Hockey July 11, 2019


It’s been nearly three years since the World Cup of Hockey last took place in Toronto, leaving fans wondering when, if ever, there will be a sequel.

The format was controversial: eight teams, six of which were national squads and the remaining two – Europe and North America – select teams from multiple nations. To form the European squad, players from nations that weren’t represented were chosen, and the team was eventually composed of skaters from several major nations, including Germany and Switzerland, two countries that have played for gold at a major international event in the past several years. That made it tough for some international purists to get on board with the tournament and the team, but in the end, most came around in time for Europe to find themselves fighting Team Canada for the championship, a final nobody saw coming.

But what if the two gimmicks were combined into one? What if the same parameters that faced Team North America, which brought together Under-23 talents from Canada and the United States into one group, were forced upon Team Europe? Of course, in this hypothetical, players from all European nations would be ripe for the taking. That means Finns, Swedes, Czechs and Russians that made the cut off would all be ripe for the taking.

Following my piece from earlier this week, here is what a U-23 Team Europe would look like if the World Cup of Hockey was to begin this week, with eligibility including those that were 23 or under on July 9, 2019:

FORWARDS

Patrik Laine – Sebastian Aho – Mikko Rantanen
Timo Meier – Leon Draisaitl – David Pastrnak
Nikolaj Ehlers – Aleksander Barkov – Kaapo Kakko
Kevin Fiala – Elias Pettersson – William Nylander
Nico Hischier

Finland’s 2016 World Junior Championship team will be remembered for its incredible firepower, and Aho, Laine and Rantanen were three key pieces of the group. And with Finnish hockey having an incredible rise over the past few years (the current U-15-20 bracket is something special), it’s no surprise to see three of them form a top line in this format. Even in what was a down year for Laine, he was a 30-goal scorer. Aho was the main setup man on the 2016 team, with him and Jesse Puljujarvi being responsible for much of the offense. But having Rantanen – a budding star and a member of one of the league’s best lines last season – on the right side would likely prove to be too much for teams to handle.

Past the Finnish invasion, this group is stacked from top to bottom. Switzerland’s Meier has become a dominant physical force in the NHL and saw his point total jump from 36 in 2017-18 to 66 in 2018-19. Draisaitl, the lone member of the 2016 roster to make this iteration, had his own meteoric rise this past season, scoring 50 goals and breaking the 100-point barrier for the first time on a lowly Oilers team. Draisaitl has played all three positions in his career, but was drafted as a center and naturally plays down the middle, thus making him a good candidate for this spot. And just imagine if he actually had Pastrnak to play with. The Bruins standout is on the verge of scoring 40 goals for the first time and was on pace for a 100-point season before he missed time with injuries.

Europe’s bottom six – seven, if you include the extra – doesn’t have the same skill as North America’s roster, but we’re still talking about a fantastic group here. Barkov and Pettersson as the third- and fourth-line centers is insane. The former fell just short of 100 points this past season and the latter was the obvious Calder Trophy winner after tallying 66 points on a weak Canucks team. On the wings, injuries prevented Ehlers from having a strong season and he was limited to just 37 points, but he has hit the 60-point mark twice in his four-year career. It’s still too early to know what Kakko is going to be capable of in the NHL, but a 55-60-point regular season with the Rangers is definitely not out of the question and he’d bring a big scoring punch to a line loaded with talent.

To fill out the forward group, Fiala played fantastic after a trade to the Wild prior to the trade deadline and is destined for a breakout season after a handful of so-so campaigns. Nylander, on the other hand, had a rough season in Toronto after failing to sign until the final days of the RFA signing period, but his 18 points in eight World Championship games with Sweden – playing alongside Pettersson – was one of the best efforts in the post-Soviet history of the tournament. Hischier is still waiting for his first real opportunity to be a top two-way center in the NHL, but the No. 1 pick from the 2017 draft has had a pair of solid seasons and he’ll look to return to full health this season in hopes of cracking the 50-point mark again.

DEFENSEMEN

Rasmus Dahlin – Mikhail Sergachev
Ivan Provorov – Rasmus Andersson
Miro Heiskanen – Erik Cernak
Filip Hronek

Just like with North America, Europe is dominant on the left side. Dahlin and Heiskanen were two of the best rookies in the NHL and will become Norris Trophy candidates in a few years’ time. Provorov is one of Philadelphia’s most important players and a big minute-muncher, playing an average of 25:07 per game in 2018-19, the sixth-highest total in the NHL. He had a bit of a down offensive season, but Provorov is capable of leading a team, but simply needs a bit of help. 

It’s the right side that gets more interesting. Sergachev is a left-handed blueliner with great chemistry with Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay and is easily one of the best young defenders after a couple of superb seasons with the Lightning. But after that, you have Rasmus Andersson, a good young defenseman who thrived in Calgary but is still relatively inexperienced. Same goes for Cernak, who impressed greatly in Tampa Bay this season and was superb with Slovakia at the recent World Championship. Hronek was mighty impressive in his first NHL season and will make the full-time jump in 2019-20, and his ability to run a power play and contribute offensively makes him an intriguing option for this squad.

The left side definitely has more of the talent, but this is a young group with a lot to prove. The U-23 format allows defenders an opportunity to play a bigger role than they would in a normal national team setting. With the left-handed talent available, a real version of this team would likely just force someone to the right side.

GOALTENDING

Alexandar Georgiev
Igor Shestyorkin
Ilya Samsonov

Goaltending is the greatest issue with the roster, with just one European U-23 netminder, Georgiyev, playing a game in the NHL. In his 33 games with the Rangers, Geogiyev impressed enough to where he’ll share the net with Henrik Lundqvist next season, and Shestyorkin isn’t far behind in the Rangers system. He’ll make his AHL debut with Hartford Wolf Pack this coming season and it won’t be long until he’s the leading man in the ‘Big Apple.’ Speaking of future stars, Samsonov will be Washington’s go-to guy sooner than later, but is set for another campaign in Hershey. Just like North America, Europe’s U-23 goalie group isn’t great, but there’s some promise.

NOTABLE OMISSIONS

There’s enough young talent from Europe waiting for their next chance, with many missing the final cut due to inexperience. Wingers Kirill Kaprizov and Vitali Kravtsov, center Martin Necas and defenseman Erik Brannstrom all fall into this category. On the point, Marcus Pettersson and Henri Jokiharju didn’t quite crack the roster, while Ilya Sorokin and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen would have both been capable of filling the third spot in net.

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