TORONTO—Right off the bat in the pre-tournament, North America established itself as the team to watch at the World Cup of Hockey. And it’s not because of their eye-catching black and grey with bright orange trim jerseys.
They play hockey the way it should be played—with speed, skill, and confidence. The group of 23-and-under players, made up of 13 Americans and 10 Canadians led the pre-tournament with 13 goals in three games and Matt Murray posted the pre-tournament’s only shutout.
It’s about what you’d expect from a team with five first-overall draft picks—one more than Canada—and 16 first-round picks on its roster.
Watching North America develop while giving fans a taste of its tremendous potential has been the most exciting part of the World Cup so far. Their journey has become can’t-miss hockey.
Players have repeatedly said that it’s a lot of fun playing together and the team has come together to form a close-knit group.
At the first team dinner in Montreal, head coach Todd McLellan recounted how, initially, there were some lines between the players—Americans and Canadians, junior and college, club affiliations, etc. The North American team didn’t do any team-building exercises, but instead, the players became a team on their own.
“It’s come from within the locker room and they’ve done a real good job of it together as a group,” McLellan said.
“We started out as a group. We’re now slowly forming a team.”
Learning on the Fly
The “Young Guns” blitzed Finland 4–1 on Sunday before falling to Russia 4–3 a day later. The praise was effusive after the win, but the kids realized how quickly the tide can turn after the loss.
North America learned that hockey is a 60-minute game against Russia. During a 6:14 span in the second period, Russia scored four goals and sent Murray to the showers. It was the first time the kids had faced serious adversity.
They didn’t have their top defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who was sidelined with what appears to be a concussion. But these kids are superstars and showed their mental strength, with some prodding from the coaching staff.
“I thought we didn’t deal with it well when we were in it,” said McLellan about the team’s hiccup. “Once we got a little breather and could regroup, I thought we handled it appropriately.”
“When you’re a group of young players, you’re looking for somebody just to take charge and settle it down, maybe get a shift or two under your belt, and we didn’t get that quick enough,” McLellan said. “That happens when you’re young. That happens when you’re inexperienced. But we grew tonight.”
“I’ve played Russia now enough times now to know how streaky they are,” said North America’s captain Connor McDavid.
“We’ve never played together before, but the way that we bounced back, we showed a lot of character,” said Auston Matthews, who scored his first goal at Air Canada Centre, his new home with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For McLellan, coaching these young stars, establishing a belief system and positive reinforcement has been key.
After the second period with his team down 4–2, McLellan reminded his team that they’re better than how they felt and performed in that second period.
“What could have happened to our belief system is it could have completely crumbled. It didn’t. It cracked a little bit, we lost a few little segments of bricks, but we were able to put it back together in the third period,” McLellan said.
Jack Eichel said the coaching staff’s belief in the players has solidified the team’s confidence.
“If we play to the capability that we can play to, then we can be very successful in this tournament,” Eichel said.
One of the fascinating things to watch has been Matthews on North America’s power play with McDavid and Eichel—last year’s first two draft picks. All three are centres and crave ice time, but a team-first attitude and keeping it simple has prevented any larger meltdowns.
“Everyone has hockey sense so we’re just trying to find each other and not overpass, that’s the main thing,” McDavid said.
“I think that we’re all really unselfish players,” Eichel said. “Whatever’s in the best interest of the team.”
However the World Cup ends for North America, seeing the level of raw, young talent take on the strongest nations in the world has been a unique treat for hockey fans.
It would be something if North America faces Canada or the U.S. in the semis or final and some of the kids have to compete against their native country.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports