As the clock ticks down to the opening of NHL camps in just a week, our immediate attention is diverted by a couple of significant tournaments — The World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, and the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan. The Blue Jackets figure prominently in each, so let’s take a look at each event.
Handicapping the World Cup
Playing under NHL rules, the World Cup features six national teams (USA, Canada, Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and Russia) and two “composite” teams — Team Europe and Team North America. Team Europe consists of European players hailing from countries other than those represented individually in the tournament, while Team North America is comprised of NHL American & Canadian players, age 23 or under as of October 2016.
As with most international tournaments, the teams are organized into groups, with Group A hosting the United States, Canada, Team Europe and the Czech Republic. By process of elimination, Group B holds Sweden, Finland, Russia and Team North America. The preliminary round consists of intra-group round robin games taking place between Saturday, September 17 and Thursday, September 22. The top two teams from each group advance to the elimination round, with the winner of each group facing the second place team in the opposite group in the semi-finals on September 24-25. The winners advance to the finals, which intriguingly is a best-of-three format, beginning on September 27. The winner will be crowned either on September 29 or October 1, earning not only the trophy, but over a week off from the beginning of training camp.
Handicapping a short tournament of bests is a fool’s errand, so I guess I am qualified. Starting with Group A, I don’t see anyone touching Canada in the preliminary round. The Canada/USA game will be great theatre, of course, but ultimately I see Canada going 3- 0. The biggest concern for Team Canada is whether Carey Price is truly back. However, when you have Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford in reserve, even that is only a minimal issue. I have the USA earning the second spot in the group, with a 2 -1 preliminary record. John Tortorella has a way of getting the most out of his players, and a resurgent Jonathan Quick could be the difference maker. The sleeper team is the Czech Republic squad, which has enough talent to surprise any club that takes them lightly. Team Europe is simply outgunned here, and will bring up the rear in Group A.
Group B is by far the more intriguing bracket. Any of the four clubs could lay claim to the title . . . or fall into the cellar. Team Russia is as strong as ever, but the eternal questions of discipline and defense linger. Sergei Bobrovsky has looked good in the preliminary rounds, but if he falters, Russia could be in trouble. Henrik Lundqvist has not looked particularly good thus far, and Sweden fields a squad that is beginning to show its age. Finland is stocked in goal — as usual — but may struggle to score. Meanwhile Team North America is simply a Tasmanian Devil looking to be pointed in the correct direction. They have large quantities of speed and skill, but are necessarily lacking in the experience area. If they stay disciplined and get good goaltending, they could be the team to beat. When the dust clears, I think Team North America does just that -- sweeping the table in the preliminary round. Russia advances to the elimination round, with Finland and Sweden holding down the 3rd and 4th slots, in that order.
The semi-finals promise to be barn burners, but I think that Canada edges Russia and Team North America’s speed nips Tortorella’s craftiness. Ultimately, however, Team Canada prevails in the finals, ending the young guns’ run in three games. Of course, a hot goalie or a key injury could turn this whole house of cards on its head, but that’s my call and I’m sticking with it. Note that I have every Blue Jackets player (Saad, Murray, Jones, Dubinsky, Johnson & Bobrovsky) making the semis. Such is the motivation when your alternative is a training camp regimen architected by John Tortorella.
Tournament Tidbit: If we had been paying attention, the Blue Jackets’ selection of Pierre-Luc Dubois with the #3 overall pick would have been no surprise. On May 27 — a month before the entry draft — the Team Finland World Cup roster was announced by GM Jere Lehtinen and Assistant GM Jarmo Kekäläinen. Notably absent from the selections was highly-touted Jesse Puljujarvi, despite the fact that both Patrik Laine (#2 overall) and Sebastian Aho (#35 overall), made the squad.
Defending the Title in Michigan
The Blue Jackets are looking for a three-peat in Traverse City, as play gets underway today in the eight -team tournament. As in the World Cup, the participants are divided into two four team divisions — the Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay divisions. Columbus is in the Howe, with Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. The Lindsay division features the Rangers, Minnesota, Carolina and Dallas. The clubs play an intra-divisional round robin today, Saturday and Monday. Tuesday all eight teams play in the final round, which culminates with the 1st place teams in each division squaring off for the title.
If projecting the World Cup is a fool’s errand, projecting a prospects tournament is insane, and I’m not willing to cross that line, despite the claims of many that I already have. However, there will be much to watch for as the tournament unwinds, and you will be able to watch, thanks to Detroit’s decision to live stream the games. Games will be available through the FoxSportsGo app, as well as on Detroit's website.
The intrigue for Blue Jackets fans begins with the projected top line of Sonny Milano — Pierre-Luc Dubois — Vitaly Abramov. That is some serious speed and skill, and the opportunity to see those three play together will be a real treat. Despite conventional wisdom, Dubois insists his goal is to make the big club out of training camp, and Milano is similarly chomping at the bit to make the NHL roster. Abramov — who might be the steal of the 2016 Entry Draft — is almost certain to return to Gatineau for another year of juniors, where he has already posted three points in the two pre-season games he has played in the “Q”. Speed and skill is the future, and it will be on display in spades with that top line.
Anchoring the defense will be Zach Werenski, who has leveraged his play for the Monsters in their Calder Cup run into an inside track on the blue line in Columbus. Dillon Heatherington and Blake Siebenaler also appear on the blue line for the CBJ prospects. If there is a question mark, it might be in goal, where the Blue Jackets are relying on two free agent invites — Jeremy Brodeur and Lucas Peressini. But how can you go wrong with the son of Martin Brodeur between the pipes for you?
The Blue Jackets start their title defense at 7:30 tonight against Detroit, face-off against St. Louis tomorrow night at the same time, and wrap up the preliminary round against Chicago on Monday at 3:30 PM. It should be entertaining stuff.
So lots of hockey to watch over the next week, which should tide you over until the Jackets take the ice for training camp next Friday. Good stuff. Stay tuned.