The World Cup of Hockey has started exhibition games before the official start of the tournament so the players can get their legs under them before the round-robin stage gets under way on Sept. 17. The tournament, as usual, will feature eight teams, but there is a big difference in this edition compared to others. Six of the teams are the traditional power teams (Canada, USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Czech Republic), but the tournament organizers felt that there weren't two other countries that were on the same skill level as the ones mentioned above. Instead of throwing teams like Germany, Slovakia or Belarus to the wolves, we have Team North America that features players from the United States and Canada that are under 23 years old and Team European Union that features players from countries in Europe that aren't represented in the tournament.
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All games will be played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN 2 starting with the round-robin on 9/17 that we mentioned earlier all the way through the best of three final that starts on 9/27. It should be noted that the top two teams in each group will advance to the knockout round with A1 playing B2 and B1 playing A2 in the semi-finals on 9/24 and 9/25. We're going to take a look at the eight teams in the tournament and give a little rundown on how we think they will fare over the next few weeks.
Odds to Win 2016 World Cup of Hockey - All odds courtesy of Bovada
North America 7/1
Czech Republic 33/1
Canada - Group A
When looking at the Canada roster, we can see whey they listed as such a huge favorite in the tournament. They are loaded from top to bottom with guys like Sidney Crosby, Taylor Seguin, Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos leading the forwards and Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Brent Burns manning the blue line. The trio in goal of Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford is the best trifecta in the tourney, and the team could win gold with any of the three between the pips. Yes, Canada is the favorite, but there's no value in taking them at the even money price so we're inclined to look elsewhere for our future play.
Czech Republic - Group A
The Czech Republic already had the worst roster coming into the tournament. And since training camp has started, they have lost guys like Tomas Hertl, Radko Gudas and David Krejci, all who were supposed to play meaningful minutes. There isn't a ton of talent on the roster even though most of the guys that will be playing here have spent some time in the NHL. The goalie trio of Michal Neuvirth, Petr Mrazek and Ondrej Pavelec doesn't wow us. And with the Czechs getting a tough draw into Group A, we can't see them advancing past the round-robin stage.
Team Europe - Group A
Team Europe is another team that is full of NHL players, but their draw into Group A with both the United States and Canada leads us to believe that they won't make it our of the round-robin stage. In our opinion, they have a better top to bottom when compared to the Czech Republic even though they have the longest shot to win the tournament at 40-1. Thomas Greiss, Jaroslav Halak and Philipp Grubauer have all seen time between the pipes in the NHL in their careers, but all three are backups at this point. Halak is expected to get the start. And with the defensive unit that Europe is throwing out here, he's going to be left out to dry game in and game out. We think they get a win over the Czechs to finish third in the group, but we're not expecting anything more than that from Team Europe.
United States - Group A
USA Hockey has taken huge strides over the past 10 years even though they haven't been able to break through with a gold medal in these big time international tournaments. They have won the World Juniors twice since 2010 (one more than Canada), and they have taken home a medal four times in the last six years (same as Canada). They played in the gold medal game in the 2012 Vancouver Olympics and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, losing to Canada both times. They have also medaled twice in the IIHF World Championships twice in the last four years and they finally feel they are no longer the little bother to Canada on the international stage. Their roster this year is loaded, led by Patrick Kane, TJ Oshie, Joe Pavelski and Zach Parise up front, and guys like Ryan Suter, Jack Johnson, John Carlson and Dustin Byfuglien on the back end will make it tough for anyone to generate an offensive push on them. They are also stacked between the pipes with Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop and Corey Schneider, with Quick probably being the No. 1 going into the tourney. We expect the USA to get out of the round-robin stage, and after that who knows as they have enough talent to win it all if everything comes together for them.
Finland - Group B
At first glance, it doesn't seem that Finland has the talent to keep up with the top teams in this tournament, but they have shown time and time again that on the international stage they are going to be a tough out. They don't have a ton of high-end scoring on the roster, which is the norm for them, but they play well as a team and this is how they usually wind up earning a medal in these things when it's all said and done. Their best chance here will be to try and slow down the game and rely on their defense that features NHL players like Olli Maatta and Sami Vatanen along with Sami Lepisto, who spent some time in the league before heading over to play in the KHL. Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne are a good one two punch between the pipes, but we just don't think the Fins have enough up front to get out of the round-robin stage this time around.
North America - Group B
The young talent that is on the roster for Team North America is flat out nasty. Yes, they are young, but they have some of the best players in the game, no matter what age we're talking about. Connor McDavid, who would have been selected for Canada, leads superstars like Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel (who would have played for USA), Nathan MacKinnon and Dylan Larkin up front, and a defense that features the likes of Shane Gostisbehere, Seth Jones, Colton Parayko and Aaron Ekblad could wind up being the best unit in the tournament as long as the spotlight isn't too big for them. Goalie was thought to be a question mark, but with Matt Murray and John Gibson between the pipes, this team has nothing to worry about. Gibson wound up going 21-13-3 with a 2.07 GAA and .920 save percentage in 41 games for the Ducks last season, and all Murray did was step in and lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup Championship. Throw in the fact that these kids will be hungry to prove that they belong, and we're predicting that they are one of the two teams coming out of Group B and advancing to the knockout rounds of the tournament.
Russia - Group B
On paper, Russia has the most talented group of forwards here in the 2016 World Cup. Big times names like Malkin, Ovechkin, Tarasenko, Datsyuk, Panarin, Kucherov and Kuznetsov will all suit up for the Russians, making all four of their lines a threat to put the puck in the net any time they are on the ice. The problems that are going to plague the Russians will be on their back end as both the defense and goalies are huge question marks coming into the tourney. We don't think that the Russian D will be able to get the bigger teams in the group off the puck, and you never know what you're going to get from guys like Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov between the pipes. Throw in the fact that Russia never wins these things and that they sometimes have issues in the locker room and we're probably going to steer clear of the Russians once the round robin games get underway.
Sweden - Group B
Just as Russia's offense may be the best group of players up front, Sweden will claim that title on the blue line. The talent level with guys like Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is ridiculous. But opposite of Russia, they are going to struggle scoring goals. There are familiar names up front, but the Sedin twins are a bit long in the tooth, so young guys like Filip Forsberg, Nicklas Backstrom and Gabriel Landeskog are going to need to step up big time if Sweden has any thoughts of winning the gold. It also doesn't help that Robin Lehner, Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg and Alexander Steen will all be forced to miss the World Cup with injuries. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist is as steady as they come, and there's no question he's good enough to get the team into the semifinals. With Finland, North America and Russia in Group B with them, we think that Sweden does enough to get out of the group and into the semifinals.
Check back tomorrow as we will have our pick on who we're taking to win the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
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