TORONTO – To many observers, the NHL season is going to be all about seeing how quickly Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel can reverse the fortunes of their struggling franchises in Edmonton and Buffalo. But it will also be a season-long scouting mission for hockey executives watching the league’s two newest marquee names, other young players and some old reliables – all with a eye on next September.
A year from now, the league and the Players Association will join with the International Ice Hockey Federation in staging a World Cup tournament for the first time since 2004. The entire two-week affair will be played in Air Canada Centre and long-rumored details were finally firmed up and announced at the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday. Among the highlights:
• The tournament will run from Sept. 17-Oct. 1, 2016 with two pools. Group A will consist of teams from Canada, USA, the Czech Republic and a combined team from across Europe. Group B is Finland, Sweden, Russia and Team North America, the under-23 group that’s been previously referred to as Team Youngstars. Players must be under 23 as of Oct. 1, 2016, with Eichel and McDavid expected to be among the marquee names on that club.
• The first game is Sept. 17, pitting Team Europe against Team USA. The USA and Canada will play on Sept. 20. After pool play, one-game semifinals will be held on Sept. 24-25. The best-of-three final will be played Sept. 27, Sept. 29 and Oct. 1.
• Each of the eight teams will have a roster of 23 players: 20 skaters and three goaltenders, with a first partial roster deadline of March 1. The main countries for Team Europe are expected to be Austria (former Sabre Thomas Vanek’s homeland), Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia, France, Germany and Latvia, which could be represented by Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons.
• Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli and Chicago’s Stan Bowman will direct Team North America. Former Sabres winger Miroslav Satan will serve as the GM for Team Europe. Former Edmonton boss Ralph Kruger will coach Team Europe; other coaches have not been determined.
• All games will be televised in the United States by ESPN and ESPN2.
“Guys are excited about it,” said Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, expected to be a focal point for Team Canada. “It’s a new format. We’re all used to the Olympic format and how that works but this has been a while and it’s something we’re all excited about.”
Teams will start World Cup training camps on Sept. 3 and 4 and will open exhibition games on Sept. 7. The Sabres have put in bids for both the camps of Team USA and Team North America and have also applied to host exhibition games in First Niagara Center. Decisions on those sites are likely to be made sometime this month.
“We’re in the process of reviewing all the information provided and trying to crossmatch schedules and flights,” said NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. “I don’t think it’ll be very much longer before that announcement is made.”
Chiarelli said he’s in the early stages of doing a mental fantasy draft for the Team North America roster and acknowledged McDavid and Eichel are on his early list. But he doesn’t want to ratchet any pressure on either of them.
“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.”
Veterans on hand admit they’re curious at what fans in Buffalo and Edmonton will see this year.
“There’s a level of anticipation from everybody,” Crosby said. “I can relate to their situation and know what it’s like to have high expectations at a young age. … The exciting part for them is just being able to play. There’s so much anticipation, they have to answer so many questions about it. We answer a lot of questions about it. I think we all just want to get the season started.”
Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara, expected to be a leader of Team Europe, had similar thoughts.
“Both of those players are extremely talented and were followed on their way every game and every practice, every time they scored,” Chara said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a fun year for them. They’ll be even better next year when it’s time for this. It’s good for the game, it’s good for the league to add two potentially star players.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he was thrilled by the format, which allowed for more than 150 of the league’s players to take part with the addition of the North America and Europe entries.
“It enabled us to include more NHL players than we otherwise would have been and for those two teams they’re more competitive than any other country team would have been for this event,” Bettman said. “So it will make the competition more competitive as well. Otherwise, you would have had a country with maybe just a couple of NHL players. Now you have what are going to be two very strong teams highlighting more NHL players.”