By Kevin Allen, USA TODAY Sports Sept 18, 2016
TORONTO – Defenseman Seth Jones said he has always believed the North American 23-and-under team could win the World Cup of Hockeytournament even while others viewed his team as a gimmick.
“That’s why we are here,” Jones said. “We aren’t backing down from anyone. We are young, and not as experienced as other teams. But I think we have the skill to win it.”
That theory is gaining more traction, especially after the young NHL stars chewed up Finland 4-1 in a preliminary-round game Sunday night. The North Americans overwhelmed the Finns with speed, creativity and 43 shots on goal.
“They are the youngest players in the tournament, but they have been the limelight and the spotlight their whole careers,” said North America coach Todd McLellan.
Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Jonathan Drouin(Tampa Bay Lightning) and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche) scored for the North Americans.
“They really took it to us and showed their individual skill,” Finland goalie Pekka Rinne said.
This was only the first test for the young squad. The Russians, North America’s next opponent (8 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN), have more dynamic scorers than Finland. Sweden also has more skill than the Finns.
But this North American team is the most fascinating one in the tournament. In theory, it is supposed to be a team of future stars, but most are already stars. Gaudreau was a top-10 scorer last season, and goalie Matt Murray, who earned the win against the Finns, helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup last season. MacKinnon is Colorado’s best player.
This roster boasts five No. 1 picks in MacKinnon, Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers), Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers) and Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs).
“We started out as a group and we are becoming a team,” McLellan said.
Matthews, Eichel, McDavid and MacKinnon are among the most entertaining players in the game. When the North Americans claim the puck, they zip up the ice like they are roaring up the back stretch of the Daytona International Speedway.
This team is fast – warp-speed fast. This game could have been 6-0 after two periods. The North Americans put two pucks on the line. Once, a replay showed it didn’t cross the line. In the other instance, the replay showed the North Americans were guilty of goalie interference.
“Our staff has definitely believed in us since the first day we got together in Montreal,” Eichel said. “We understand where we are at and that if we play to our capability, we can be very successful.”
When the idea of a young North American team and a European team featuring players from countries outside the big four was introduced as part of the World Cup format, it was heavily criticized as being too gimmicky. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association opted to go with this concept because they believed it improved the competitiveness of the tournament. Adding these talented players strengthened the notion that this is a best-on-best tournament, improving on the Olympics, where the lineup includes countries that boast minimal amounts of NHL talent.
Today, there seems to be considerable intrigue about how far the North Americans can go. The prevailing wisdom is lack of big-game experience will be their undoing. But right now they need one more win to advance to the semifinal.
If they reach the semifinal, anything is possible. This North American team is, at the very least, a threat to win it all.