Ramblings: Drafting Team North America for 2020
Four years ago, we were treated to the World Cup of Hockey. It was effectively a substitute for the Olympics as a best-on-best tournament, seeing as the NHL's Board of Governors are way too greedy to ever allow the fans to be happy. It likely exceeded expectations, in large part due to the u-23 team.
Teams were divided by nations, except on Team Europe (comprised of players not belonging to a European nation entered into the tournament) and Team North America (the aforementioned u-23 players). It's that u-23 team I want to focus on.
We're obviously not getting a World Cup this year, but if we did have one, what would the team look like? The only limit is that they have to be age-23 or younger as of October 1st, 2020. Let's try to put a team together of these players, just to see what it would look like. There are sure to be disagreements, just try to keep it civil in the Facebook comments. I'm not going to be overly concerned with handedness among defencemen or positions among forwards, and this will be a straight 12-6-2 lineup. We'll let the commenters worry about rounding out the roster. Stats from either Natural Stat Trick or Evolving Hockey.
As mentioned, we're not really paying attention to positions among forwards, which is why eight of our 12 forwards are going to be centres. The successful Team Canada rosters of years gone by have had several centres on their roster (if I'm not mistaken, Ryan Getzlaf was a winger back in 2010? Him or Jeff Carter). We have tried to keep handedness in mind a little bit, so we have at least one left or one right shot on each line.
As I was making the lines, I wanted to do a few things: balance the top two lines, have one line we can shelter for offensive situations only, and one line basically with whatever was left over. Alexis Lafrenière was left off the list, and I just hope it’s not a Crosby In 2006 moment.
This is our top line:
There shouldn't be much consternation about who the top centre on the team is, and lucky for us he doesn't turn 24 until January. We are sticking Marner with McDavid because Marner's puck skills are among the best in the league, and McDavid's overall offensive skills are the best in the league, so I want to see the two of them work together. That isn't hard to figure out.
We're putting a big body on that line, but it's not a big body that can't play hockey. Tkachuk's numbers from his first two seasons are out-of-this-world, whether we talk about shot generation, getting to the net, or just scoring goals at his rate at his age; he reached 20 goals in each of his first two seasons despite missing more than 10 games in each season. He's very good, and very large, and that type of presences will do wonders for McDavid and Marner in the offensive zone, while providing some defensive ability.
This is our second line:
Defensively speaking, Eichel and Konency aren't very good. But Eichel is a wizard with the puck, and Konecny has shown a great ability to finish in his young career; over the last three years, Konecny has as many goals at 5-on-5 as Brad Marchand and Kyle Connor, and more than Artemi Panarin, Johnny Gaudreau, and Patrik Laine. When talking about goal scoring, putting yourself in that type of company is rarified air indeed.
We need to balance this out a bit, and that's the reason for Anthony Cirelli's inclusion. Over his two full seasons in the NHL, Cirelli is tied with Ryan O'Reilly for the most defensive impact at even strength by expected goals against. It quite literally means there's a good argument that Cirelli has been the best defensive forward in the NHL over the last two years. He's the guy I want next to two offensive dynamos.
For our sheltered third line:
Our Team America line is comprised of two number-1 picks and a guy who scored 55 goals in his age-21 and age-22 seasons. That'll work.
Some people may lament the inclusion of Hughes given some of the players we're going to have to leave off this list, but I really do think he's already great. He had just 21 points in 61 games as a rookie, sure, but that was done on a lottery team, and he had some really bad luck – Hughes shot 2.4 percent at 5-on-5 and the team shot 5.1 percent at 5-on-5 with him on the ice. I'm going to assume that if he's playing with Auston Matthews and Brock Boeser, that won't maintain itself. Hughes has great puck skills around the net, and that's going to help a lot playing with these two. We don't need more goal scorers, we need guys to get the puck to the goal scorers. Hughes can do that.
One area of debate in my head is whether Matthews and Boeser shouldn't just be flat-out switched with Eichel and Konecny, leaving the latter two in the sheltered role. I think there is merit to it, and maybe that's something that could happen once the tournament begins.
Our fourth line:
This is one of those lines that was put together because it was the three guys left on our list, but it's a line that could also end up being the best in the tournament. Barzal is one of the best offensive players in the world, Tkachuk is excellent at both ends of the ice, Dubois is better offensively than he gets credit for, and that kind of all-around game could lend itself to dominating many shifts, especially against the depth of the weaker teams. This would be a very good top line for about 20 teams in the NHL. They'll work as a fourth line our roster, and each player is capable of moving up the roster if necessary.
It was a bit easier to do the defencemen. To me, there was a clear top-5 to pick from, and the sixth was Adam Fox. The inclusion for Fox is that he has handedness as a tie-breaker: Chychrun, Dunn, and Girard are all lefties. Thus it came down to Fox and Marino for me, and Fox was just a bit more impressive to me in 2019-20. It's really splitting hairs, though. No arguments here for anyone that wants to include Marino over Fox. Let's get to the pairings.
Our top pair:
Both guys are already accustomed to playing heavy top-pair minutes for their respective NHL teams, so this will be an easy transition for them. But they're not all about defense, these are guys who can move the puck and join the rush when they feel like it (Werenski more than McAvoy). By Evolving Hockey, McAvoy is two standard deviations above the league average in defensive impacts (elite) while Werenski is over a standard deviation above the league average by offensive impacts (near-elite). They'll be fine.
Our second pair:
Quinn Hughes – Cale Makar
Did you really think I'd take the opportunity to pair Hughes and Makar together and not do it? Really?
Our third pair:
Thomas Chabot – Adam Fox
This is going to be our sheltered pair for a reason. Chabot has had to eat monster minutes on a bad team, so I'm not entirely sure how good he is. This isn’t to denigrate him, there's a reason he's on this roster and the plethora of other lefties are not. All that is meant is that it's hard to gauge talent relative to other players while skating for a basement team (Jack Hughes also qualifies here). I do think Chabot and Fox both have elite-tier puck-moving skills, and that's all we need from our third pair. They don't need to eat big minutes against the toughest competition.
This was… pretty easy. There just aren't a lot of u-23 goalies to pick from. Aside from these two, at the NHL level, we're talking Sam Montembeault, Cayden Primeau, or Mikey DiPietro. Carter Hart is our Carter Starter, but we wouldn't have a moment's hesitation turning to MacKenzie Blackwood.
Just missed: Mikey DiPietro, Connor Ingram, Jake Oettinger
So there we have it. That's the potential 2020 Team North America. It is loaded from top to bottom, with our only real concern being defensive talent among the forwards and our goaltending. With that said, if our team scores a pile of goals, we don't have to worry about defensive talent or goaltending too much.
The inclusion of Hughes and Fox might stir the pot a bit, but that's how I see it. How do you see it? Let us know in the comments.
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