Maple Leafs Will Bring Excitement at 2016 IIHF World Hockey Championship
By: Aaron Greenfield
The IIHF World Hockey Championships coincide every year with the NHL playoffs and while this rarely is an issue for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs to tune in, the tournament is still widely an afterthought as most countries are unable to ice a full roster. Usually, at least one high profile player from each respective nation is still alive in the quest for the Stanley Cup, which leads these countries to instead select a different player whom otherwise would not have made the cut. It’s a fortunate break for those players just below the cut for other tournaments such as the Olympics to get their shot but often lowers the excitement level and legitimacy of the tournament for some fans, as these aren’t the true rosters that would otherwise have been picked. This has been especially true for countries such as Canada, that despite the wide pool of players to choose from, often still have less-exciting rosters because the superstars are largely on rosters of the final few NHL teams that battle for the cup, or decide not join their fellow country-men once eliminated. This year, the theme for many rosters is youth, bringing back excitement to the tournament and once again giving fans an incentive to tune in. For Leafs fans, not only will three roster players be playing and have large roles but also this tournament will feature their first overall selection in this upcoming June’s draft, and for many fans, will be the first professional games they see them play. Here are the Leafs and potential Leafs featured in this year’s tournament.
Rielly took some serious leaps forward towards becoming the franchise defenceman the Leafs have been searching for. While he’s not quite there yet, he seems to be right on the cusp of stardom and another year of experience in the league should solidify that. In the meantime, he will represent his country for the first time since 2014, where he scored 3 points in 8 games on a disappointing 5th place Canadian squad. This time around he will be relied on much heavier and it would not be unreasonable to think he could be the top defenceman for the Canadians. The group of blueliners all are young, with Chris Tanev topping them at just 26 years old. Rielly played on the first pair in Toronto and was in the upper tier of the league in individual 5-on-5 Corsi stats, meaning when he was on the ice the team generated more shots at the opposing net than directed at their own; Rielly led all D-men selected for Team Canada in this stat as well.
Team Canada is loaded with talent and young superstars in-the-making but this also means they are more likely to turn the puck over and Rielly will be tasked with shutting down these chances. If there is one glaring weakness, it is between the pipes and Calvin Pickard and Cam Talbot have limited starting experience. Pickard started just 20 games last season, winning 7 games and had a 2.56 GAA and .922 SV%. Talbot is fresh off his first full season where he started 56 games, though he did not turn many heads on a weak Oilers team notching just 21 wins and a 2.55 GAA and .917 SV%. Sometimes a defence tandem can look better than it really is if the goaltender can stand on his head and stop the chances caused by mistakes or weak coverage. Last year, Canada rode a tandem of Mike Smith and largely unproven Martin Jones to a gold medal. This year’s goalie duo should not be relied on to carry this team and thus Rielly will have to come up big especially on the defensive side if Canada is going to have another successful tournament.
This Russian team on paper is already weaker than last year’s team that came up short in the gold medal game to Canada. Missing are Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeni Malkin whose teams are still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs but also missing from last year is Ilya Kovalchuk, who suffered a steep decline in production and this along with attitude problems and arguments with coaches left him a healthy scratch in this year’s KHL playoffs where his team SKA St Petersburg was swept in 4 games in the Gagarin Cup Eastern Conference Finals. It also led to a decision to leave him off this World Hockey Championship roster. With a lot of the offence gone, Russia will need to play a strong defensive game and must be able to capitalize on the chances they get the other way. Largely responsible for both shutting down opponents as well as contributing on the offensive side is recent Toronto Maple Leafs’ signing, Nikita Zaitsev. The Moskva native was one of the better defensemen in the KHL last season, playing top line minutes on a strong CSKA Moscow team that lost in the Gagarin Cup final in seven games this past season. Zaitsev is a two-way blueliner with a decent shot and good but not great hockey sense. He can kill penalties but his strength is on the powerplay where he got a bulk of his goals this season. Zaitsev’s responsibilities will be to play solid defensively without overplaying or making any poor decisions with and without the puck. He will be tasked with not allowing the opposition any grade-A scoring chances and any extra offense he provides will go a long way towards their title chances. Leafs fans should be excited to see him log a lot of important minutes and see how well he can play against the other nations’ top players.
Leafs fans are well aware of what Komarov can bring to a team, especially in international play. He is strong two-way forward who can be aggressive and agitate the opposition. Finland has emerged as a hockey superpower over the past few major tournaments and now have two of the top 3 rated prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft. While Pekka Rinne is still busy in round two against the San Jose Sharks, Predators prospect Jusse Saros, Flames goalie Nicklas Backstrom and SKA St. Petersburg goalie Mikko Koskinen will try and shut it down. Normally one of Finland’s strengths, goaltending is likely their weakest position in this tournament, which is why players like Komarov will be that much more valuable to get under their opponents’ skin, and ensure the puck stays on the Finnish sticks as much as possible. Komarov will also help offensively because he is so good at crashing the net and being a nuisance for the opposing goalie. He already has scored once, an OT winner in a pre-tournament game against the USA and will like to build off that strong performance as the tournament begins tomorrow.
It’s pretty unlikely the Leafs select Laine with the first overall pick, even as many European scouts have put him higher than Auston Matthews on their list of best prospect for the draft, but if they do decide to go off the board, they will be getting a beast. The 6’4 Laine had an incredible World Junior tournament this past winter and did not look out of place in the professional men’s league on his championship-winning Tappara, where he was Liiga MVP. It will be intriguing for Leafs fans to see if Laine can build off his sizzling World Junior tournament and how he stacks up against Matthews. It’s a long shot he ends up in blue and white but for the time being, perhaps he can make a case for himself that he is deserving of hearing his name called first in June.
This will be Matthews’ first international tournament against men and the stakes will be high. Toronto has scouted him all year but this will be the final time they get a good look at him until the draft so in case they are still unsure of which player to take, this tournament will help in deciding that. For fans, the process is easier and the focus will almost solely be on him, perhaps even more so than the Canadian team. Matthews is the number one centre that the Leafs have coveted and fans will be excited to see how he plays against NHLers and stars from European pro leagues, as many have not had the access to see him play with the ZSC Lions this past season. Will he be a dominant force as promised or blend in with the other top young American talent?
The tournament begins tomorrow at 9am EST with Canada vs. USA. Russia and Finland both play at 1pm. Russia faces off against the Czech Republic and Finland takes on Belarus.
Posted on May 5, 2016, in Blog, In the System and tagged auston matthews, canada, finland, IIHF, leafs, leo komarov, patrik laine, russia, world hockey championship, zaitsev. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.