There will be a distinct Sabres flavor at the World Cup of Hockey when the tournament kicks off at Air Canada Centre on Saturday. Four of Buffalo's star players are competing: Jack Eichel for the under-23 North America team, Rasmus Ristolainen for Finland, Dmitri Kulikov for Russia and, thanks to a late addition on Wednesday night, Ryan O'Reilly for Team Canada.
For those not familiar with the World Cup of Hockey, it's an NHL-sanctioned international tournament that returns after being last played in 2004. Canada won that year, led by Vincent Lecavalier and Joe Sakic, while the Brett Hull-led United States won the tournament in its inaugural year of 1996. But while the tournament itself is not new, the format is. So allow us to catch you up by answering some of your questions.
How does it work?
The tournament's eight teams have been split into two groups for the round robin preliminary round: Team USA, Canada, Europe the Czech Republic and Europe - comprised of a mix of European stars like Anze Kopitar of Slovenia, Marian Gaborik of Slovakia and Roman Josi of Switzerland - will play in Group A; North America, Finland, Russia and Sweden compete in Group B. Once each team plays three games, the top two from each group will advance to semifinal contests, and the winners of those games will advance to a best-of-three final.
That means (spoiler alert) that at least one participating Sabre is guaranteed to make it to at least the semifinal round out of Group B. It also bodes well for fans interested in seeing two of the Sabres' brightest young stars go head-to-head when North America and Finland square off on Sunday. Ristolainen has witnessed Eichel's ankle-breaking powers for a full year now, but he's not exactly the type of defenseman to fear any challenge. That's a game to circle on your calendar.
North America? Aren't Canada and the United States in North America?
The NHL has so much young talent right now that the League decided to field a separate 23-and-under team comprised of the best young players from the United States and Canada. That means that, for the first time in their lives, Eichel and fellow 2015 top pick Connor McDavid will be teammates on an international stage.
Seeing Eichel and McDavid as teammates (and possibly linemates) is like spotting a unicorn in the woods - it's a beautiful sight, and you should enjoy it while it lasts because it will likely never happen again. The same can be said for many of the young players on the roster that will spend the rest of their careers on opposite sides of the USA-Canada rivalry.
The question is, can these kids win? The roster is stacked with talent - Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Scheifele, Shayne Gostisbehere and Aaron Ekblad are on it, and that's only to name a few - but whether the raw talent is enough to compensate for their relative inexperience in comparison to Russia or Sweden is a question that's yet to be answered.
So far, the results have been a mixed bag. North America won convincingly in its first two exhibition games over Team Europe, first by a score of 4-0 and then 7-4, but dropped its most recent matchup 3-2 to the Czech Republic. Eichel has said since then that the group has only scratched the surface of what they can be, and that very well may be true. Whether they can reach that ceiling in time to emerge from a talented preliminary group will be one of the tournament's most intriguing aspects.
Ryan O'Reilly was added to Team Canada late. Will he play?
At the World Championship in May, O'Reilly proved to be the same jack of all trades for Team Canada as he was throughout his first season in Buffalo. He scored eight points (2+6), played on both the power play and the penalty kill and took key faceoffs, including the one that sealed a victory for the Canadians in the gold medal game.
All of that seemed like it might have been an audition worthy of earning O'Reilly a spot on the final roster for the World Cup, but he was left off the team when Canada released its roster on May 27. That changed Wednesday, when Tyler Seguin became the third Canadian forward forced to drop out from the tournament due to injury.
In his sole pre-tournament game, a 3-2 overtime win for Canada over Russia on Wednesday, O'Reilly played 13:06 on a line centering Joe Thornton and Claude Giroux, and on Friday he was given the nod over Giroux to make the lineup for Canada's opening game against the Czech Republic on Saturday. Coach Mike Babcock cited O'Reilly's penalty killing abilities as the reason for his cracking the lineup. It will be interesting to see whether his versatility allows him to expand his role even more as the tournament goes on.
What should we expect from Dmitry Kulikov?
Chances are you've already watched Dmitry Kulikov play. The Panthers and Sabres are divisional opponents, after all, and Kulikov is already a seven-year veteran of the NHL despite being only 25 years old. But this will be your first time watching Kulikov since he was acquired by the Sabres in June, meaning the ratio of attention you're paying to him versus other payers will be at an all-time high.
Kulikov figures to be an important figure on Russia's defense, especially if the pretournament games are any indication. He's averaged 19:47 of ice time and totaled five hits and seven blocked shots with an even rating through three exhibition games. Kulikov is expected to play a similar role as a top-four defenseman for the Sabres, meaning this should be a fun preview of what's to come.
Stay tuned to Sabres.com throughout the tournament for updates on the participating Sabres.