As the 2015-16 NHL season approaches the three-quarter mark, things are starting to crystallize for the management staff of Team North America and the conglomeration of younger players from Canada and the United States that will serve as a wild-card national team in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Only players 23 years old or younger as of Oct. 1, 2016, will be allowed to play for Team North America. Players eligible to play for North America are ineligible to play for Team United States or Team Canada in the eight-team tournament.
The trick with evaluating younger players is to get as large a sample size as possible, because many potential candidates do not have extensive track records in the NHL or with their senior national teams in top-flight international play.
The past five months of NHL competition has allowed general managers Peter Chiarelli of the Edmonton Oilers and Stan Bowman of the Chicago Blackhawks to get extensive reports on the players they are considering for the 23-man roster, which must be submitted by June.
Here is what the roster for Team North America (alphabetically by position) could look like for the tournament, which runs from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 in Toronto:
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres, United States, C - A consistent scoring threat in his first NHL season, Eichel, 19, has delivered on the hype that accompanied him going No. 2 in the 2015 NHL Draft. He is top three among rookies in goals, power-play goals, shots on goal and average ice time. He won a gold medal for the United States at the 2014 World Under-18 Junior Championship and bronze at the 2015 World Championship.
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings, United States, C - The newly minted fastest skater in the NHL after his record-breaking victory lap during the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition, Larkin has been a revelation this season. He has 38 points in 54 games, a total good enough to share the lead on the veteran-laden Red Wings as they battle for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Auston Matthews, Zurich Lions (Swiss), United States, C - The presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old Matthews took the unusual developmental path of playing professionally in Europe against much older players than he would encounter in college or junior hockey. He has delivered on his potential with the Lions, scoring 23 goals and 38 points for the team that sits in first place in the Swiss top division. That productivity will go far in allaying fears about Matthews' ability to play in this tournament before his first NHL camp.
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, Canada, C - Selected No. 1 in the 2015 NHL Draft, McDavid excels in all three zones. He missed 37 games with a broken left clavicle but picked up where he left off when he returned to the Oilers' lineup on Feb. 2, including a five-point night on Thursday. McDavid finished with three goals, 11 points, a plus-8 rating and 61 percent faceoff efficiency to help Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 World Junior Championship.
Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames, Canada, C - Monahan is 21, he is in his third full season in the NHL and he is averaging a goal every three games with the Flames. That is the experience and proven production across an extended period of time that will be attractive to those selecting Team North America.
Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers, Canada, C - He has more than 300 games of NHL experience and already serves as an alternate captain with his NHL club at age 22. Nugent-Hopkins always has been ahead of the curve, and that has continued with his maturation at the NHL level. He should be a cornerstone, on and off the ice, for Team North America.
Max Domi, Phoenix Coyotes, Canada, LW - Domi, 20, earned his place on this team with a red-hot start to his rookie season. Despite the fact he has slowed down offensively, Domi has shown he has all the skills necessary to play with and against elite-level players. His candidacy will be closely watched down the stretch.
Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens, United States, LW - In his fourth season in the pressure cooker that is hockey-mad Montreal, Galchenyuk has shown he has the temperament to be successful in a high-pressure tournament. He has the size (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) and skill to be used as a center or on the wing. His versatility at such a young age puts him ahead of other candidates.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, United States, LW - Gaudreau, 22, knows all about a young team finding success. He and several younger teammates are powering the Flames. He is well on his way to surpassing his impressive rookie season numbers in his sophomore season, and has averaged .87 points per game in the NHL. He will be counted on to provide offense on this team.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers, Canada, LW - Huberdeau is learning the game from a true master in Florida, where he plays regularly on a line with the legendary Jaromir Jagr. He has proven to be an adept student: The 22-year-old has
40 points in 56 games this season
and 153 points in 252 NHL games.
Brandon Saad, Columbus Blue Jackets, United States, LW - Saad, who makes the cutoff by less than a month, likely will be the oldest player on Team North America and has the experience level to be captain. He's already played more than 260 regular-season games; more important, he has made three extended runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has won the Cup twice with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, Canada, RW - The first player takes in the 2013 NHL Draft is on the brink of scoring 20 or more goals and putting up 50 or more points for the second time in his first three NHL seasons. MacKinnon is an offensive specialist who will be counted on to get the young guns going at times. He is highly adept on the power play, a skill that is always valuable when disparate players are thrown together with little time to gel.
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets, Canada, RW/C - It seems as if Scheifele has been around forever, but he is in his third full NHL season. He plays like someone who's been around for more than 200 NHL games; he is responsible defensively and consistent on offense. Scheifele handles any duty with aplomb and should be given more responsibility with the makeup of this team compared with the more veteran Jets.
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets, United States - A smart, mobile defenseman with good size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), Jones is capable of making good decisions under duress. Since his trade to the Blue Jackets in January, Jones is logging heavy minutes and playing a big role. He has had ample international success for the United States, winning a gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship and a bronze medal at the 2015 World Championship.
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs, Canada - Rielly is establishing himself as a big piece in the Maple Leafs' rebuild. He has represented Canada in several international events, including the 2013 World Junior Championship and the 2014 World Championship.
Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets, Canada - An effective player on the power play and penalty kill, Murray is a two-way defender who relies on instincts and smarts to beat opponents. He is forming good chemistry with Jones in Columbus and won a bronze medal for Canada at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
Read the rest of NHL.com’s 2016 World Cup of Hockey roster picks HERE.