The current incarnation of Canada's Spengler Cup roster is stacked, star-studded and could be its best-ever on paper.
Just don't call them a team yet.
Although the Canadians are drawing most of the hype with big names like Jason Spezza, Matt Duchene, John Tavares and Ryan Smyth, they are a favourite with one distinct disadvantage.
"We're a dream team, but we're not really a team yet," head coach Doug Shedden said Tuesday. "We got here on Sunday, and now we have to come together very fast."
First played in 1923, the Spengler Cup annually pits hosts HC Davos and Canada against four European club teams in a six-day tournament that grips fans across Switzerland.
"You can really feel the mystique of this tournament," Tavares said. "The history, the crowds ... it's a special time for this city."
While every other team is getting a boost from locked out NHLers playing in Europe, Canada's is the only roster that hasn't played together yet this season.
But Shedden is confident he will be able to get the best out his impressive lineup.
"I use a system where my team wants the puck and wants to make the skill plays," said Shedden, who is also the coach of the talented Swiss team EV Zug. "I have the two top scorers in the league, we're a fast skating team, and if [Canada] can find its chemistry, we'll be just as successful."
Shedden spotted some of that chemistry in Canada's only full practice before the team's Boxing Day opener against Alder Mannheim, the top team in the German league that counts NHLers Jason Pominville (Buffalo Sabres) and Dennis Seidenberg (Boston Bruins) among its players.
The Toronto-area trio of Spezza (Ottawa Senators), Tavares (New York Islanders ) and Sam Ganger (Edmonton Oilers) are discovering a special flow together, while Bruins teammates Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin are set to reignite their explosive chemistry.
HC Davos centre Joe Thornton, ordinarily a member of the San Jose Sharks, says Canada is in for a challenge because with only two round-robin games, the tournament is brutally short.
Nonetheless, Thornton still believes Canada, which last won the Spengler Cup in 2007, is the team to beat.
"When good players play with good players, great things happen — and they have a lot of good players," Thornton said. "They'll probably gel pretty quickly."
But the road ahead will not be easy.
Facing NHL players
Along with Thornton, HC Davos' chase will be guided by Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, Dallas Stars forward Loui Eriksson, the Swiss league's top scorer Damien Brunner and top defenceman Rafael Diaz of the Montreal Canadiens.
Moreover, Canada's path collides with another first-place team in HC Fribourg. The top Swiss team is a talented, fast-skating bunch boosted by NHL players like goaltender Cory Schneider (Vancouver Canucks), forwards Patric Hornqvist (Nashville Predators), Max Talbot (Philadelphia Flyers) and David Desharnais (Montreal), as well as defenceman Bruno Gervais (Philadelphia).
In order to break through, Canada will rely on leadership from Smyth, their captain and seasoned international veteran, as well as experienced European teammates like alternate captain Josh Holden.
A former first-round draft pick who played only 60 NHL games, Holden re-established his career with eight strong seasons in Switzerland. He also has three years of Spengler Cup experience.
"We're trying to put in place a system where guys know their positions and once we establish that, we can use our skill and get going," Holden said. "There's no doubt the other teams are solid and stacked with great players.
"But the bottom line is that if we show up and put our hearts right on the line and go after it, our story will be told."