Why the Hockey World Should Hold out (Some) Hope of Beating Team Canada Soon
Down Goes Brown lists eight reasons why hockey juggernaut Canada may not continue winning every major international tournament.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
The 2016 World Cup of Hockey ended last night. You'll never guess who won.
Wait, of course you will. It was the same team that always wins, at least for the last decade or so.
Last night, Canada used a late third-period comeback to beat Team Europe 2-1, finishing off a two-game sweep of the final. That left Canada with a perfect 6-0-0 record for the tournament, and going back to the playoff round of the 2010 Olympics, Canada has now won each of the last three best-on-best tournaments, not to mention 16 straight games.
And so we appear to have an international dynasty on our hands. And while that's great news if you're a proud Canadian, it's not exactly a good thing for hockey fans in general. The sport has a long history of international tournaments providing some of its most memorable moments, from Paul Henderson to Dominik Hasek to Mario Lemieux to Tommy Salo. But those tournaments only matter if there's some suspense involved. Right now, Canada is the best and everyone knows it. If one team is completely unbeatable, then why should anyone bother to care about the next best-on-best event? Maybe it would be better for fans to just skip the international events and only worry about the games where we don't already know the ending.
This is a problem. And it's lead to some handwringing over whether Canada is just too good for these tournaments to be worth watching anymore. So today, let's try to push back on the idea of Team Canada as an unstoppable juggernaut. Hard as it may be to find today, there are small signs of optimism for everyone else. Here are eight reasons why the rest of the world should hold out some hope of beating Team Canada someday soon.
Reason No. 1: Team Europe almost beat them
Let's start with the most recent sign of optimism: Team Europe actually hung in there. For 55 minutes last night, they looked like they were even going to get a win.
That was a surprise. On paper, Team Europe wasn't even one of the tournament's stronger teams. A collection of players from the hockey world's less competitive nations, Team Europe wasn't expected to make the playoff round. But it did, upsetting Team USA along the way, and then it surprised Sweden in overtime. That set up a matchup that most of us assumed would be a Canadian cake walk.
But it wasn't. Team Europe played Canada tough in Tuesday's opener before dropping a 3-1 decision, and it was even better last night. And to be clear, this wasn't a case of a team getting badly outplayed but managing to keep the score close. Team Europe held the edge for long stretches, outshooting Canada and giving itself a real chance to win.
How did Team Europe do it? Mainly by being a well-coached team playing a disciplined and getting strong games from just about all of its key contributors. And sure, in the end, it still wasn't enough. But for a more talented roster, it might have been.
So it can be done. Now we just need to find someone who can do it.
Reason No. 2: Help is on the way
Your mileage may vary depending on which country you root for, but there's plenty of young talent that should be making waves in the NHL by 2020, and much of it isn't Canadian. Names like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl are all set to break through. Johnny Gaudreau and Evgeny Kuznetsov already have, and they'll be even better next time around.
Two years is too small a sample to draw any big conclusions from, but it's worth remembering that the last few drafts have been top heavy with non-Canadians. The rest of the world has accounted for 15 of the 20 top ten picks from the last two drafts, with Canada having just five. The next wave of talent to hit the league may not be as Canadian as we're used to seeing.
(Of course, for this point to work, you have to ignore that one of those Canadian players is Connor McDavid, whose work on Team North America at the World Cup was so impressive that plenty of hockey people were openly wondering if he's already the best player in the league. He's going to be ridiculously good. Sorry, rest of the world. Barring an alien abduction, McDavid is going to ruin you for the next two decades.)
Reason No. 3: The Canadian blueline isn't completely invincible
Team Canada's biggest strength is its forwards. The team rolls four lines of superstars, each of which is better than anything most other countries could put together. Let's be honest, Canada could assemble a few lines worth of players it didn't bother taking and it would still look like an NHL all-star team. This post is supposed to be about offering up hope for the rest of the world, but when it comes to matching up with Team Canada up front, I'm not sure there is any.
The blueline is a different story, though. On paper, Canada didn't have the tournament's best defense—that would have been Team Sweden. And while the Canadian roster featured stars like Shea Weber, Brent Burns and reigning Norris winner Drew Doughty, it also included guys like Jake Muzzin, Jay Bouwmeester and Marc-Édouard Vlasic, who aren't exactly household names.
Those guys are all still good players (Vlasic, especially). And it's worth remembering that Canada was missing Duncan Keith, who couldn't recover for a lingering injury in time to take part. But still, if you're looking for a spot on the Canadian roster that's merely good instead of frighteningly great, then this is it.
And that's partly due to strategy. While Canada has been willing to take its best 12 or 13 forwards and play them pretty much anywhere, the team has adopted coach Mike Babcock's obsession with making sure its blueliners play on their natural side. That means balancing righties and lefties, which helps explain why players like Kris Letang and P.K. Subban were left off the roster. Babcock has his reasons, which he explained earlier in the tournament, and his international track record indicates that he knows what he's doing. But as long as Canada keeps banking on the lefty/righty mix, its defense won't be quite as stacked as you might expect.
That's not to say that Team Canada is going to have a weak blueline anytime soon—Doughty is still just 26, and guys like Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko are on the way. But compared with the ridiculous wealth of talent up front, there's at least some hope here for the rest of the world. Not much, maybe, but we'll take what we can get.
Reason No. 4: Their goaltending might not be, either
Calm down, Habs fans, we said "might."
It's been a long time since the days when Canada had so much depth in goal that it could roll out Martin Brodeur, Eddie Belfour and Curtis Joseph even when Patrick Roy decided to stay home. In particular, the once limitless supply of French-Canadian goalies has slowed to a trickle over the years, to the point where it's felt like the rest of the world was catching up to or even passing Canada at the position. For example, six of the last eight Vezina winners haven't been Canadian.
Unfortunately for the world, the two Vezina exceptions happen to be the last two, Carey Price and Braden Holtby, both of whom are still in their prime. But if you're looking for optimism, you could point to the fact that the next generation of Canadian goalies has yet to produce anything that looks like a sure thing—aside from Holtby and Price, the next best 28-or-under Canadian might be Martin Jones.
Of course, somebody could emerge out of nowhere to join the league's elite. But that's the point—in the modern NHL, goaltending is voodoo. We really have no idea who's going to develop, who's going to regress, or what we should expect. The position is far less predictable than any other in the sport, and it's quite possible that by the time future World Cups roll around in 2024 or even 2020, the best goalies in the world will be guys you've never even heard of right now.
That doesn't mean that next superstar won't turn out to be Canadian. But they might not be. And if we've learned anything from Canada's rare international losses, it's that one great goaltender can trump just about everything else.
Reason No. 5: There's no guarantee that Canada stays smart
There are few reasons why Canada shifted back from international also-ran to world powerhouse 14 years ago. Mario Lemieux getting healthy again helped. Sidney Crosby coming along did, too. But an underrated factor is one that seems obvious in hindsight: They got smart.
It's one thing to have the best players. But you have to actually bring those players to the tournament, and Canada went through a phase where it didn't do that. There was a brief obsession with the concept of the "shadow roster," in which you define certain roles and then fill those roles with players who specialized in them. It made a certain kind of sense in theory. In reality, it got you decisions like taking Rob Zamuner to the Olympics instead of Mark Messier because he was a really useful fourth-liner.
Eventually, Team Canada's brain trust realized that it might make more sense to just bring the best of the best and then let them fill the roles as needed, which is why today you have guys like Joe Thornton happily playing on the fourth line. As it turns out, elite players are elite for a reason, and they can usually handle just about anything you throw at them. But for a while, Team Canada didn't seem to grasp that.
This will all sound familiar to any fans of Team USA, because it's basically how that program has been filling out its roster for years now. But that's where the hope for everyone comes in. American GM Dean Lombardi is no dummy, as his two Cup rings will attest, but he still thought it was a good idea to bring Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky instead of Phil Kessel or Tyler Johnson. Canada tends to turn over its management and coaching staffs every few tournaments, and there's no guarantee that the next group to be handed the keys to the kingdom won't decide they need to go back to role players.
Reason No. 6: Remember, we've been here before
Canada has the consensus best player in the world, the best young prospect, and the best goaltender. It has won three best-on-best tournaments in a row, and five of the last six.
All of that is true today. But it was also true in 1991, after Canada had won its third straight Canada Cup. And we all remember what happened next: Canada spent the next decade coming up small when it mattered, including losses to the United States at the 1996 World Cup, and the Czech Republic at the 1998 Olympics.
And it could happen again. This stuff tends to be cyclical, and we've never seen a team stay on top of the hockey world for all that much longer than Canada has now. That doesn't guarantee anything, of course, but it does serve as a nice reminder that people in 1991 may have been thinking the same things about Canada's dominance that we are right now. And they would have been wrong. Maybe we are, too.
Reason No. 7: We could always just change the rules
You know the old saying: If you can't beat 'em, start messing with the rulebook until you can.
OK, maybe that's not quite how it goes. But after yet another Team Canada win, there's some buzz building around the idea of altering the format for future World Cups to make things more competitive.
One idea would be splitting Team Canada into two entries. That could be done geographically (Canada East and Canada West), or by creating two management teams and having them essentially draft the country's talent. Even if the league just created a "B Team" of Canada's leftover talent—which would still be pretty darn competitive—it would at least siphon off some available injury replacement depth.
Or if that seems too extreme, what about introducing a new Ryder Cup-style tournament that pitted Canada against the World? Surely that would be competitive. Of you could go with the version that the NHL seems to be leaning toward, in which Canada and Team USA would combine to face the combined forces of Europe. Technically, that sort of event wouldn't even have a Team Canada, so we wouldn't have to worry about them winning. Probably.
Reason No. 8. It's still hockey, and anything can happen
We know how this sport works. Upsets can happen. Shockers can happen. Some countries out there have even seen a miracle or two.
And it will happen again. Even if Canada stays every bit as dominant as it is now—heck, even if it somehow gets even better—somebody will stun them eventually. It's just the nature of the sport. Someday, some red-hot goaltender will stand on his head for a team that gets all the bounces, and that will be all it takes. If it happens in an elimination game, the reigning king will be dead, at least temporarily.
It's not like it hasn't almost happened a few times along the way. Canada nearly lost to Latvia in the 2014 Olympic quarterfinals. They actually did lose to Switzerland in 2006. If those counties can pull it off, any of the bigger hockey nations can, too. We almost saw it happen on Saturday, when Sergei Bobrovsky and the Russians briefly had Canada on the ropes late in the second before everything fell apart.
And sure, that kind of miracle win might not be the most satisfying result. Ideally, someone would emerge who could actually go toe-to-toe with Canada and beat them without relying on a fluke of hockey fortune. But until that day arrives, opponents can at least hope for a lucky break or two. In today's game, that's often all it takes.
It may not be much. But right now, rest of the world, it's all you've got.
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