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World Cup more than just the top teams

When it comes to the World Cup of Hockey, this corner is going to be all about Team North America and Team Europe. They are the curiosities, the real reasons to watch, the things that will take what everyone expects to be awesome hockey and turn the event into something unique.

We will have keen interest in these parts in Team North America, the under-23 group, because it will be the first time the hockey world sees Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid as teammates. But the first-16 release of this roster was far more than just them when you consider names like Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, defense studs like Aaron Ekblad of Florida and Seth Jones of Columbus and Anaheim goalie John Gibson.

If they were eligible to play for their home countries, McDavid probably gets selected for Team Canada and we know that Team USA GM Dean Lombardi was denied an exception for Eichel. A lot of the rest of these guys would have probably been on the outside looking in. Not now.

“It’s really cool. There’s a lot of younger guys making a name for themselves in this league,” Gaudreau said here Thursday when the Flames hit town. “It’s exciting to see younger players doing well and to get a chance to play with them in a tournament like that. It’s a tough challenge for us but it’s a good learning experience for us as younger guys.”

One theory floating around is that Team North America has a built-in advantage because younger players bounce back more easily and are better prepared to start play in September.

“I don’t know what to make of that,” Eichel said. “There’s a lot of really good players in this event. A lot of teams are pretty heavily stacked. But there’s a lot of good players on this North American team. It should be a great event.”

Gaudreau, a Hobey Baker winner from Boston College, is intrigued to get to play with Eichel, a Hobey from Boston University. Gaudreau was already gone from college and never played Eichel until they met in December in Calgary.

“It’s great to see college guys doing well in the league and as a younger guy, it’s great to see another younger guy doing so well,” Gaudreau said. “We both got to win the Hobey and play BC-BU. We’ve got a lot of similarities and now we get to play together.”

Team Europe consists of players from countries that don’t have their own squad, as in everyone not from Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. It has some interesting veterans in Anze Kopitar, Thomas Vanek, Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, Roman Josi and Andrej Sekera, as well as up-and-comers like Mats Zuccarello, Tomas Tatar and Leon Draisaitl.

“For me, it’s really cool,” Vanek said here Friday. “I can actually go into one of those tournaments and compete at the level. With Austria, you go to the World Championships and we try to win one game to stay in the ‘A’ pool. The mentality will be different and I think it will be fun.”

Team North America’s pool opponents are Finland (Eichel vs. Rasmus Ristolainen), Russia and Sweden. Team Europe meets USA, Czech Republic and Canada. Vanek said he understands why so much early attention is being paid to Team North America.

“We want to promote the game,” Vanek said. “What a better way to promote the game than to have the best players in the world in one setting. With the young team, it shows the next generation coming up when you look at a McDavid, you look at an Eichel, even Sam Reinhart. Those kids are talented and will get to show it on the big stage.”

McGinn knew the deal

When I walked toward Jamie McGinn’s locker on the Sabres’ California trip, he would show a pained smile and give me a quick “no news” quip before I could even ask the elephant-in-the-room question. A couple times, I just kept walking.

When he got to Anaheim, where he scored in each of his first two games with the Ducks, McGinn admitted to the Orange County Register his hope of a contract with the Sabres was a pipedream.

“I guess I can talk about it now. Yeah, I figured something was going to happen on deadline day,” McGinn said. “There wasn’t too much chatter on a contract extension in Buffalo, nor even on a contract on the table to negotiate with. I had a pretty good feeling something was going to happen.

“I wanted to go somewhere that there was a good chance to for sure be in the playoffs and winning a Cup. I knew this is a great situation for me and I want to fit in well.”

McGinn’s agent probably overplayed his value to Sabres GM Tim Murray, who figured he would take the draft pick now and worry about free agency later. A potential second-round pick if the Ducks get to the West final isn’t all that bad.

“I heard a few rumors in the day of some other teams that I wasn’t very thrilled about,” McGinn said. “But then when I heard Anaheim was involved, I got excited. I was just hoping it happened. ... that was probably the No. 1 team I wanted to go to and have a great chance. A great team. A big, heavy squad. I want to play and help out.”

Repeating what’s been said multiple times: Murray seems to make a lot of effort to find playoff-caliber teams to deal his unrestricted free agents to. It’s a good way to do business and it’s absolutely noticed by players and agents. Of course, it would be nice if he would sign one of his departing UFAs once in a while too now that winning is allegedly a goal.

Otter to Oiler for McDavid

What’s it like for McDavid, a perennial winner most of his career, to endure losing in Edmonton? When he was here last week, he said he’s drawing on one previous experience. Specifically, the 19-40-9 season the Erie Otters had in 2012-13, when McDavid had 66 points in 63 games as a 16-year-old. McDavid’s other two seasons in Erie finished 52-14-2 and 50-14-4.

“It’s definitely not fun, but you know, it’s all part of the process,” McDavid said. “I went through it in Erie and those last two years in Erie were so worth the year’s struggle we had there. That’s what I’m trying to look at it as.

“I think we’ve been sticking to the process of trying to learn and get better each and every game. I think we’ve been doing that to some extent. The last few games have been a good example of that, in how we’ve been playing structurally. But at the same time, it’s not very fun losing.”

Sabre points

• It will be interesting to see how the Sabres handle Chad Johnson this offseason. After not trading him at the deadline, they’d undoubtedly like him back on another one-year deal to keep Linus Ullmark developing in Rochester. But Johnson turns 30 on June 10 and is likely looking for a two-year deal with a chance to be a starter somewhere.

And a good bet for him would be to look home. Calgary is a disaster in goal, with a team save percentage entering the weekend under .900 that has ruined the season for a club that got to the second round of the playoffs last year. Veteran Jonas Hiller (3.41/.883) was so bad here Thursday night that I would bet the Flames don’t put him back in the net again the rest of the season.

Johnson is better than anything the Flames have right now and their system is bereft of goaltending too. Maybe Calgary makes a play for a bigger move to someone like Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, who has lost his job to Petr Mrazek. But Johnson seems like he could be a good fit too.

• There is two-fold significance to the news the Sabres expect Tyler Ennis to play again this year even though he’s been out since Dec. 30 with a concussion. For starters, Ennis can get peace of mind of getting back on the ice and not waiting until training camp in September. But the Sabres can also let other teams see that he’s made it back.

Ennis has three years left on his deal with a $4.6 million cap hit. But the contract, remember, was very front-loaded and his salary the next three years is just $3.65 million. Not bad value for a guy who is a regular 20-goal scorer. Perhaps not bad value for a package to return a quality NHL defenseman? Hmmmmm.

Around the boards

• A smiling McDavid on how he would advise presumptive No. 1 pick Auston Matthews on handling pre-draft hype: “The way I tried to do it was not hide from it, but take it with a grain of salt. Never really pay too much attention to it. You guys are all great writers and all that, but I’m not really reading what you guys are saying. ... So I think that’s the main thing.

“Try to live in your bubble. It can be scary and you feel like you’re living in a fish bowl sometimes, but I think stay close to your friends and take the support when you need it. Everyone’s always trying to lend a helping hand, and sometimes you need it.”

• Here’s a wild nugget mined by Chicago Sun-Times writer Mark Lazerus: In the last 30 games played by Ducks center Ryan Garbutt, his teams entered the weekend 28-1-1. He’s been a part of Anaheim’s 10-game winning streak and is 16-1-1 since joining the Ducks entering Saturday’s game at Los Angeles. His final 12 games with the Blackhawks? All wins. The lone regulation loss was Feb. 8 at Pittsburgh (6-2) and the other blemish was a 4-3 shootout loss Feb. 11 at Columbus.

• Carey Price, insisting he will return to the Canadiens’ net this year: “Given the position that we’re in, it doesn’t change anything. I love playing hockey and I want to get out there as quickly as possible. I want to be out there playing the game that I love. It’s not a matter of protecting me. I’m going to play regardless. I’d rather do it sooner than later.” And he can show Team Canada he’s good to go for the World Cup too.

• Bad news for Kings forward Jordan Nolan, Ted’s son. He had surgery Friday for a herniated disc in his back, which you would imagine would end his season. Nolan, 26, had six goals each of the last two seasons but did not score in 52 games this year.

• Bruins icon Milt Schmidt, the senior member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the NHL’s oldest surviving player, turned 98 Saturday. Schmidt played for the Bruins from 1937-1955, coached them for 11 seasons and was their GM during their 1970 and 1972 Stanley Cup championship seasons. He is the last surviving member of Boston’s 1939 and 1941 Cup champions.


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