Men's hockey worlds: 10 players to watch
Annual IIHF tournament begins Friday in Minsk, Belarus
The 2014 IIHF world men's hockey championship begins Friday in Minsk, Belarus. Here are 10 players to watch, including two young Canadians:
Nathan MacKinnon, Canada
Eight years after Sidney Crosby played at the worlds as an 18-year-old, MacKinnon is doing the same. The Colorado Avalanche teenager and Calder Trophy front-runner as top rookie in the NHL played on the wing in Team Canada's exhibition game against Switzerland in Zurich. The natural centre could remain there for at least the start of the tournament, given the team's strength down the middle.
Morgan Rielly, Canada
Rielly is the kind of player Team Canada general manager Rob Blake loves because he can move the puck quickly and also use his skating to get out of trouble. If head coach Dave Tippett lets him loose on the big ice, the 20-year-old defenceman's risk-reward game will be fun to watch. Given the lack of left-handed Canadian defenceman, there's no reason Rielly can't be in consideration for the 2018 Olympics.
Mikhail Grabovski, Belarus
This isn't Ovechkin for Russia in Sochi, but the soon-to-be, unrestricted-free-agent centre is the biggest star for the host country, so eyes will be on him leading the Belarusians. Grabovski missed part of the Washington Capitals' season with injury. And though that probably won't affect his July 1 pay day, a good showing at worlds wouldn't hurt either.
Kristers Gudlevskis, Latvia
The goalie who almost killed Team Canada at Sochi is back. Gudlevskis made 55 saves in the Olympic quarter-finals and almost made history by upsetting a Canadian squad now considered one of the best ever constructed. Latvia is in the opposite group at the worlds, but that just means a quarter-final matchup with the Canadians is possible yet again.
Tomas Hertl, Czech Republic
Hertl-mania gripped the NHL early in his rookie season and this tournament is another chance for the young San Jose Sharks winger to shine. Even after missing a huge chunk of the season with a knee injury, Hertl was up to his old tricks early in the first round of the playoffs and the bigger ice could be a nice showcase for his skills.
Seth Jones, United States
Along with Jacob Trouba and perhaps even Jake Gardiner, Jones is being groomed for future U.S. competitions, be it the return of the World Cup of Hockey or the 2018 Olympics. Like most defencemen, his growth will take time. But Jones led the Americans to the 2013 world junior title and could play a big role in this tournament.
Leo Komarov, Finland
A year after leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs to sign with Dynamo Moscow of the KHL, Komarov could be eyeing a return to the NHL for 2014-15. This tournament is not a bad place for the 27-year-old to remind NHL GMs what he can do. Komarov should have a bigger role for Finland here than in Sochi, when he played roughly 12 minutes a game.
Gustav Nyquist, Sweden
Nyquist was the NHL's hottest scorer for a stretch following the Olympic break, then had zero points in the Detroit Red Wings' five-game first-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins. He also had zero points in six games in Sochi. But this time, there's more of an expectation for Nyquist to put up numbers as one of just two Swedish returnees.
Alexander Ovechkin, Russia
Ovechkin returns to the Russian national team three months after flopping at Sochi, where he didn't score after his first goal early in the first game. Ovechkin is the biggest star taking part at the worlds and is doing so for the 10th time in his career. After the disappointment in Sochi, there's even more pressure for him to produce.
Tim Thomas, United States
This could be the international swan song for the 40-year-old goaltender, who is representing the U.S. for the eighth time in his career. Part of his job could be mentoring Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck, but his main role will be to stop pucks behind a very young group. Expectations are high after John Gibson led the U.S. to a gold medal last year.