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Saad among Team North America hopefuls for World Cup

by Dan Rosen / Columbus Blue Jackets

If the rosters for the NHL's best-on-best midseason 3-on-3 extravaganza can serve as an indication, the biggest wild-card team set to compete for gold in the next best-on-best international hockey tournament is looking like a legitimate contender.

Five eligible candidates for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the team consisting of the best 23-and-under Canadians and Americans, will play in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

That's only three fewer candidates than Team USA has competing here. It's two more than Team Russia and Team Sweden, three more than Team Finland and four more than Team Europe and Team Czech Republic.

Five is enough reasons for the potential North America all-stars -- forwards Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), defenseman Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers), and goalie John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks) -- to feel as if the young guys should be taken seriously at the World Cup in eight months.

"You can tell we might be able to compete, play well," Gaudreau said. "You never know, maybe win it. Why not?"

Twenty of the 44 all-stars playing Sunday could be on Team Canada's roster in the World Cup. That's not including Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, locks and potential captains for the team, who aren't here in Nashville.

Regardless, Gaudreau's point is well taken; Team North America will have a competitive team. The All-Star Game is the latest proof.

"I think people are saying that team would be an underdog because the guys are younger, but if you look around the League there's a lot of good young guys, guys that are in their first year or second year that have a chance to be on the team," Gibson said. "People just don't give us, the younger guys, enough credit."

There was a reason to doubt Team North America's chances when the 2015-16 season started. It didn't have a single eligible goalie in the NHL. It's impossible to win in an elite tournament without elite goaltending. It was a concern for North America general managers Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman.

Gibson started with San Diego in the American Hockey League. He didn't play his first NHL game this season until Nov. 24.

However, since arriving in Anaheim, he has a .923 save percentage, a 1.91 goals-against average and four of his 11 victories are shutouts. His GAA is first in the NHL among goalies with 20 or more appearances (21). He's also tied for third in the League in shutouts.

"I got to play with Gibson in World Juniors (2013) and I think he won us that tournament with the way he played," Gaudreau said. "In my mind, I didn't think there was any question. I thought he was going to be the goalie for Team North America."

Gibson has company in Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who isn't in Nashville for All-Star Weekend but could have been considering how his numbers compare to Gibson's.

Hellebuyck has a .927 save percentage and 2.10 GAA in 22 appearances. Two of his 12 wins have been shutouts. He started the season with St. John's in the AHL and didn't make his NHL debut until Nov. 27.

"To see the years they're having, getting more comfortable and more confident, that's what it takes and I don't think there's going to be any doubts about [goaltending] anymore," Saad said. "The team is going to be a scary team in general. I don't think there are many weaknesses."

The competition to make the team has only intensified as the season has worn on.

Nobody figured Larkin would be on the radar for Chiarelli and Bowman in September because the odds were against him making the Red Wings' roster. Now he's the third-leading scorer among rookies with 15 goals and 33 points.

"Look at the rookie class for this year, it is just impressive," Larkin said.

Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes), Anthony Duclair (Arizona Coyotes), Sam Bennett (Flames), Sam Reinhart (Sabres) and Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia Flyers) are among a handful of the players he's talking about.

"There's a lot of younger guys making a bigger impact and it's going to be tough," Larkin said. "Whoever is picking that team has a tough job because there's so many great players."

Even Gaudreau, who would seem like a lock, is somewhat nervous about his chances.

"If you look at it, I mean, we've got a ton of talent there through the young guys that are here, and there's a lot of young guys in the league that aren't here at All-Star Weekend but are still great players," he said. "It's cool because you know you might be able to compete with Team Canada, Team USA, the other teams. Hopefully I get to be a part of that team."

The prospects of that team look better today than maybe ever before. Look on the ice Sunday and you'll see five reasons why.

"There's no chance that we're going to be the underdog," Ekblad said.

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