Goaltending competitions are front and center as World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament camps open around the world from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Columbus, Ohio.
The United States, Canada and Team Europe are among the teams that could have goaltending drama linger through the start of the World Cup on Sept. 17. The U.S. could turn to a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Olympic experience in the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick, or opt for either Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning or Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils.
Canada has a similar embarrassment of riches in net. There is reason to wonder about Sochi Olympics star Carey Price, who hasn’t played a game since November because of a knee injury and is the biggest key to Canada’s success.
”He’s 100 percent, skating, facing pucks, shaking off the rust and he’s excited and ready to go,” Canadian general manager Doug Armstrong said.
If Price isn’t back to his all-world self, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals figures to be the next goalie up, then two-time Cup winner Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks. Holtby endorsed Price as the starter if the Montreal Canadiens’ 2015 MVP is healthy, but games Friday and Saturday against the U.S. are worth watching.
”We’re playing back to back right away in exhibition, so we wouldn’t play a goalie back to back in exhibition for sure,” coach Mike Babcock said. ”So there’s going to be opportunities for more than one goaltender.”
There could be plenty of opportunities in goal for Europe’s camp in Quebec City and Montreal after Frederik Andersen was injured in Olympic qualifying for Denmark over the weekend. New York Islanders goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss are next in line if Andersen can’t go for the team that’s a mix of players from Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, Slovenia, Switzerland, France, Austria and Norway.
Team North America, the combination of Americans and Canadians age 23 and under, has a pretty clear-cut goalie picture at the start of camp. A year ago John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks looked like the no-doubt starter, and then Matt Murray won the Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
”I would think going in it’s going to be Matt first,” North American GM Peter Chiarelli said. ”Just based on his body of work, what he’s done, you can’t ignore that. He’s the lead dog right now, I would think, based on my discussions (with coaches) and I think it’s fairly obvious.”
Finland can’t go wrong with Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins or Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, and Russia has two strong choices in Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche.
The Czech Republic has a three-way competition between Michal Neuvirth of the Philadelphia Flyers, Petr Mrazek of the Detroit Red Wings and Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets, while Sweden will go with Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers in the easiest decision of the World Cup. Lundqvist recently took a puck to the ribs in practice but should be able to play through it.
Here are five other questions to answer in the lead-up to the World Cup:
HOW CRISP: It’s September and over 150 of the best players in the world are being asked to play big-time games right off the bat. ”I’m anxious to see how crisp it is,” U.S. defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”Not only are you playing with different teammates and potentially a different system or whatever, there’s going to be a little hesitation in that regard, probably, in the exhibition games.”
WHO’S HURT: With 12 injury replacements already, several teams are short-handed and digging into their reserves. If more players are hurt in camp or during exhibition games, it could be harder to convince others to jump right in without the weeks of preparation.
CAMP TORTORELLA: Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella gets to run camp on his home ice in Columbus and could bring his brand of shot-blocking, defensive-minded hockey to the U.S. team. How Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and other top skill guys fit into that system will be fascinating.
NORTH BY NORTH YOUNG: Team North America has 18-year-old Auston Matthews and 19-year-old Connor McDavid among its absurd group of No. 1 picks. They could be two of the best players in the tournament, and McDavid could even be captain.
EUROPEAN CHEMISTRY: Blending together players from eight different countries is the most difficult job for Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger. Letting Kings star Anze Kopitar take over isn’t a bad strategy.
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .