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World Cup

Key questions for each team entering World Cup

Tournament's tight timetable leaves no room for poor starts, chemistry issues

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Want to win the World Cup of Hockey 2016?

Better get ready. Fast.

Training camps open Monday across North America and Europe. Each of the eight teams will have a few days of practice and three pretournament games to bring together a group of players from different club teams -- and, in two instances, different countries -- before the tournament begins at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

The preliminary round is Sept. 17-22. Each team will play three games, and the top two finishers in each four-team group will advance to the single-elimination semifinals Sept. 24 and 25. The best-of-3 final is Sept. 27, Sept. 29 and, if necessary, Oct. 1.

In other words, from the start of the preliminary round, four teams will be eliminated in six days. Another team will be eliminated two days later, another a day after that. Another will be eliminated and the champion will be crowned as soon as four, and no more than six, days after that.

Less than two weeks of preparation. Two weeks of competition, tops.

"It's going to be a high-tempo tournament," Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I think it's the teams that get up and running the quickest. You don't want to stumble coming out of the gate, because it's a quick round-robin. If you're not prepared to play, you could not make the semifinal."

It's a timed test, and here are key questions each team must answer:

Team Canada: How will all the pieces fit together under the microscope, especially up front?

It's easier said than done to coach a collection of superstars, putting them in the best positions for the team, convincing many to accept lesser roles and getting everyone to play as a unit, while the fans and media pick apart every move and expect perfection. Coach Mike Babcock did it when Canada won gold at the past two Olympics. He'll have to do it all over again here.

Thirteen members of this team played in Sochi in 2014. Eight played in Vancouver in 2010. Seven played in each tournament. So there is some continuity. But there are a lot of new faces, and it's a new tournament.

Which accomplished goaltender will start? Who will pair with Shea Weber on defense now that Weber's partner from Sochi, Duncan Keith, is out because of injury? And, of course, as always, who will play on the wing with Sidney Crosby? Among Team Canada's 13 forwards are two natural wings: Corey Perry and Brad Marchand. There could be all kinds of line combinations.

Expect Babcock to tinker in camp, pretournament games and even preliminary-round games. He wants to improve as the tournament progresses and ice his best lineup when it matters most.

Team Czech Republic: Is there enough depth without Tomas Hertl and David Krejci?

Team Czech Republic will not have the top four Czech goal scorers in the NHL last season: Jaromir Jagr (27), Tomas Hertl (21), David Krejci (17) and Jiri Hudler (16).

It might not have enough depth to emerge from a Group A that includes Team Canada, Team Europe and Team USA. The defense isn't exactly star-studded, and there is no Dominik Hasek in goal like there was when the Czech Republic won gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Keep an eye on Michal Kempny. He played for Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League last season, and the Chicago Blackhawks signed him hoping he can play somewhat like Johnny Oduya once did for them. He has never played in a major international tournament before, and he has never played in North America before. How does he adjust at a high level quickly?

Team Europe: What style will coach Ralph Krueger play with this unique group?

The most interesting man in the World Cup is Krueger. Born in Canada and the son of German immigrants, he has extensive coaching experience in North America and Europe, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Swiss national team. He has written a book on handling life's challenges -- in German -- and serves as chairman of the English Premier League football club Southampton.

For the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Krueger served as a consultant for Team Canada. He briefed Babcock on international tactics like staying back and keeping the puck to the outside, so Babcock could prepare his superstars for the larger ice surface and lesser-known countries.

In this tournament, Krueger is coaching a unique blend of the best Europeans from outside the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and Russia. He has to bring together Slovenians and Slovakians, Norwegians and Germans, Danes and Austrians and Swiss, from a motivational and tactical standpoint.

Will he use European tactics? NHL tactics? A hybrid?

Team Finland: Who's going to score?

Finland has never won gold since NHL players started participating in the Olympics in 1998, but it has won the most medals of any country: four -- one silver and three bronze. When the players suit up for the national team, they know how to play a defensive style, and they play it hard.

But Teemu Selanne has retired after leading Finland in so many tournaments, and someone is going to have to score. The top threat is Aleksandr Barkov, who had 28 goals for the Florida Panthers last season. No other member of the roster reached 20 goals in the NHL.

Can right wing Patrik Laine, whom the Winnipeg Jets selected No. 2 in the 2016 NHL Draft, break out at age 18? If Team Finland struggles offensively, can the defense hold up? Can Tuukka Rask or Pekka Rinne make enough of a difference in goal?

Team North America: Can these players mesh quickly?

No team has more questions than Team North America, not even Team Europe. Team North America is comprised of the best 23-and-under players from Canada and the United States. At least Team Europe has veterans.

Team North America is loaded with talent, including five of the past six No. 1 picks in the NHL Draft: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011), Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Aaron Ekblad (2014), Connor McDavid (2015), Auston Matthews (2016). But by definition, it lacks experience and cohesion.

How will these younger players look against veterans at this level of competition, especially if they face their home countries in meaningful games? How will a team almost evenly split between two rival hockey nations come together as one team? How will coach Todd McLellan draw up his lines and pairings?

At least one question seems answered already: The No. 1 goaltender entering camp will be Matt Murray, who took over in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season and won the Stanley Cup.

Team Russia: Will the players play as a team? Is the defense strong enough?

Russia has not won a best-on-best tournament since the Soviet Union won the 1981 Canada Cup, and Russia has not won a medal in the past three Olympics. It didn't even get to play for bronze on home ice in Sochi in 2014, falling in the quarterfinals to Finland, falling apart.

For all its talent -- Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk -- Russia scored eight goals in five games in Sochi. Under pressure and frustrated, the players often played like individuals instead of a team.

Can coach Oleg Znarok get everyone on the same page? Does he have enough talent on the back end to take full advantage of his strength up front?

Team Russia has impressive firepower with Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk, plus Vladimir Tarasenko, Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin and more. But if Alexei Emelin, Dmitry Kulikov, Alexey Marchenko, Andrei Markov, Dmitry Orlov and Nikita Zaitsev can't get the puck out of their end and up to the forwards efficiently, it might not matter.

Team Sweden: Who is Rikard Gronborg? Is there enough strength down the middle?

Gronborg has a huge challenge and opportunity. Unlike other coaches who are relative unknowns at least to a North American audience -- Znarok, Lauri Marjamaki of Team Finland, Josef Jandac of Team Czech Republic -- Gronborg is replacing an accomplished coach in Par Marts and taking over the team expected to be Team Canada's biggest challenger.

Gronborg spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the Swedish national team, including the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and has coached Sweden at the World Junior Championship three times. But he has never played or coached in the NHL. How will he handle a team of NHL stars in a best-on-best tournament on NHL ice? Can he match wits with, say, Mike Babcock?

Team Sweden is set in goal with Henrik Lundqvist, as long as Lundqvist does not get off to one of his slow starts to a season. Its defense is No. 1 in the tournament at best, No. 2 only to Team Canada's at worst. It has skill and experience up front. But especially with captain Henrik Zetterberg out because of injury, will Team Sweden be strong enough down the middle to beat Team Canada?

Team USA: How much will the format hurt? Who will start in goal?

With Team North America claiming the best 23-and-under players from Canada and the United States, Team USA is affected more than Team Canada.

Team Canada might not miss, say, Connor McDavid because of its depth of talent. Team USA will miss, say, Brandon Saad, Johnny Gaudreau and Shayne Gostisbehere. Saad ranked third among American goal-scorers in the NHL last season with 31. Gaudreau tied for fourth with 30. Gostisbehere ranked fourth among American defensemen in points with 46.

General manager Dean Lombardi raised eyebrows with this roster, most notably omitting Phil Kessel, who could have added speed and offense (but would not have been able to play anyway because of a hand injury). There is still firepower with the likes of Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski and Max Pacioretty, but there is a lot of grit with guys like Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky.

The strength of the team might be goaltending. Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider can give Team USA a chance to win any game and maybe even the tournament. But which one will start?

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