Facing Off: World Cup Takes Centre Stage

Facing Off is a weekly column debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks, to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment.

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Well, that was a fun week for hockey fans.

It started with the trade deadline, which was anticlimactic for the most part, and ended with the announcement that Wayne Gretzky will be lacing them up again to captain a stacked Oilers alumni team for Winnipeg’s outdoor game in October. That is going to be a hot ticket in Manitoba and all across the Prairies.

In between, we witnessed the first showdown on NHL ice between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, which didn’t disappoint. They both stood out as the best players for their respective teams, with Edmonton’s McDavid getting the better of his draft rival by scoring the overtime winner — in enemy territory, but in front of friends and family who made the trip down to Buffalo from Ontario.

In a scheduling quirk, Sidney Crosby faced off against Alex Ovechkin on the same night, at the same time — sort of signifying a torch passing between generational talents. However, those decade-deep superstars were less impactful, with Crosby limited to an assist in a losing effort while Ovechkin was held pointless as Washington prevailed over Pittsburgh.

The highlights just kept coming, including a goaltenders’ duel to decide an 11-round shootout between Ottawa and St. Louis, where Patrik Berglund finally scored the lone goal to win it for the Blues. That was Andrew Hammond’s best performance of the season for the Senators — albeit in relief — and his shootout stop on Kevin Shattenkirk was shades of last year’s heroics.

We also got to witness Dion Phaneuf’s return to Toronto as a member of the Senators, which turned into quite the spectacle. Phaneuf was playfully booed by his new teammates at the morning skate before being honoured by the Maple Leafs with a video tribute. Shortly after shedding a tear there, Phaneuf was dropping the gloves with one of the guys he was traded for, Colin Greening, in a spirited scrap.

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Phaneuf got the last laugh there, with Ottawa rallying for a 3-2 victory to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but Toronto fans got to celebrate William Nylander’s first career goal, so it was a win-win in a lot of ways. Plus, that loss helped the Leafs maintain the best odds for picking Auston Matthews in June’s draft.

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Toronto’s future is looking relatively bright despite bringing up the rear in the standings, with a handful of top prospects presently debuting on the NHL roster and Mitch Marner continuing to do his thing in terrorizing the OHL. Marner, the fourth overall pick in 2015 behind McDavid and Eichel, made the highlight-reel with a ridiculous drop pass on a breakaway that resulted in a tap-in for London Knights teammate Christian Dvorak — showing up the Erie Otters and Dylan Strome, the third overall pick from 2015. As a former goalie, that’s just not fair!

There was plenty of off-ice excitement in the hockey world too, from the trades to the revealing of World Cup rosters and jerseys. Fun times all around over the past seven days, with last weekend’s Stadium Series games in Colorado and Minnesota almost getting overshadowed by the pre-deadline deals involving the likes of Eric Staal.

THW had a presence at both those outdoor games, with this week’s Facing Off contributor Sebastian Hedley-Noble taking in the festivities at Coors Field in Denver.

Let’s start there . . . what was the coolest part about covering the Stadium Series games? Which memories will stick with you? Any particular interviews or handshakes that stand out? Did you have to pinch yourself at any point?

HEDLEY-NOBLE: The coolest part for me was just the fact that it’s an NHL game outside, at beautiful Coors Field. The atmosphere was amazing, for both games. I don’t think I’ll ever see something quite like that again. I did not have to pinch myself, no, but watching the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings alumni game was something very special for me. I got to see all of my favorite players from those great Avs teams during the 90s that made me a hockey nut — Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Ray Bourque, Milan Hejduk, Valeri Kamensky, and on and on! The game itself didn’t disappoint either.

The one moment that stood out to me the most from the Stadium Series games was Sakic’s wicked wrister, that I was barely able to see even on the super-slow replays. Sakic’s still got it, and watching him release that famous shot one last time was absolutely amazing.

It was too bad the present Avs couldn’t at least get a point in the regular-season game, as I thought they outplayed Detroit for much of the game, but lost it in the last minute on a soft goal. That is something I am trying quickly to forget! An all-around wonderful experience however, that’s for certain.

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ALLI BAKER (Wild beat writer for THW, who covered the other Stadium Series game between Minnesota and Chicago): What was the coolest part? It’s hard to pick just one part. The entire experience was absolutely amazing, but I think the coolest part was just to finally see outdoor hockey in Minnesota, and to see 50,000 people cheering on their teams at TCF. For some teams, it seems the excitement of outdoor games has worn off a bit but, as a Minnesota Wild fan, it was just an incredible experience to see it all come together.

I’ll always remember the whole thing, but I think the first time I walked into the Blackhawks’ dressing room and saw Kane and Toews, etc., will always stick with me. It was surreal to see these players a couple of feet away from me instead of on the television or the ice. That, and interviewing Mikko Koivu were probably the most memorable.

Koivu’s always been my favorite player and it was like a dream come true to finally interview him. Everyone always says he’s so shy and unemotional, but he’s actually quite funny. Erik Haula also stood out because he was the first Wild player I interviewed. He’s also a former Golden Gopher, like myself. Meeting Michael Russo, the Wild’s beat writer for the StarTribune, was also great. He’s kind of been my journalism idol for the past couple of years, so it was nice to finally meet him as well.

As for pinching myself, the first time I walked into the press box and looked down at the ice and the fans, it really felt like a dream. I just couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to cover a game like this. I’ve covered other games before, but there was just something special about this one. That, and when we went to the Blackhawks’ locker-room after practice. I think I just stood there for, like, a solid minute trying to take everything in — not because I was star-struck, just because this event had been talked about for so long, and now it was finally here.

The World Cup of Hockey is still six months away, but it was big news this past week with preliminary rosters being announced and jerseys being unveiled. Starting with the rosters — each team named 16 players, with seven more to come by June 1 — what were the biggest surprises for you? Shocked by any snubs from the early lists?

FISHER: There were quite a few surprises for me. P.K. Subban was a noticeable omission from Canada’s roster and that got a lot of play. Marc-Edouard Vlasic was among the first four blue-liners named, ahead of his San Jose Sharks teammate Brent Burns and Subban. That grabbed headlines, but it’s important to remember that management is picking a hockey team not a fantasy team here. A player’s point total or flashiness factor holds little weight in these decisions but, in saying that, I do expect Subban and Burns to both be among the final three defencemen named to Team Canada.

Ditto for John Klingberg, who wasn’t among Sweden’s initial group of six defenders. That only leaves one spot, but Klingberg probably has dibs. Like Vlasic for Canada, the Swedes went with a couple all-around defenders that will help shut down the opposition’s top lines in Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson and Tampa Bay’s Anton Stralman. I’d imagine seniority had something to do with Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall getting the nod over Klingberg as well. The bigger surprise, for me, was the Swedes selecting Jacob Markstrom as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup over Robin Lehner. It’s been a small sample size, but Lehner has been great as Buffalo’s starter and I still expect him to be No. 2 on Sweden’s goaltending depth chart when that tournament starts in September.

The biggest surprise, for me, which didn’t nearly enough attention from the national media was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being left off Team North America. I assumed he was a lock there, especially with Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli in charge of picking that team. Instead, they took a guy like J.T. Miller of the Rangers, who is enjoying a breakout season but doesn’t have nearly the same pedigree nor experience of Nugent-Hopkins. He was the first overall pick in 2011 and already has 300-plus NHL games under his belt, so Nugent-Hopkins, who will turn 23 next month, was supposed to be a “veteran” leader on this team and yet he’s on the outside looking in for the time being. I’m sure he’ll be on the final roster, and perhaps Chiarelli just didn’t want to be accused of favouritism with Edmonton’s golden boy, Connor McDavid, already headlining that team.

Last one, I promise — like I said, there were quite a few surprises — but it was shocking, to me, that Russia went with all NHL players for their preliminary roster. No Ilya Kovalchuk, no Alexander Radulov, nor any other KHL players. That seemed strange, almost as strange as some of the obscure names that have appeared on Russian teams at other international events over the years. They typically take a handful of token KHLers — presumably to showcase their domestic league — and they still might in fleshing out the roster, but good on former NHL stars Alexei Zhamnov and Sergei Fedorov for committing to picking the best players regardless of where they play.

HEDLEY-NOBLE: With Canada, you have to agree with Larry here that the omissions of Subban and Burns are two of the biggest names not included on the team’s roster. Also, where’s the love for Tyson Barrie? He’s now solidified himself as one of the best offensive defenseman in the entire NHL but no mention of him whatsoever. I think Canada would be missing out by not selecting Barrie.

I also have to give some love to Matt Duchene as well. He’s proven to be extremely versatile with Canada in the past, has won gold more than once with them while producing, and just playing intelligent hockey. At the last world championship, he notched 12 points in 10 games.

With Sweden, I agree with Larry that Klingberg should be there, ahead of Kronwall. Markstrom has played decently for Vancouver behind a not-so-good team, and while Lehner has done the same, he has much to prove still. Maybe Lehner preforms well through this final stretch and then can be named the backup, which could easily happen. He is a goalie for the future and I was very irritated that the Ottawa Senators gave up on him so quickly. Anyway, we are talking about the backup to Lundqvist — it could be the Queen of England, and she still wouldn’t get any playing time over King Henrik.

Moving on to Russia, I think it is brilliant that they’ve selected NHL-only players as this decision will go far when it comes to chemistry and the smaller ice-sheet. It’s anyone’s guess as to who else will be added, but one would think a Kovalchuk would be inked in. Though maybe things have changed in Russian hockey since their defeat to Canada during the 2015 world championship, when they did not care to stay out on the ice after the buzzer. It was Kovalchuk who signaled for his team to leave the ice during Canada’s celebration and national anthem but their NHL leader, Alex Ovechkin, tried to get them to stay on. Perhaps that incident had more consequences than we originally thought? It was the only time a team has ever done such a thing at the IIHF World Championship. Or maybe I’m looking too much into it.

Overall, I’m not too shocked by any of the “snubs”, besides the ones already mentioned. Phil Kessel not already being on Team USA, who need snipers like him, is a bit of a surprise as well.

How about those jerseys? It was our first look at what Adidas will be bringing to the table for the future. Do you have a favourite? Or a least favourite?

FISHER: This is one of my favourite Team Canada jerseys in a long time — maybe of all time. I really like what they did in modifying the Maple Leaf. The reds look incredibly sharp, the whites not as much.

How about those Team North America threads? I’m digging those too. The logo is very creative, and working in the Roman numerals to reflect the 23-year-old age limit was a nice touch there. I’m lukewarm on the colour scheme in general, but I actually prefer the whites to the blacks.

Team Europe incorporated some of my favourite colours, but what is up with that logo? I don’t get it, therefore I don’t like it. Logo designs always outweigh colour schemes, so that’s a fail for me — the lone fail and my least favourite. The rest were just “meh”, more of the same old in my opinion.

HEDLEY-NOBLE: Overall, I like the new designs. I am a jersey fanatic, so I do have some issues. The first being Finland’s jersey, they have always been one of my favorite international jerseys with the blue and white, but always incorporated the Griffin (I believe that’s what it is) in a nice unique way. With the new design, it has become more of a little patch on the corner of the jersey. A thumbs down for Finland’s new jerseys.

Team North America is another jersey that I dislike. The logo is OK, but I cannot stand the colors! All of the other jerseys are fine with me, and perhaps look even better than before. Team Europe, Canada, and the USA have the nicest designs in my opinion, while the rest look fairly similar to years past (which is not a bad thing whatsoever).

It’s never too early for a prediction. Canada will likely be the betting favourite to win the World Cup, coming off Olympic gold in Sochi. Would you bet for or against Canada? Who do you see as Canada’s biggest competition, or who do you see medalling? Do you think Team North America will make some noise?

(Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports) It's tough to bet against Jonathan Toews — seen here celebrating Olympic gold in Sochi — and Team Canada, especially with the World Cup taking place on their home ice in Toronto.
(Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)
It’s tough to bet against Jonathan Toews — seen here celebrating Olympic gold in Sochi — and Team Canada, especially with the World Cup taking place on their home ice in Toronto.

FISHER: I wouldn’t bet against Canada, not on home ice in Toronto. Even if Carey Price is a no-go between the pipes, Braden Holtby and/or Corey Crawford are fully capable of backstopping that team to gold. Playing on a North American-sized ice surface, I think I like the United States for silver, led by the most dynamic player in the game today, Patrick Kane. For bronze, I’m leaning towards Sweden, but that Russian roster is shaping up nicely so far. Flip a coin between those two.

Actually, hold that thought — I almost forgot about Team North America! How could I forget about North America? This is going to be the most intriguing team in the tournament and probably the most exciting team to watch. They will be the underdogs, but I’ll be rooting for them. If the Canadians and Americans can co-exist and put their individual rivalries aside — that means McDavid has to play nice with Jack Eichel, potentially even playing on the same line or power-play unit — then I think this team can make the semifinals and possibly even medal. Team North America for the North American sweep? Sure, why not. Canada, gold; USA, silver; and North America, bronze — you heard it here first!

HEDLEY-NOBLE: Here we go with predictions again! Canada no doubt, is a favorite to win gold, but I think Larry is counting out the other teams too soon — simply because it will be played in Toronto.

Sweden is one team that I think will medal, they always do well internationally and play a solid team game, and chemistry is never a problem for them, which will be a huge advantage in this tournament.

The strongest teams for me would be Canada, USA, Russia and Sweden. It’s tough to predict if the Russians will win it all or not even grab bronze, as they look unbeatable on paper with all that talent, but there’s been many times Russia has been in a similar situation only to fail.

I will be cheering on Nathan MacKinnon and Aaron Ekblad for Team North America, but I don’t see them forming solid chemistry in time to compete with the big dogs for a medal. I do agree with Larry on the fact that this team will be extremely exciting to watch.

Team Europe will be the most underrated group, while Finland who, like Sweden, plays extremely well in these tournaments, doesn’t possess the same amount of firepower as the big four (Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden). Therefore, I am going with Canada for gold, with Sweden winning silver and USA grabbing bronze.

Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby could play starring roles at the World Cup, but any chance Holtby beats Ovechkin to 50 (wins/goals) this season?

FISHER: This sounds crazy, but they were tied at 40 earlier in the week. Holtby is a workhorse who starts the majority of Washington’s games and the Capitals are rarely losing this season. Holtby is also a perfect 10-0 in his next start following a loss. He has yet to lose consecutive games all season. You could make a strong case that Holtby is actually have a better campaign than Price did in winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP last year. Kane might still be the leading candidate for this year’s Hart, but they can start engraving Holtby’s name into the Vezina. It now seems an almost certainty that, barring injury, Holtby will break Martin Brodeur’s single-season wins record of 48.

Holtby is looking like a lock for 50, but so is Ovechkin and that would be nothing new for him. Ovechkin is on pace for his third straight 50-goal season and seventh of his decade-long career. He was scoring at a 54-goal clip in the lockout-shortened season too, and topped out at 65 back in 2008. Ovechkin will be hard-pressed to get to 60 this season, but 50 is probably a given for him too.

So, the question is, who gets to 50 first? I’m going against the grain here and taking Holtby. Something tells me they have a playful side-bet between them, and I know Braden is as competitive as it gets. Team success means the most to him, but getting 50 wins as a goaltender would be an incredible accomplishment for Holtby. It’s never been done before, but I’m confident he’s going to be the first on that front.

HEDLEY-NOBLE: This is so easy, NO. Holtby does not get to 50 wins before Ovechkin gets to 50 goals. Simply because with Ovechkin’s goals come Holtby’s wins. Therefore, even if they were tied at 49 going into a game and Ovechkin scores, along with a Caps win, Alex the Great still got to 50 first!

OK, joking aside, I still believe Ovechkin will get to that mark before his goalie does. It’s going to be fun keeping track of that for sure — it’s amazing that we can even have this discussion in the first place! The Washington Capitals and their fans are having a great year. I have to say, I really want to see Ovechkin finally hoist the Stanley Cup.

BONUS TOPIC

Let’s talk some trade deadline. We did a special edition of Facing Off to cover all the deals, but that was the other big event from last week and both your teams — the Avalanche and Panthers — were buyers. Did you expect them to be that active? Who improved their Cup chances the most with those additions, Colorado or Florida?

Colorado Avalanche square logoFISHER: I figured the Avs would add some defensive depth, which they did in Eric Gelinas, but I didn’t foresee them adding another top-six forward, which they also did in Mikkel Boedker. Those are two pretty potent lines now, and Boedker is looking right at home with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. By the time the playoffs roll around — and assuming the Avs make the cut – that line could be one of the league’s best. Shawn Matthias was a solid bottom-six addition too, but Colorado still has its work cut out in trying to beat out Minnesota in the playoff race. The Wild are heating up, so that’ll make for a fun finish. But the Wild were mostly quiet at the deadline — only really adding David Jones, from Calgary, to their NHL roster — so I think these moves by the Avs will give them that little extra something that they need to get in. That said, as the second wild-card team, I don’t see any way Colorado upsets that Central Division winner in the opening round, be it Chicago, Dallas or St. Louis. Well, maybe the Avs could beat the Blues — that’s the matchup I’d be hoping for if I were them, then let the Blackhawks and Stars beat each other up in the other Central series. That’d be ideal.

Florida Panthers square logoAs for those Panthers, Dale Tallon put his best foot forward in trying to bring the Cup to Sunrise for Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo. Those veteran guys have to be thrilled with their GM’s efforts in landing Jiri Hudler — a Czech-mate for Jagr, no less — Teddy Purcell and, to a lesser degree, Jakub Kindl. Florida had been overachieving in my opinion, but now the Panthers are for real thanks to those additions. I thought they gave away Brandon Pirri, but the Panthers could be legitimate contenders with three scoring lines, and providing that chemistry develops in time for the playoffs, Florida is going to be a handful for any opponent. I like the Panthers’ chances against Boston or Detroit, but an all-Florida showdown with Tampa Bay could go either way. The Lightning were one of only three teams in the league to not make a single move at the deadline, but that roster basically remains intact from making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season. I’d probably still put my money on Tampa over Florida, but that will be an entertaining series if and when it comes to fruition — and the winner might go all the way.

HEDLEY-NOBLE: I actually did expect both of my teams to be fairly active. Sakic and Tallon both openly said they were looking to add and they did just that.

In Florida’s case they absolutely got a great addition in Hudler, Kindl also will be a very underrated player for them, while Purcell provides some much-needed bottom-six depth. The Panthers may be overachieving a bit, but they are a dangerous team that can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the East.

There’s so much parity in the NHL now that it’s hard to say who improved their chances the most. They both definitely improved, but they’re in different situations, with one trying to make the playoffs, and the other trying to top their division.

For Colorado, they added Matthias to play next to Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau on the third line, which has turned out very, very well. He’s a big guy who skates with ease and gives the Avs a boost in their puck-possession numbers — an area targeted to improve. On deadline day, they acquired a huge piece in Boedker to fit into the top-six and play alongside MacKinnon and Landeskog. I have wanted Boedker in an Avalanche uniform for some time because I always thought he’d be a perfect fit and he’s certainly playing like it. As much as every Avs fan loves Alex Tanguay, it was time to part ways.

The Avalanche also added some defensive depth from the deal with the Devils for Gelinas, who was getting a lot of high praise just a year ago. Perhaps this change in scenery will do him and the Avs some good down the stretch — he just needs to get healthy!

At the end of the day, Colorado got younger, faster, and more dangerous with their three additions, and have definitely put themselves in a great position to make the playoffs. They have two games left against the Nashville Predators and one more against the Minnesota Wild. It’s going to be a fun ride!


Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want to see us face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.

Sebastian Hedley-Noble is one of THW’s credentialed writers, covering the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers since May 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @SebastianHNoble.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, and has been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.