2016 World Cup Preview: Group A Preview

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In 1976 the hockey world was in a very different place as the talent around the world was nowhere near the level it is right now.

USA wasn’t even on the map while Canada was the absolute kings of the sport with the USSR seemingly one of the best without much being known about the Red Army team.

Along with the lack of competition, the Canadians had boycotted international play leaving the Soviet Union to be the only good team.

There was little to no competition on the international stage and the international game had been suffering.

Not many cared and when some claimed that the USSR was the team to beat most NHL fans said that they never good be unless they could beat the best Canadians in the world.

That is when the NHL, IIHF and Hockey Canada got together and created the Canada Cup.

At a time when international hockey had little to no interest in North America but the new tournament was meant to bring international hockey back to the main stage in North America.

It did just that as Canadians were watching in record numbers but the tournament had a bigger effect than just that.

All of a sudden Sweden and Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, were actually good teams that could compete.

The final was a two-game series as the Canadians beat the Czechs in the most watched event in Canadian history at the time.

The Canada Cup had brought international hockey back and for a few teams showed that they can actually compete with the best in the world.

The leagues continued to hold the Canada Cup through the 1980s as it quickly became one of the biggest international events in the world of hockey.

As the international game grew more teams needed a chance to compete and the Canada Cup grew into what eventually would be called the World Cup of Hockey.hockey-sidebar

The first with the new name came in 1996 but the NHL was in a different place as they were looking for their own growth and the interest in supporting an international tournament faded quickly.

They held one more in 2004, eight years after the original World Cup, and then gave up on the tournament altogether.

Now in a brand new environment, the NHL is back in the game for international hockey as they launch the 2016 version of the once major tournament.

They are hoping that it becomes like the Canada Cup where major hockey moments were made and North America tuned in, in droves.

The new version of the tournament is slightly different as international hockey has grown in major ways since 2004 and Group A will show that growth.

There are the Canadians who have always been good and are the defending World Cup Champions.

They are clear favourites to win this tournament at home and continue their international dominance.

Then there is the Czech Republic who had been anon-factor in 2004 but now are a team that can challenge.

The biggest difference might be the Americans who are now a consistent power in international hockey unlike in the early 2000s when they were just developing.

There is also Team Europe who will show just how much the game has grown with players from around Europe who count among the best in the world.

The World Cup is the continuation of a long and great history that all began in 1976 and will continue in an entirely new environment for international hockey.

canada

The pressure is on in the Great White North as the Canadians are entering a tournament with very high expectations. The talk leading into the tournament surrounds the ability for other teams to compete with the Canadians. Most of that talk is rooted in the fact that the Canadians took home the World Championship without the best players from the country. Now they have their full compliment of players, aside from the young guns who will play for Team North America. It is a rare occurrence that the best Canadians in the world play at the same time and this time they will with plenty of talent throughout the lineup. Up front, the Canadians will be led by captain Sidney Crosby, the consensus best player in the world, alongside veterans and young players. Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, and Corey Perry will provide leadership while Matt Duchene, Logan Couture, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos provide the speed that comes with young legs. On the blue-line, there is little drop-off in talent as they have some of the best players in the game. Brent Burns and Drew Doughty are two of the bigger names with both being considered two of the best in the NHL at both ends of the ice. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Shea Weber will provide some veteran leadership with plenty of experience. In goal, the Canadians will look to Carey Price, who will see his first action after missing most of the last season. If Price is ready to return he is the best goalie in the world right now and it will be tough to get anything by him. If he struggles they will look to Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby who are not as good as Price but are still very good goaltenders. It is clear that top to bottom this is the best team in the tournament but they will need to ignore what everyone thinks of them if they want to win. Getting complacent is the enemy for the Canadian as the teams they will face are good and they have to play to their ability if they want to meet expectations. They are used to the pressure as most have played for Canada before which is sure to be a great boost for an already talented team. They have everything they need to win gold this year and they likely will but if they get lazy and believe they can easily beat everyone they could be surprised by some very talented teams.

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czech-republic

The Czechs are in a much different time right now as their glory years are over with their top players all ageing out of the program. Jaromir Jagr retired from international play a few years ago while players like Patrik Elias has done the same. They have not had the same level of talent in the program as they once did as their senior team must go with a younger group without the veteran leadership that they might need. The Czechs are hoping to be the biggest surprise of the tournament with nobody paying attention to them this time around. They might have the ability as they are a young team with a lot of talent but they do lack those couple of great players that can lead them. Up front, there is no question that Tomas Plekanec is the leader of the group as the team captain is one of the few veterans on the team. Along with Ales Hemsky and Milan Michalek, these three players form a core group  for the team. They will help to lead some young talent in Radek Faksa, David Pastrnak, and Ondrej Palat. There is talent there but they are not as deep or consistent as other teams in the tournament. On defence, the Czechs will lean on veteran Zbynek Michalek in a group with little to no big names. It could be their biggest weakness in the tournament as there aren’t any big game breakers with some solid players but none that will be able to really handle the best attacks in the game. Behind the defence will be three goalies that will likely need to bring their A-game if the Czechs hope to win this year. Ondrej Pavelec will likely get the majority of the starts while Michal Neuvirth is a good back-up if need be. This team is not one that most people will look at and wonder just how good they can be because they have lost some of their biggest names. It doesn’t mean they aren’t a talented team though as the young talent they have at forward can score and help this team. Among the all-stars teams in the tournament though the Czechs don’t matchup right now as their program continues to go through changes. They won’t be much of a factor this year as they will likely miss the playoffs as they sit at the bottom of the group the first time back in the World Cup.

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europe

The NHL had a conundrum when they first announced the World Cup of Hockey as they had to decide who was going to participate. There were certain teams that needed to be in but unlike in 2004, there was a host of other great players from a number of European teams. It was going to be hard to decide on what teams should participate especially when only a few players were on these teams. Germany, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, France, Norway, and many more countries all have players in the NHL but most only have a select few. Putting one in above the other was going to be a tough sell especially with no way to determine who might join the next tournament. Instead of making the decision the NHL decided to essentially create a European All-star team to feature the players from all of these countries. This way fans get to see all of the best players without missing out on some of the great players from smaller programs. One of the biggest names that likely drove the decision was Anze Kopitar who is the best player that Slovenia has ever produced. He is also one of the only players from the country and never would have played in the World Cup if it wasn’t for this team. Now Kopitar leads the European team as the captain with plenty of great players throughout the roster. Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik will represent some of the most experienced players while young players like Leon Draisaitl, Nino Niederreiter, and Tobias Reider providing some youth to the team. The defence is also a good collection of players with Zdeno Chara leading the group alongside a veteran group that includes Mark Streit, Christian Ehrhoff, and Dennis Seidenberg. They will need to be good as well with a goaltending group that is not as strong as other teams in the tournament. Jaroslav Halak will likely take most of the starts while Thomas Greiss and Phillip Grubauer back him up. All are good but Halak can steal a game or two if he is on. The European team has plenty of talent to challenge the best teams but their biggest issue will be coming together. Whereas the North American team has generally played together or are at least familiar with tier teammates Team Europe is not used to playing as one team. If they can come together they will challenge the top teams but they will likely fall short of the playoffs.

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usa

The USA has something to prove int his tournament as they have come a long way since 2004 and even then they were within a game of the finals. That result was a bit of a surprise in the last World Cup but they are not surprising anyone this time around. Everyone knows that the Americans are now in at the same level as the Russians and the Canadians in terms of stars in the NHL. They have rarely had their best players all on one team and this will be a real test of just how good the Americans cane be. Joe Pavelski will serve as the captain and is sure to be a great veteran presence on the ice and in the locker room. The bigger leader on the ice though will be Patrick Kane who will need to lead this team if they want to win the tournament. Due to the north American team, the forwards are a slightly older group but there is still a lot of firepower. David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and Blake Wheeler will all get their points but there is no doubt that Kane is the player they will lean on this tournament. On the blue-line, the Americans have made their biggest strides since 2004 with plenty of talent that is going to make it tough for opponents. Dustin Byfuglien is sure to be their biggest physical presence and an offensive threat alongside the big bodies of John Carlson and Erik Johnson. Ryan Suter will play an essential role in the group as their veteran leader. In goal, the Americans have some options as Ben Bishop seems to be the best option for now but Jonathan Quick is just as good and could share starts. They have some very good goaltenders on the team and they will be one of the strengths of the team. The Americans have a lot of talent on this team as they are a deep group with a great defence that is going to make it tough for people to score on them. Still, they are not as potent up front and they may have a little bit more of a battle to earn a playoff spot. They could get in though as their biggest challenge will be to beat the Canadians with a team that is far deeper than their own. They might be able to surprise people though as it is clear that the Americans are here to prove a point.

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Prediction:
Group A is a little less interesting than Group B as there is a little more known about these teams. There is no doubt that the Canadians are the deepest team in the tournament at every level. As a result, it is hard to say that they will finish anywhere but first. They are simply too talented of a team and could very well go undefeated through the group stage on their way to the final. The bigger battle will be for second place as the Americans and Europeans could have a good battle to get the last spot in the playoffs. The Americans are just a better defensive team with more big talent up front and will come out on top in that battle. Team Europe will have a good run but will fall just short as the experiment comes up shy of what they wanted. The Czech Republic is a legendary team in international hockey but they are not ready right now as they will struggle to get a win and will finish in the last place. The group will be ruled by one team but they need to focus because there is more than one team that could challenge them if they get complacent.

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