While most people celebrated Labour Day Monday, the cream of the NHL’s crop assembled at training camps in Europe and North America to prepare for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. And, in an indication of the bright future of the organization, the Maple Leafs can boast of a slew of players – and their head coach – who have the honour of competing in the eight-team tournament that will be situated solely at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Eight Leafs will participate in the World Cup, and two of the franchise’s most prominent youngsters – defenceman Morgan Rielly and 2016 No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews, who’ll both skate for the Team North America 23-and-Under group – will remain teammates in the two-week tourney. The same goes for veteran Toronto winger Milan Michalek and returning blueliner Roman Polak, who’ll play for Team Czech Republic. Meanwhile, winger James van Riemsdyk will represent Team U.S.A.; winger Leo Komarov will play for Team Finland; first-year Leafs D-man Nikita Zaitsev will suit up for Team Russia; new Toronto goaltender Jhonas Enroth will represent Team Sweden; and bench boss Mike Babcock (along with Leafs video coach Andrew Brewer and equipment manager Brian Papineau) will guide Team Canada.
New Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen was scheduled to play for Team Europe (an amalgam of players from European teams not noted above) and boost to nine the number of Leafs in the tournament, but Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello announced Monday Andersen suffered an upper-body injury that will sideline him for 3-4 weeks and prevent him from playing in the World Cup. (Andersen is expected to be ready for the beginning of the 2016-17 NHL regular-season.)
In any case, Leafs fans will have at least one member of the organization to keep an eye on in each and every game of the World Cup, which will stage its first exhibition contests in a one-week period (Sept. 8-14). Those games are to be contested in Columbus, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Helsinki, Prague, Gothenburg, St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C. – and all eight teams will play three warmup games apiece in that span before the preliminary round kicks off Sept. 17 at the ACC.
The tournament format features two groups – Group A (consisting of Canada, the United States, Team Europe and the Czechs) and Group B (comprised of Team Finland, the Russians, Team Sweden and Team North America) – and the two top teams in each of those groups will qualify for the semifinals that run from Sept. 24-25. In a new wrinkle to the World Cup (which last was played in 2004 in Toronto), the winners from those semifinals will square off in a best-of-three series taking place Sept. 27, Sept. 29 and, if necessary, Oct. 1.
For many Buds boosters, the tournament will be their first opportunity to see Matthews up close in competition in Toronto. The same can be said for Zaitsev, a 24-year-old who signed with the Leafs after seven seasons in the Russian-based Kontinental League. But the chance to have so many of the organization’s players gaining experience in high-pressure scenarios is the true benefit for the team. Whether it’s Rielly (a 22-year-old who’ll be entering his fourth NHL season this year), van Riemsdyk (who is coming off an injury that limited him to 40 games last season) Komarov (who posted career-bests in a number of offensive categories last year) or anyone else, all Leafs participating in the World Cup can come away from it as stronger competitors when Toronto’s regular season begins Oct. 12 in Ottawa.
And that’s something Leafs fans – no matter which country or team they support at the World Cup – should be excited for.