Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Auston Matthews can't wait to play with many of the finest young players ever assembled on an international stage for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.
"It's the best-against-best tournament so it's pretty exciting just to be able to compete at this level," Matthews told NHL.com. "I think it's going to be pretty eye-opening. It'll be an adjustment, but it's something I look forward to. It'll be great playing with some very special and exciting players for Team North America."
Team North America is a concept that's new to international hockey; it features the top players from the United States and Canada age 23 or younger. It will play in Group B along with Team Finland, Team Russia and Team Sweden.
Matthews, selected No. 1 by the Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL Draft, is the second-youngest player participating in the tournament; he turns 19 on Sept. 17. Team Finland forward Patrik Laine, picked No. 2 by the Winnipeg Jets in this year's draft, turns 19 on April 19, 2017.
The eight-team World Cup will be played Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. All games will be televised by ESPN in the United States and Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada.
Team North America will play its first game against Team Finland on Sept. 18 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2). Although North America could be at a disadvantage because of its youth and relative inexperience, co-general managers Peter Chiarelli (Edmonton Oilers) and Stan Bowman (Chicago Blackhawks) have selected a wealth of talent.
Team North America coach Todd McLellan is looking forward to working with so many skilled young players.
"We really don't know what we have and how we'll react; we think we'll have a real fast team, young legs," McLellan said. "Can the team come together and who's going to elevate themselves in a leadership capacity? We're looking for that. I think the pressure on us is to go in and upset, where the pressure on some of the other countries like Canada and the United States is to win, so we'll happily take that underdog role and see if we can make it hard on some of those countries."
Matthews recently spoke to NHL.com about his participation in the World Cup:
Is there one player on Team North America's roster who you have never played with and are looking forward to getting that opportunity?
" I think, obviously, Connor McDavid is one player who I've never played with but have played against a couple of times on an international level. He's a very special player, so he'd definitely be one of those players I'd be happy to get a chance to play with. But I also think looking up and down that lineup there are so many guys, like Johnny Gaudreau and Nathan MacKinnon. There are so many unbelievable players."
Many believe Team North America could be the fifth-best team behind the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden. Do you agree?
"I think we have a chance to surprise some people and really go far in this tournament, so I think we don't look at this as we're the fifth-best team. We look at it as being a team with a lot of speed and skill and a lot of talent. We definitely want to use all that to our advantage and really do our best to win some games and put a dent in this tournament."
Are you excited the tournament is in Toronto, and is there any pressure associated with that knowing this is where you will begin your NHL career?
"I think we're the young guys of this tournament, so there's not too much pressure on us. No one really expects us to do much in this tournament, but the way we look at it is we're the underdogs, so there's a lot of motivation for us. I think we don't think we have too much to lose. We're the young team, so I think all of us expect each other to compete hard and really prove people wrong."
What personal challenges do you foresee in the World Cup?
"It's a whole other level from the IIHF World Championship to this, since it's the best-on-best in the whole world. So it will definitely be an adjustment because these are the best NHL players in the world all assembled on their respective teams. For me, I just want to learn as much as I can, get better each and every day and each game, and talk to the different players. I just want to continue to progress and get better as the tournament moves along."
How difficult or strange would it be to play against the United States if you get that opportunity in the playoff rounds?
"That would be pretty strange. I was fortunate to wear that Team USA jersey quite a bit over the last couple of years, but it would definitely be a little odd being in that situation. At the same time, we're representing Team North America now, so no matter who you're playing against you want to go out there and win."