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World Cup

World Cup of Hockey storylines to monitor

Return of goalie Carey Price, Team North America lines among things to keep eye on

by Dan Rosen @DRosenNHL / Senior Writer

One month to go until the World Cup of Hockey 2016. So many questions to answer. So much to digest.

The first puck will drop at the World Cup a month from Wednesday, when Team USA plays Team Europe on Sept. 17 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPN2) in the first game of the preliminary round.

Here are eight storylines to monitor in the next month:

1. The return of goalie Carey Price

Price had a dream season in 2014-15 with the Montreal Canadiens, winning the Hart and Vezina trophies, but had a nightmarish one for any player in 2015-16.

Price, who didn't play after Nov. 25 because of an MCL injury, is "100 percent and he's ready to go," Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong said Tuesday in an interview with Sportsnet.

That's great news for Canada because when healthy, Price is the best goalie in the NHL.

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is coming off a historic Vezina Trophy-winning season and would be the perfect choice as the No. 1 goalie for most teams in the tournament.

Canada would also be strong in net if coach Mike Babcock went with Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks. He's one of two goalies in the tournament to win the Stanley Cup twice (Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick, Team USA).

But with all due respect to Holtby and Crawford, it's pretty hard to argue against starting Price when Canada opens the tournament Sept. 17 against Team Czech Republic (8 p.m. ET; ESPNews).

Video: Recent injury history for Carey Price

2. Centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel on the same line

It was ridiculous to consider McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) and Eichel (Buffalo Sabres) anything but rivals before the return of the World Cup was announced nearly 20 months ago. Now the possibility of the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft playing on the same line is real.

Team North America and Oilers coach Todd McLellan has the option and it's one he will most likely explore during training camp early next month. The best use of it would be to keep McDavid at center and move Eichel to right wing.

North America has nine centers among its 13 forwards, so some of them are going to have to make the switch to the wing.

McLellan could start the tournament with McDavid, Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets), Sean Monahan (Calgary Flames), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers) as North America's centers. That means Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings) and Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) would be wings along with Johnny Gaudreau (Flames), Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets), Jonathan Drouin (Tampa Bay Lightning) and J.T. Miller (New York Rangers).

Here are potential line combinations for Team North America based on that scenario:

Larkin - McDavid - Eichel

Gaudreau - Monahan - MacKinnon

Saad - Scheifele - Drouin

Matthews - Couturier - Miller


3. Ben Bishop as Team USA's No. 1 goalie

Training camp is a few weeks away, but based on performance last season the depth chart for Team USA's goalies right now should be: Bishop, Cory Schneider and Quick.

Bishop had a 2.06 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 61 games with the Lightning. Schneider had a 2.15 GAA and .924 save percentage in 58 games with the New Jersey Devils. Quick had a 2.22 GAA and .918 save percentage in 68 games with the Kings.

Bishop's late season lower-body injury and Schneider's offseason core muscle surgery are not expected to be issues when they arrive for training camp in Columbus on Sept. 4.

4. Goalie Matt Murray for Team North America

When the first 16 players were named to the Team North America roster on March 2, its biggest weakness appeared to be in net, with three inexperienced goalies competing for the No. 1 job.

Then Murray went on to win the Stanley Cup as the Pittsburgh Penguins starting goalie.

But did Murray's emergence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs turn a weak spot into a strength for North America and does Murray have the edge to be the No. 1 going into training camp?

Murray is one of three goalies in the tournament who won the Stanley Cup as a No. 1 for his team, joining Crawford and Quick. He went 15-6 with a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage in 21 starts in the playoffs.

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson would seem like Murray's best competition. He teamed with Frederik Andersen last season to win the William M. Jennings Trophy. He had a 2.07 GAA and .920 save percentage in 40 games. 

Connor Hellebuyck, who played 26 games for the Jets last season, is the third goalie.

Murray should be the favorite to start. Why wouldn't he be?

5. Center Auston Matthews preparing for the big stage

Before Matthews plays for the Maple Leafs, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft will be watched closely in Toronto, especially by local media.

It will be fascinating to see how Matthews handles NHL competition, the pressure of Toronto's watchful eye, and playing on the wing or in a bottom-six role, or both.

Matthews performed well for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in May, leading the Americans with nine points in 10 games, but the World Cup will be the first real indication of how Matthews the NHL player, not prospect, handles the Toronto spotlight.

6. Ditto for forward Patrik Laine

Laine, the No. 2 pick by the Jets in the 2016 draft, is preparing to compete for Team Finland. While the focus will be on Matthews in Toronto, it will be interesting to see how Laine fares against the best competition in the world.

Laine won't be under the same spotlight or pressure as Matthews, but Finland, like North America, has medal aspirations and will be counting on the 18-year-old forward to come up with a big tournament. At the World Championship, Laine finished tied for fourth with 12 points, helping Finland win a silver medal. Finland lost to Canada 2-0 in the gold-medal game.

7. Sign 'em up already

Six players scheduled to play in the World Cup remain restricted free agents.

Team North America has three in Gaudreau, Monahan and Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba. Team Europe has forward Tobias Rieder of the Arizona Coyotes, and Team Russia has right wing Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning and defenseman Dmitry Orlov of the Capitals.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the League and NHLPA will provide insurance to any player who participates in the World Cup without an existing contract, but the last thing these players want is to have their contract status' undecided by the time the World Cup begins.

The NHL is typically a deadline-driven league (trade deadline, July 1, salary arbitration hearing dates, etc.). The unofficial deadline to get RFAs under contract is typically the start of training camp. This year that nearly coincides with the start of the World Cup, so if history tells us anything, all five will be under contract by the time the tournament begins.

8. Center David Krejci's status for Team Czech Republic

The Czechs will be a major underdog at the World Cup, but any chance of medaling could vanish if Krejci (Boston Bruins) pulls out of the competition. It's not clear yet if that is going to happen.

Krejci had left hip surgery on April 25 and was given a five-month timetable to recover. Bruins general manager Don Sweeney told CSN New England last month that Krejci was on pace in his recovery, but a five-month timetable means he'd be pushing it to be back in time to join his Czech teammates in training camp early next month and for the tournament.

There seems to be less concern about Canada forwards Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars) and Claude Giroux (Flyers), who both had surgery this offseason. They each have said their goal is to be 100 percent in time for the World Cup and there has been no reports that either has been sidetracked in his recovery.

Krejci, though, could pull out of the tournament considering the recovery time of his surgery pushes close against the start of the NHL regular season.

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