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Team Canada focused on quick start in World Cup

GM Doug Armstrong, coach Mike Babcock emphasizing preparation, urgency

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- In early July, about two months before the start of training camp for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Mike Babcock held a conference call with the 23 members of the Team Canada roster.

Armstrong said Babcock gave simple instructions for the summer: "Train to be ready to play. We're not going to wade into this."

It is now early August, a month before the start of camp, and amid the quietest period of the NHL offseason, there is a sense of urgency for those involved in the World Cup because of the timing and format of the tournament. What players do now in rinks and gyms across North America and Europe will impact not only who wins the World Cup, but who emerges healthy for the NHL season.

There is particular pressure on Team Canada, which won the past two Olympic gold medals and will play on home ice. The Canadians open camp Sept. 4 in Ottawa. They play Team USA on Sept. 9 in Columbus in their first of three exhibitions. They play the Czech Republic on Sept. 17 in Toronto in their first of three preliminary round games.

Though Team Canada is favored with a roster with too many stars to mention, it cannot take anything for granted. The top two teams in Groups A and B advance to the semifinals. In other words, half the eight teams will be eliminated by Sept. 22, just like that.

"I think it's the teams that get up and running the quickest," Armstrong said Monday while scouting USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp at USA Hockey Arena. "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."

If you do make a semifinal, it's single elimination. One bad night, and you won't make the final. And the final is a best-of-3 series, not a best-of-7 series like the Stanley Cup Final.

There is little margin for error. At a time of year when elite NHL players usually are easing into their teams' training camps, not playing high-level international hockey, Team Canada wants to start fast and keep accelerating.

"Four teams are going to be out in six days or something like that, and then four teams play one more time, and so there's a chunk of you done in a hurry," Babcock said Monday at the National Junior Evaluation Camp. "You want to be one of those teams that gets to play in the final three [games]. In order to do that, you've got to get better every day of the tournament. So that's the challenge for us."

Babcock and his coaching staff met during the NHL Draft in June. Team Canada held a management retreat in Kelowna, British Columbia, in July, including executives, coaches, trainers and Hockey Canada officials. Though the Canadians have not yet announced a captain, they have identified a leadership group. Babcock said he had talked to the leadership group about the plan.

The first issue is the health of forwards Jamie Benn and Claude Giroux. Benn had surgery July 14 for a core muscle injury sustained during offseason workouts; Armstrong said he would check on his progress at the end of this week or early next week. Giroux had surgery May 17 on his hip and abdomen; Armstrong said Giroux is skating. Team Canada can wait as late as Sept. 3 to finalize its roster and have potential replacements on call.

The next issue is mental and physical preparation. Babcock said he has to keep his system simple because he doesn't have time to install anything complex, but "you need good structure for the players' skill to come out." Team Canada will have five days of practice before its first exhibition.

"It's going to be a high-tempo tournament, and we're going to play at a high tempo," Armstrong said. "I would imagine the practices are going to be like midseason NHL practices -- 40, 45 minutes, but high tempo right out of the gate."

Team Canada's second exhibition will be 24 hours after their first, against Team USA, again back in Ottawa. The Canadians will have three days to rest and practice before their final exhibition Sept. 14 against Team Russia in Pittsburgh.

Remember: With 23 players on the roster, three players won't dress each night, and the exhibitions will be important when the coaches determine line combinations and defense pairings, and the players at the bottom of the roster compete for lineup spots. This will not be a typical September, especially for players of this caliber.

"No one in the NHL would play their really good players back to back; we start exhibition back to back against the U.S.," Babcock said. "So it's so important that you've done your work in advance, obviously to give yourself the best chance in the tournament but probably as importantly to give yourself the best chance of not being injured.

"We've addressed it with them. Guys are proud and smart. They know how to play. They know the best players are going to play, and you can't play if you're injured. So your preparation phase is huge for you."

Team Canada will have two more days after that before the opener. Two more days, and then back-to-back games again: Sept. 20 against Team USA and Sept. 21 against Team Europe. No time to waste, not in September, not in August either.

"We've got to be ready for that Game 1 versus the Czechs," Armstrong said, "and I think the guys understand that."

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