place showing on home soil in 2014.
This squad is deeper though, primarily due to the influx of talented young players like the 23-year-old Kucherov (30 goals last season), 24-year-old Tarasenko (40 goals) as well as Artemi Panarin, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the leading scorer (77 points) for the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
Stack those stars on top of Ovechkin, Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, the now former Red Wing legend, and there’s plenty to fear here for World Cup opponents.
Outside of 37-year-old Montreal Canadiens stalwart Andrei Markov, the defense is mostly a young contingent and the goaltending is riddled with question marks as both Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky had rocky performances last season.
The team represents eight different nations — France, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway — and is a predictably mish-mashed roster tilted toward an aging group of NHL stars, including Zdeno Chara (39 years old), Marian Hossa (37), Marian Gaborik (34) and Thomas Vanek (32).
On defense, Chara will be joined by 38-year-old Mark Streit, 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg, and 34-year-old Christian Ehrhoff.
New Kings captain Anze Kopitar gives the Europeans a powerful, two-way force down the middle, but there might not be enough scoring in this group to be a threat. Hossa, Gaborik and Vanek are all veterans and Oilers up-and-comer Leon Draisaitl is just 20.
Jaroslav Halak is a solid option in goal.
The Czechs have a young roster that appears the weakest on paper heading into the World Cup.
Petr Mrazek, the likely No. 1 netminder who was one of the NHL’s best for the first half of last season, could be the difference. The team will need him to be red hot since it does not have much firepower after top center David Krejci backed out because of injury. Jakub Voracek fronts a forward contingent mixed with youth, such as 20-year-old David Pastrnak and 22-year-old Tomas Hertl, as well as aging talent like Milan Michalek and Ales Hemsky.
The group on defense is easily the thinnest among the eight teams with Maple Leafs defender Roman Polak joined by the likes of Zbynek Michalek and Andrej Sustr.