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#WCH2016: Murray, Jones key for Team North America's defense

by Tim Campbell / Columbus Blue Jackets

MONTREAL -- Team North America should be able to do some damage offensively with its skill and speed, but will it be up to the task of defending some equally high-powered opponents at the World Cup of Hockey 2016?

Based on the first three days of practice, it appears Team North America coach Todd McLellan will turn to the defense pairs of Seth Jones and Ryan Murray of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers with Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs for that assignment.

"I've got some pretty good chemistry the second half of the season with Ryan and I think that we're pretty comfortable together," Jones said after practice at Bell Centre on Wednesday. "We played against some pretty good competition this year in the NHL, so I think we're up for it and we're going to do what we can to be solid defensively for the team."

Jones said he's not worried about facing wave after wave of elite scorers, including Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin of Team Russia, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin from Team Sweden, and Team Finland's top line of Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, and Patrik Laine, in the preliminary round.

"With all the international tournaments we play, it's all-star teams, so even third and fourth lines are still players that put the puck in the net," Jones said. "You can't take a shift off. In the NHL, you can't go out for a single shift and lollygag around and get caught up, or think you can take a break on one shift, and then go hard on the next one. There's none of that. This isn't anything but like an NHL game for us."

Ekblad said that preparation will be essential for Team North America, which has three pretournament games to get ready for its opener against Team Finland at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 18 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

"I think this training camp is what's going to get us ready for that," Ekblad said. "We worked all summer to improve our strength and stamina and all that, but when it comes down to playing the game, the only way to get better at it is to play hockey, in my mind.

"These high-intensity practices and everything we're doing as a team, building chemistry, is going to be very important. We have great defensemen here and great offense here, and it's all about our five-man units jelling and learning how to compete again. Some of us have been out of competition now for two, three, four months."

Team North America defenseman Jacob Trouba, who so far has been on the third pair with either Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues or Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers, said there's another element to being good defensively in the tournament.

"Everybody we'll be against is just a top-tier player," the Winnipeg Jets defenseman said. "Every shift is going to be pretty fast, and we'll just have to be ready for it. We'll just try to keep it as simple defensively as we can, get the puck into our forwards' hands and let them do what they do. That's my mindset."

ON THE HORIZON: McLellan said Wednesday that Team North America will name its captain soon.

"Potentially tomorrow or between the two exhibition games, we'll see," he said.

Being a new entry in the World Cup, Team North America management and coaches said they needed a few days of training camp before deciding on the captain and alternate captains.

PAUSE TO REMEMBER: On the fifth anniversary of the plane crash that killed all the coaches and players of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League, Team North America assistant coach Gerard Gallant remembered former teammate Brad McCrimmon, who was among the 44 who died.

"When you saw it on the TV that day, it was just hard to believe, really, what happened there," Gallant said. "I played with Brad and knew Brad well. It was a devastating day, just a tough day for everybody.

"You don't think of these things when you're flying. Flying's the safest way to travel, we know that. It's just when you see something like that happen, it's very disturbing. A lot of good people lost their lives that day."

HATS AND PHONES: If Team North America is searching for an identity, this may be it, at least off the ice. McLellan raised the matter of hats and phones on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he expanded on his approach with a team made up of players 23 and younger.

"We just were sitting with the management group and talking about the changes that have occurred over the last decade in the game, and I think one of the biggest is the social media part of it," McLellan said. "This group is very engaged in that type of environment. Their phones are very important to them. In the past, the old-school hockey with old-school coaching, it would be no phones, no nothing, no hats.

"I think it's important for them to be in touch with their friends, their family. That's how they do it. There are times where phones and texting, all that type of stuff are appropriate, and there are times when it's inappropriate around the locker room. But we sure don't rule out cell phones. We know how important it is to them." correspondent Sean Farrell contributed to this report.

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