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Team North America could use youth to advantage

by Arpon Basu

TORONTO -- The scariest team in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is the one that is probably the least likely to win the tournament.

Team North America is a new concept in international hockey, grouping the best players 23 years old and younger from Canada and the United States against the best hockey nations in the world.

Peter Chiarelli of the Edmonton Oilers and Stan Bowman of the Chicago Blackhawks were named general managers of Team North America on Wednesday, and Chiarelli immediately labeled it as the underdog, putting its hopes of winning the tournament at less than 50 percent.

But if there is one team no player wants to lose to, it is Team North America.

"As the older guys in the League, there's no way you want to lose to the young bucks," 25-year-old Canadian defenseman Drew Doughty said Wednesday. "The League's all about being a veteran and having experience. So there's no way you'd want to lose to them."

Canadian Duncan Keith, 32, said, "Those guys are going to be excited to try and beat the older teams. It's going to be a fun tournament, and I just want to be a part of it. If I were on that [Canada] team, I wouldn't want to lose to the young guys."

Any player born on or after Oct. 1, 1992 is eligible to play for Team North America and ineligible to play for Canada or the United States. Some of the top players could be Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Brandon Saad, Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon up front, and defensemen Dougie Hamilton of the Calgary Flames, Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets and Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers.

"We're a young team but we've got tremendous skill at the same time," Saad said. "It's kind of like we're the underdog, but at the same time we've got a lot of potential and we can catch a team sleeping, or whatever you want to call it. We know teams are going to come to play against us, they don't want to lose to the young guys. It's going to be a lot of fun."

For a team like this, Chiarelli said the choice of coach will be paramount and he has a list of three or four candidates he wants to discuss with Bowman. An ideal candidate might be Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, a dual U.S./Canadian citizen with a history of working well with young players. But Chiarelli said he has an open mind for the profile of the coach, as long as he's effective.

"Because it's younger does that mean we get a younger coach? Not necessarily," Chiarelli said (Cooper is 48). "I think what's important to note is that it's a short period of time and the coach has to be able to bring the team up to speed in a short period of time and compete and excel. That's a lot of impact for the coach, but the coach will have to be able to hyper-accelerate how he coaches."

Chiarelli said he and Bowman have identified a list of about 65 players to watch this season, and the one common element is speed.

"If you look at the eligible players … everyone can skate. Like, really skate," Chiarelli said. "Especially the back end, they can push the puck up and get it to these guys. So it's going to be a very fast team. You know what? At the beginning of September, I think from that perspective we might have a certain edge in the game just because the guys are younger and [have] younger legs.

"I think the team will be fun to coach; it's going to be a high-tempo team and all the guys are able to play at a high tempo. It's going to be great competition right across the board."

Chiarelli said he and Bowman have agreed there will be no quotas on how many Canadians or Americans are taken, just that the best players will be selected. The Canadian-American makeup appears to be tailor-made for the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor McDavid, a Canadian forward chosen by the Oilers, and Jack Eichel, an American forward selected by the Buffalo Sabres.

Chiarelli will get a close look at McDavid but said it is too early to say whether the two rookies will be able to play themselves into contention; they will be four years away from the age cutoff by the time the tournament starts.

"They're terrific young players," Chiarelli said. "Let them make their teams first, which they will, but let's take one step at a time here."

One of the biggest issues for Team North America will be in goal. There were four North American goalies who started a game in the NHL last season and also fall within the age guidelines: John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks, Malcolm Subban of the Boston Bruins, Laurent Brossoit of the Edmonton Oilers, and Mackenzie Skapski of the New York Rangers.

Gibson had 21 starts with the Ducks; the other three goalies combined for four.

"Just because goaltenders develop at a later age, we have four or five goaltenders that we have kind of on the radar," Chiarelli said. "It would be nice to know you have a [Tuukka] Rask or a [Henrik] Lundqvist or a Carey Price that you could rely on, but we don't."

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