It's Canada vs. The World
Training camps for the World Cup of Hockey begin this week in North America and Europe.
Here's a snapshot look at the eight teams' strengths, weaknesses, players to watch and projected finish.
STRENGTHS: The Canadians have the best depth in the tournament from goaltending on out. Up front, the Canadians boast a young, hungry crop of forwards itching to make a name for themselves on the international stage including recent Stanley Cup champions Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis and perhaps the best player in the game right now, Jarome Iginla. Like the gold-medal team from Salt Lake City, this group will favor a speedy, transition game but has the horses to play it gritty in the corners. They possess a solid blend of size and skill on the back end with Ed Jovanovski, Adam Foote and Scott Niedermayer complimenting newcomers Scott Hannan, Jay Bouwmeester, Wade Redden and Robyn Regehr. As for goaltending, when you have Vezina Trophy winners and nominees across the board in Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Jose Theodore, it's as good as it gets.
WEAKNESSES: The loss of both Rob Blake and Chris Pronger, who withdrew days before the start of camp, denies Canada two of the most physical, puck-moving defensemen in the game. Opponents will try and take advantage of their absence. Mario Lemieux claims he is in top physical shape after missing the last 72 games of last season. To jump back into top international competition will be a stretch even for one of the game's greats. Can the young guns like Dany Heatley, Shane Doan, Joe Thornton and others suck it up with an entire nation watching their every move?
PLAYER TO WATCH: Watch for Heatley to pick up where he left off at the World Championships where he was named tournament MVP. The legal problems stemming from the accident that cost teammate and friend Dan Snyder his life last fall are a red herring. Heatley has been dealing with those issues for almost a year now. The ice is his sanctuary. Watch for another virtuoso performance.
PROJECTED FINISH: First in North American pool, World Cup of Hockey champions.
STRENGTHS: A Czech team still grieving the loss of coach Ivan Hlinka, killed in a car accident days before the start of training camps, will trot out as formidable a forward lineup as any team in the tournament starting with Jaromir Jagr and including Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, Martin Havlat, Milan Hejduk and Martin Rucinsky. Dominik Hasek is gone and in his place Tomas Vokoun who helped Nashville to their first playoff berth with a breakout season of his own. The Czechs can also light it up from the back end with Marek Zidlicky, Tomas Kaberle and Roman Hamrlik ready to jump into the play at a moment's notice. Former NHLer and close friend of Hlinka, Vladimir Ruzicka, will take over the coaching duties.
WEAKNESSES: Assuming this tournament does feature a more rough and tumble NHL style of play, the big question is whether the Czechs have the toughness to win. The back end lacks toughness especially with the loss of Stanley Cup champion Pavel Kubina. He was replaced by Jiri Fischer, who had an up-and-down season in Detroit. Up front, Robert Reichel, Vaclav Prospal and Josef Vasicek are underrated checkers, but this isn't the kind of team that will be able to grind out the wins if it comes to that. The team will also have to overcome the loss of the highly respected Hlinka. The Czechs will miss the skill and physical toughness of Robert Lang who dropped out of the tournament in early August. As for Vokoun, playing the underdog against Detroit during Nashville's first playoff outing is one thing. Filling Hasek's blades on a team still smarting from last spring's disappointing exist versus the U.S. at the World Championships, ups the emotional ante considerably.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Robert Reichel was the favorite whipping boy of the Toronto media and Leaf fans for most of the three years he spent in blue and white. But Reichel provided consistent two-way hockey for coach Pat Quinn. Reichel always seems to bring his best to these kinds of tournaments and remains one of his country's most popular players.
PROJECTED FINISH: Second in European pool, eliminated in semifinal by Canada.
STRENGTHS: If NHL-style hockey is going to prevail in this tournament, then the Finns come armed and ready. Always known for their gritty style of play internationally, the Finns boast solid two-way and character players including Saku Koivu, Olli Jokinen, Jere Lehtinen, and Stanley Cup playoff villain Ville Nieminen. There is also fresh offensive talent in the form of Tuomo Ruutu who enjoyed a banner second half to his rookie season in Chicago. Defensively, the Finns will be deep and well-rounded with a group that includes Janne Niinimaa, Teppo Numminen, Joni Pitkanen, Kimmo Timonen and the up and coming Toni Lydman. They also boast a topnotch goaltending tandem that includes playoff sensation Miikka Kiprusoff and super prospect Kari Lehtonen.
WEAKNESSES: With the decline in Teemu Selanne's skills the Finns will be hard-pressed to keep up offensively with the other top teams in the tournament. They will also miss Sami Kapanen's heart and will have to put behind them internal bickering over coaching and other issues that plagued them at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Tuomo Ruutu, one of two Ruutu brothers playing for the Finns, has always excelled on the international stage. He started slowly for Chicago recovering from knee surgery. But he hit his stride late and will play a key role for the Finns in this tournament.
PROJECTED FINISH: Third in European pool, eliminated in quarterfinal by Czech Republic.
STRENGTHS: Traditionally, the Germans have tried to hit the slow-motion button when playing at this level, employing a cloying 1-4 system that backs up four defenders across the blue line and forces the opposition to dump and chase. There will still be plenty of close-to-the-vest style of play but under new German head coach Franz Reindl, look for a more up-tempo style as the Germans try to take advantage of the most skill ever assembled by the national team. Led by speedy San Jose Shark Marco Sturm, the German lineup will be dotted with solid NHL talent in the form of Sturm's San Jose teammate Marcel Goc, a revelation during the Sharks' run to the Western Conference final and Jochen Hecht while another Shark, Christian Ehrhoff, will anchor the defensive unit along with Philadelphia Flyer prospect Dennis Seidenberg. Veteran NHLer Olie Kolzig should provide added security in goal for the defensive-minded Germans.
WEAKNESSES: Sturm is coming off a gruesome ankle injury that cost him the last quarter of the regular season and playoffs and Kolzig is coming off a disastrous season in Washington. If the Germans fall behind they have limited resources to mount an offensive challenge.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Martin Reichel is the brother of longtime Czech national player and NHLer Robert Reichel. A veteran of the German elite league and a regular member of the German national team, Reichel represents the 'everyman' aspect of the German entry.
PROJECTED FINISH: Fourth in European pool, eliminated in quarterfinal by Sweden.
STRENGTHS: The Russians will have more intrigue leading up to the World Cup than your average John le Carre novel. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov is in as head coach and cantankerous legend Viktor Tikhonov is out, a nod to the shifting power structure in the hockey halls of Moscow. But even with the almost daily defections that have marred the team's chemistry before the first puck is dropped, this is a team chock-a-block with talent. Any lineup that features Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Kovalev, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexei Yashin and a kid named Alexander Ovechkin cannot be dismissed. In the absence of Nikolai Khabibulin and Evgeni Nabokov, the Russians will likely turn to Anaheim prospect Ilya Bryzgalov who, according to goaltending guru Francois Allaire, is ready for this kind of test. Defensively, the Russians will be solid if unspectacular. Watch for youngsters Andrei Markov and Anton Volechenkov to solidify their reputations as up-and-coming defensive gems.
WEAKNESSES: Can Bilyaletdinov forge some sort of unity in the dressing room in a short period of time? If they start slowly, there's a chance the entire machine could simply spontaneously combust. While lots of talent remains, what is the psychological impact of knowing half the team, including stars Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Zhamnov, Khabibulin and others, bailed out on their countrymen?
PLAYER TO WATCH: Not that Ovechkin has been in hiding, really. But like Eric Lindros back in 1991, Ovechkin has a chance to make an international impact before playing in his first NHL game. Chances are he won't face the boos Lindros did during his first Canada Cup exposure in Quebec.
PROJECTED FINISH: Fourth in North American pool, eliminated in quarterfinal by Canada.
STRENGTHS: If the Russians seem to be a team without a reason, then the Slovaks are the team with a mission. After being humiliated at the Salt Lake City Olympics when they failed to emerge from the qualifying tournament, the Slovaks have much to prove. They also have the horses to convert that emotion into results. Marian Hossa, Marion Gaborik, Ziggy Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Peter Bondra, Ladislav Nagy and Pavol Demitra, who suggested after a disappointing fourth place finish at the World Championships that Slovakia would win the World Cup, will pace a Slovak team that will try and run and gun its way out of a very tough North American pool. The Slovaks have loads of international success under their belts (Salt Lake City notwithstanding), so nerves shouldn't be an issue. Defensively they are anchored, literally and figuratively by Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara and veteran Lubomir Visnovsky who must help solidify a young defensive corps. Goaltending may not be familiar to NHL fans but Jan Lasak has been terrific internationally and backstopped the Slovaks to a gold at the 2002 World Championships.
WEAKNESSES: Can a very young back end that includes Branislav Mezei, Martin Strbak and Radoslav Suchy, not to mention Lasak, be expected to handle the best in the world? If the flashy Slovak forwards aren't committed to two-way hockey they might be overwhelmed by deeper, more balanced teams in their pool.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Marian Gaborik was among a handful of young players expected to assume the mantel of the next generation of NHL stars after recording two straight 30-goal seasons in Minnesota. But after leading the Wild to an unexpected Western Conference final berth in 2003 with 17 points in 18 playoff games a contract holdout at the beginning of last season saw Gaborik fall off the star map with a disappointing 40-point campaign. No better place to pick up the pieces than on this world stage.
PROJECTED FINISH: Third in North American pool, eliminated in quarterfinal by U.S.
STRENGTHS: One word, Belarus, sums up the frustrations of a proud hockey nation. This will be Sweden's first opportunity against the world's best to erase the stain of the long-range goal that saw Belarus eliminate the powerful Swedes from Olympic competition in Salt Lake City. So motivation should be no problem for a team that boasts NHL captains and born leaders Markus Naslund, Mats Sundin and Daniel Alfredsson not to mention Peter Forsberg, Henrik Zetterberg and perennial Norris Trophy contender Nik Lidstrom. The infamous Belarus goal, a long, fluttering shot that clanged off netminder Tommy Salo's noggin and into the net, effectively derailed Salo's career. He returns to this team but look for Toronto prospect Mikael Tellqvist, who has enjoyed some international success, to get the starting nod. Although the Swedes' considerable skill will garner much of the attention, it's their ability to play in the corners that puts them in good stead. The Sedin twins Henrik and Daniel, Fredrik Modin, Forsberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Marcus Nilson, will all make life difficult for opposing defenders.
WEAKNESSES: This is a team that traditionally has failed to rise to the occasion. How will they respond in elimination competition if they fall behind? Although their defense has size in the form of Christian Backman, Mattias Norstrom and Dick Tarnstrom, all 6-foot-2 or better, questions remain about the toughness of the unit. And then there's the goaltending. If Tellqvist isn't the guy, what will the mindset of the Swedes be in front of Salo?
PLAYER TO WATCH: Christian Backman underwent a trial by fire in St. Louis this season when Al MacInnis and Barret Jackman went down with season-ending injuries. At 6-foot-4, 198 pounds, Backman, the youngest position player on the Swedish team, figures to log important minutes. PROJECTED FINISH: First in European Pool, eliminated in final by Canada.
STRENGTHS: Much will be made of the age of the U.S. team, especially up front where Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, Mike Modano, Bill Guerin and Brett Hull all return to help defend the American's win in the inaugural World Cup in 1996. And if this tournament was held in February, perhaps that would be an issue. But it's not and so up front the Americans have a prototypical NHL lineup, a happy blend of skill and grit thanks to the addition of blue-collar players like Steve Konawalchuk and Jeff Halpern. Defensively, the Americans are deep and talented with Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher, Brian Rafalski. Gone is perpetual American netminder, Mike Richter. In his place three young netminders with much to prove with Robert Esche the lead man coming off a strong playoff that saw Philadelphia advance to within a game of the Stanley Cup final and followed by Ty Conklin and Rick DiPietro. All three rank high on the skill chart in spite of their relative inexperience.
WEAKNESSES: This is not a particularly speedy team but more a puck-possession, dig it out and score kind of team. Of the four North American pool teams, the U.S. is by far the slowest and cannot afford to get into a run-and-gun kind of game. There is also the question of Hatcher's durability. He struggled in the playoffs after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Substituting Hal Gill for Mathieu Schneider (declined to play because of insurance issues), means the defensive corps is much less mobile.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Modano is coming off a season to forget in Dallas. Beset by personal and financial problems off the ice, Modano turned in a lamentable 14-goal, 44-point regular season campaign followed by a one-goal effort in the Stars' first-round ouster by Colorado. Still, this is his kind of tournament.
PROJECTED FINISH: Second in North American pool, eliminated in semifinal by Sweden.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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