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World Cup

Team North America won't be intimidated

Top young players from U.S., Canada expect to be competitive at World Cup

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

MONTREAL -- The built-in disadvantage facing Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is real, but it's getting little credence from within.

By tournament rule, no member of the roster is older than 23 (as of Oct. 1). Its byproduct is that no one on Team North America has a single game of international best-on-best experience. Every other World Cup team has some measure of that, all the way up to Team Canada's deep list of returnees from the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"I don't think anybody cares," forward Nathan MacKinnon said Monday, volunteering his opinion after the team's first World Cup training camp practice, at Bell Centre. "All of us play in the NHL, and it's a young league. I think we have some of the best players in the League on this team. We're the most skilled team here, in my opinion. I think we are, just with our speed. But in terms of best-on-best, everybody's been in international tournaments and we have that feel. Obviously, it's going to be a step up, but no one's intimidated by that."

It's what elite players, including young ones, have always done, MacKinnon said, making the jump less daunting.

"Our whole lives, we've been climbing that ladder, playing against better competition," the 21-year-old Colorado Avalanche forward said. "I haven't even thought about it, to be honest, that this would be a harder tournament. I'm just excited to be here and to play well."

If the lack of best-on-best experience was such a drawback, the World Cup would have been designed differently, 20-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad said Monday.

"It's a world best-on-best, and yeah, there's a lot of veteran leadership on other teams, and now we have the incorporation of the under-23 North America team and Team Europe," Ekblad said. "Of course, there's plenty of competition. Any team that wasn't considered to be a team that wouldn't be as competitive isn't here and they've brought in two teams that they think will be competitive, so if you think about it, it's got to be fast, skilled and there will be no easy games at all."

Video: Reilly, Team North America on WCH 2016 expectations

Having no track record in the Olympics or World Cup isn't going to hamper his team at all, Ekblad said, insisting the roster's 240 total Stanley Cup Playoff games surely have to mean something.

"If you compare it to the NHL playoffs, your first time around, you learn things," he said. "I don't want to call it a handicap that we're the team that hasn't made the playoffs yet, so to speak, but we've got an opportunity to learn a lot from coaches who have done it, and I just don't consider it a handicap. It's a learning experience, and we'll grow and learn as the games go."

Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is one of seven Team North America players selected at the 2011 NHL Draft; he has played five seasons and 313 regular-season games in the League.

Like MacKinnon, Nugent-Hopkins sees the speed and skill of Team North America as assets, in addition to the time and preparation still to come before the World Cup begins at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 17.

"It's going to be a step above the World Championship and whatnot because it is the best-on-best right now," Nugent-Hopkins said. "This couple-week camp we have here will help us adjust, and we've got three games before the actual tournament starts, which is going to be really big for us.

"We won't want to tiptoe our way into the tournament. We want to come into in it full stride and see where we go from there."

Video: McDavid, Team North America preview the WCH 2016

But there is much important knowledge still to come about Team North America. Who will react the right way when one of its quality opponents is applying minute after minute of offensive pressure? Who will deliver the big or timely goal or save? Who will say the right words to restore a focus?

Coach Todd McLellan acknowledged Monday that there is a lengthy list of unknowns for his team in this step up in competition.

"I think it's immense, I really do," McLellan said. "The last experience I had internationally was in 2015 at the Worlds, and with all due respect to some of the countries that are there, we weren't as challenged in every situation as we will be here.

"I just think of faceoffs alone, for example. We've talked about that as a staff. I'm very confident that this group could end up well over 50 percent in a World Championship environment. But we've got the best in the world here, Team Canada, Team USA, the best faceoff guys in Sweden and Finland, they're all here. It'll be a huge challenge for us, where if we were just going to the World Championship with this group, I'd feel good we'd be where we needed to be."

Just give them a chance to get their foot in the door, Ekblad said.

"We're young guys, came into NHL teams and made a mark," he said. "We all know how to step in and make big plays and be good players even when there's other great players around."

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