Typically the hockey rivalry between the U.S. and Canada is the most intriguing for each nation as they take part in the Winter Olympics every four years. But for the younger players–the prospects, so to speak–the rivalry is just as intense, if not even more intense. The World Junior Championships (both U18 and U20) take place every year around the holiday season and into the new year, so returnees to the tournament get pretty familiar with their international foes.
It will be quite intriguing when the U23 World Cup takes place later this year, where all the top players 23 and under from both the U.S. and Canada will join together to form a North American team.
The team is required to reveal the first 16 names for their tentative roster on March 2, so we figured we would predict those first 16 ourselves.
* Disclaimer: this is not our prediction for the final roster, but rather just the first 16.
Connor McDavid: This one is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t hockey’s “next-best thing,” “generational talent,” etc. be on a team featuring North America’s top young stars? He is quite possibly the most promising U23 player in the world right now, so leaving the Edmonton Oilers center (who has 28 points in 24 games this season) off the roster would be inexplicable.
Jack Eichel: Finally, the media-driven storyline of McDavid vs. Eichel has been put to rest. The dynamic young forwards are in the NHL in entirely different conferences, only meeting a handful of times a year and barely in contact with one another, so the tiresome comparisons have taken a backseat. Eichel on the U23 roster only helps this cause (thankfully), as he and his former “rival” would be donning the same jersey as teammates for North America.
Nathan MacKinnon: The first-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft will be entering his fourth pro season (although it feels like just yesterday that he was a rookie) shortly after the World Cup, and at 21 years-old he will be counted on to provide leadership for the many young standouts on his team. The Colorado Avalanche star suffered a bit of a sophomore slump last season but has gotten back on track this year with 45 points in 63 games.
Dylan Larkin: A Calder Trophy candidate this year, Larkin has been off to quite the impressive start in Detroit during the 2015-16 campaign. With 39 points in 58 games, he has shown all season that he made the right choice leaving the University of Michigan earlier than was originally expected. After leading the U.S. World Junior Team in 2015, he will be counted on to be a top performer in international play once again at the World Cup.
Brandon Saad: It’s easy to forget just how young Brandon Saad actually is. The two-time Stanley Cup champion has already been traded and awarded a high-priced contract, so it’s hard to remember that he is still just 23 years-old–probably thanks to his insanely quick rise to prominence in the NHL. He will be part of the leadership group for the U23 team, and he may even be the odds-on choice at this point for team captain.
Johnny Gaudreau: A small, quick forward capable of racking up a lot of points (he has 57 points in as many games this year), the playmaker may be tasked with playing a complementary top-line role alongside one of the team’s top goal-scorers.
Sean Monahan: Another important figure for the leadership group, Monahan may actually be paired with his Calgary Flames teammate Gaudreau (with whom he has plenty of chemistry). The two have played alongside each other on the team’s top line for the better portion of two seasons now, and there’s a good chance their NHL chemistry will translate to the U23 team.
Max Domi: The whole hockey world awaited the arrival of the flashy, quick and offensively-talented Max Domi after he scored 102 points in the OHL last year. With 41 points in 60 games in his rookie season to-date, Domi’s versatility (he can play either center or wing with no problem) makes him a valuable asset.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: While there are plenty of skill centers who should be picked for this team ahead of him, such as McDavid, Eichel, Larkin and MacKinnon (who may play his secondary position of right wing due to a flux of centers), a case can be made to add Nugent-Hopkins to the list. The forward has been a consistent 50+ point scorer since he entered the league as an 18 year-old. The addition of his offensive skills and veteran leadership (we’re considering a 23 year-old a veteran in this situation, by the way) will give North America a huge advantage.
Alex Galchenyuk: This one is a bit of a wild-card selection, and the final spot was a toss-up between Jonathan Drouin and Galchenyuk, but we think the latter of the forwards deserves it most. Galchenyuk is a year older, more experienced – and we just figured that the coaches may want to wait out the Drouin saga until it reaches a definitive conclusion rather than add him in the first round (they can always add him later, once it is resolved).
Aaron Ekblad: Much like the case with McDavid, Aaron Ekblad’s spot on Team North America is a given. The right-handed shot will provide years-beyond-his-age leadership and an offensive presence unmatched in the rest of the U23 crop of defensemen.
Ryan Murray: After being rewarded with his first real NHL contract just a few weeks ago, the historically injury-prone Murray seems to finally be staying healthy and productive in the pros. One of the oldest defenders in the U23 class, he will be counted on to be a reliable two-way guy (with an expertise in shutting opponents down).
Matthew Dumba: The Minnesota Wild defender’s inclusion on this team is simply about his incredible rise to prominence this year. It took him quite a while to get acclimated to the NHL game, but this year has been a clear break-out season for him.
Seth Jones: After a much-anticipated trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the future face of the U.S. Olympic blue line will get his first taste at a big international stage on the U23 roster, where he will join new teammate Murray.
John Gibson: Although still young, Gibson appears to be one of the most (if not the most) promising goaltending prospects in the world. The Anaheim Ducks goalie has split time between the NHL and AHL for the last three years, but this coming World Cup will likely be a primer for his first full-time starting NHL role in the 2016-17 NHL regular season.
Zachary Fucale: After backstopping the 2015 Canadian World Junior team to a gold medal victory, Fucale knows a thing or two about international competition–even if he is Gibson’s backup.