The morning after the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs, Jim Nill had a text message from Sidney Crosby. Team Canada’s two-time Olympic gold medal-winning star wanted to play at the world championships.
“He considers himself one of the leaders of hockey in Canada, and he took it upon himself to reach out to us,” Nill said.
When Crosby stepped onto the ice with his Canadian teammates Tuesday in Austria, coach Todd McLellan noticed an extra skip in his players’ stride and a renewed energy. With Crosby, Canada is the favourite at the tournament, which begins Friday in Prague and Ostrava in the Czech Republic.
“He does make our team better, and he should with his talent level and his experience,” McLellan said from Vienna. “But it has to be about the group and not just Sid.”
This Canadian forward group is the best since at least 2009, as it includes Crosby, fellow 2014 Olympian Matt Duchene, Claude Giroux, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon. Dan Hamhuis, who was the seventh defenceman in Sochi, and goaltender Mike Smith — the No. 3 netminder at the Games — will also be key players in Prague beginning Friday in the opening game against Latvia.
“Pretty cool to play with those (Olympians) again,” Duchene said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Last time we played together we had the biggest success we could’ve asked for and now we’re looking for some more.”
While some teams won’t have elite players because of injury (Sweden’s Erik Karlsson) or the NHL playoffs (Russia’s Alex Ovechkin), Canada is stacked and looks primed to win world gold for the first time since 2007.
“Paper, it gives you that expectation when you look at our lineup,” McLellan said. “But our flag basically dictates that that expectation is that high. We’re expected to perform here. We’re representing Canada, and that’s what we do.”
Duchene doesn’t consider the expectations a burden. Quite the opposite.
“I think Canadians perform best when the expectation and the pressure is on,” he said. “We’ve grown up with that and we always expect to win and we like when it’s expected of us to perform under pressure.”
Compared to the Olympics, this tournament hasn’t historically drawn the best North American players compared to those from European countries. The United States, for example, is a young group with one returning Olympian in defenceman Justin Faulk.
The Americans will lean on players like 18-year-old Jack Eichel and 20-year-old Seth Jones.
At 19, MacKinnon is Canada’s youngest player and this is his second straight worlds. Nill has left the door open for Connor McDavid, but the Erie Otters are one victory away from the Ontario Hockey League final, so his addition would come very late, if at all.
Crosby was 19 in his only other appearance at this tournament, and he dominated. He put up eight goals and eight assists in nine games in 2006.
“It’s been a while since I played in that, so I’m excited,” Crosby told reporters in Pittsburgh earlier this week.
Crosby looked at the roster and expressed excitement at the chance to win gold. Canada lost in the semifinals and bronze-medal game nine years ago.
As talented as this team is, the world championship is a single-elimination tournament from the quarter-finals on and that brings risk. Nill hopes that having four returning Olympians helps when it matters most.
“The guys that were in Sochi lived the game against Latvia and it’s a 2-1 game,” Nill said in a phone interview. “We’re going to go through that same thing here. It’s going to be how you respond, how you’re patient with it, and that’s where these guys’ experiences are going to come in huge for us.”
While Hamhuis and Smith are Canada’s oldest players, the blue-line is young and unproven. It’s led by Calder Trophy finalist Aaron Ekblad and Brent Burns and just got Patrick Wiercioch as the final piece Tuesday.
McLellan expects his team to recover quickly from the defence being put together late and for the goaltending to “take care of itself.” Martin Jones is the backup, but Smith will be given every chance to be the No. 1.
Of course Canada’s strength is up front, where beyond the top players there are names like Tyler Ennis, Jason Spezza, Jordan Eberle and Brayden Schenn. Even on the bigger, international-sized ice this should be a fast, skilled bunch.
“We should have some energy to our game, we should be quick,” McLellan said. “We’ve got some players that are dynamic offensive players on their (NHL) teams. From the red-line in we should be a strong team.”