Young core leads Canada into hockey worlds
The road to the 2014 Olympic Games starts this weekend for some Canadians at the world hockey championship in Germany.
The roster that rookie general manager Mark Messier has assembled includes youngsters John Tavares, Steve Stamkos, Tyler Myers, Evander Kane and Matt Duchene, all of whom should be in the mix if NHL players participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
It's not as if Messier had to dangle an Olympic gold medal in front of these young stars to get them to commit to the world tournament. But the idea of maybe helping Canada defend its Olympic title on Russian soil was an enhancement that worked in his favour.
"It didn't hurt," said Messier.
Canada opens the competition on Saturday against Italy in Mannheim, Germany.
Switzerland and Latvia are also in Canada's pool, while Sweden, the Czech Republic, Norway and France are also competing in Mannheim. The rest of the 16-team field will play in Cologne, which is the site of the medal-round games.
Russia beat Canada in the final of the last two world tournaments, and the Russians padded their roster for the world tournament with members of the underachieving Washington Capitals, including Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
Given how the Russians bombed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, anything but gold in Germany would be a disaster.
The same can't be said for Canada.
Should Canada win the International Ice Hockey Federation's annual spring event, Canadians won't be dancing in the streets like they did after their team beat the United States 3-2 in overtime to win the Olympic gold medal in February in Vancouver.
The world championship is mostly an afterthought for most Canadian hockey fans, while in Europe it is akin to the Stanley Cup final.
In assembling his roster, Messier stuck with a formula that's worked well for Canada the past few years.
The team is young, and it also has a veteran presence with the likes of Ryan Smyth (aka Captain Canada), Francois Beauchemin and Ray Whitney.
But if the Canadians are going to have success, it will be the young players who will do the heavy lifting on offence.
Stamkos was the third-youngest player in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season and he finished with 51 goals for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who also scored 51 goals, each won a share of their first Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer.
Duchene is a Calder Trophy finalist who had 24 goals and 55 points in the regular-season for Colorado, while Tavares had 24 goals and 54 points in his rookie season with the New York Islanders. Kane, meanwhile, had 14 goals and 26 points as a freshman for the Atlanta Thrashers.
Myers, a defenceman, is a Calder finalist after notching 11 goals and 48 points for the Buffalo Sabres.
Marc Staal, 23, of the New York Rangers finished his fourth season in the NHL and will be in the prime of his career when Russia plays host to the Winter Games.
Olympians take a pass
Messier is anxious to see how the young Canadians handle the pressure of the world tournament and how they adjust to the bigger international ice.
"The game gets probably a little more technical because there is so much room out there. You can't afford to get too far away from the middle of the ice and expose yourself defensively," he said.
"There is a lot of thinking that goes on so it will be interesting to see the players that do skate well, how they manage to get themselves in position to be offensive and play well defensively as well. This is a good chance for them to show their hockey IQs and play a different kind of game in different circumstances.''
Corey Perry of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks is the only member of Canada's Olympic gold medal team who will be in Germany. Messier sought out other Olympians to gauge their interest but didn't press the matter.
"There is only so much hockey a guy can play and a lot of them have played a lot this year. I think a lot of the teams are in the same position as Canada is in. I think a lot of the teams will use players from their own leagues, a lot of club-team players and a lot of young players,'' said Messier.
"We have a team that is very dynamic, with a lot of character and talent and hopefully we can overcome the lack of experience. We have a lot of different kinds of players who can play in different kinds of roles and situations, and you will never know until the rubber meets the road. "