When the NHL announced in January 2015 that the World Cup of Hockey would return the next year, the roster of teams included all of the world powers: Canada, Sweden, Russia, the United States, the Team North American Youngstars, Finland — wait, back up. Team who?
The squad known simply as Team North America, made up of the top 23-and-under talent from Canada and the United States, seems primed to make a Cinderella run when the tournament kicks off later this month. This superteam could not have come together in a better era for prospects from the Western Hemisphere: The top pick from five of the last six drafts are on the roster. Its serious offensive firepower and youthful energy should inspire fear in even the most veteran opponents.
"We've got young legs," team manager Peter Chiarelli said when the initial roster was announced. "We're going to have a little bit of an advantage just because those younger guys are usually a little more ready when you start earlier in the year."
Among the youngest of those younger guys are Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, rival teenage prodigies from the 2015 draft class. McDavid, who is from Richmond Hill, Ontario, plays for the Edmonton Oilers. Eichel, from East Chelmsford, Massachusetts, stars for the Buffalo Sabres. Not only do they compete against each other in the NHL, they've faced off against each other internationally in the past. Now they'll join forces, along with Johnny Gaudreau, a Calgary Flames forward from the U.S. who was the NHL's fifth-leading scorer last year, and 2013-14 rookie of the year Nathan MacKinnon, a Canadian who plays for the Colorado Avalanche. That forward group is as dangerous as any in the tournament.
The real strength of Team North America, however, will be its ability to generate an attack with a highly skilled and mobile defense. As a rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers last season, Shayne Gostisbehere scored at a higher rate (2.15 points per 60 minutes) than any defenseman. Meanwhile, Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers and the Columbus Blue Jackets' Seth Jones are already top-pairing, do-it-all guys for their respective teams.
"The roster kind of speaks for itself," says Jones. "You can see what our D-corps is doing at the National Hockey League level, so I think we're going to come together quick and work well together."
The presumed Achilles heel for such inexperienced players — their detail on defense — may not be a weakness after all. Several players logged minutes as penalty killers last season. And centers Mark Scheifele and Sean Monahan have reputations as two-way forwards who have contributed at both ends of the ice since their junior hockey days.
Big game experience? The team has that too. Even without counting all the international junior tournament matches the players have logged — many against each other — North America has the reigning Stanley Cup-winning goalie, Pittsburgh's Matt Murray, between the pipes. Brandon Saad (left), a two-time Cup-winner in Chicago, and Jonathan Drouin, the surprise hero of Tampa Bay's playoff run last season, should also help the team's confidence.
Ultimately, North America's biggest challenge may be getting fans. How do the players plan to convince Canadians to abandon their powerhouse national team? How do you ask patriotic Americans to wear colors other than red, white, and blue?
"Oh, man, I don't know," says Jones with a laugh. "It is a little bit of a weird situation."
Scouting the World Cup of Hockey
Photos: Sean Rudyk/NHLI/Getty Images (face off), Brian Babineau/NHLI/Getty Images (Saad)