Connor McDavid believes Team North America’s youth will be the group’s main asset at the World Cup of Hockey, not its Achilles’ heel.
Last year’s first-overall draft pick was optimistic following North America’s 90-minute practice at Bell Centre on Monday — the team’s first of 13 practices ahead of their tournament-opener against Finland on Sept. 18.
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“Everyone has us pegged as the underdogs and we’ll happily take that,” said the 19-year-old McDavid. “We’re going to surprise some teams. We have a lot of speed and skill.
“That’s definitely our character trait. We just have to use it to our advantage.”
North America, which is made of the top players under 23 years old, is in a pool with veteran filled teams Sweden, Finland and Russia.
McDavid’s sentiment that skill and speed will be a game-changer for Team North America was echoed throughout the dressing room.
“What’s going to help us is how fast we are,” said Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “We have youth on this team, so we should be able to jump into things right away.”
Added 19-year-old Jack Eichel: “We’re young and we can use that to our advantage. We can play with a lot of pace.”
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Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon suggested the tournament’s format — three group-stage games followed by a semifinal and a best-of-three final series — was to North America’s advantage.
“This isn’t a full season or playoffs,” said MacKinnon, one of 11 Canadians on Team North America. “This is one-and-done. We have the talent and ability to beat anyone. I don’t think there’s a more skilled team than ours.”
Head coach Todd McLellan tested out line combinations for the first time on Monday after weeks of brainstorming.
McDavid played with Mark Scheifele of the Jets and Jonathan Drouin of the Lightning. Johnny Gaudreau was on a line with Eichel and Brandon Saad, while Auston Matthews practised with MacKinnon and Nugent-Hopkins.
Team North America’s potential fourth line combined Dylan Larkin with Sean Couturier and newcomer Vincent Trochek. New York’s J.T. Miller was the extra skater.
The Quebec-born Drouin, who was one of Tampa Bay’s best players in the post-season last year, was thrilled to be paired with McDavid.
“As time moves on, we’ll see if there’s chemistry,” said Drouin. “He’s exceptional, everybody knows it. You saw just today at practice how quick he is, how smart he is with the puck.”
On defence, Morgan Rielly was paired with Aaron Ekblad. Shayne Gostisbehere played with Colton Parayko while Ryan Murray was on a pairing with Seth Jones. Jacob Trouba was the extra skater on defence.
With several more practices to come, McLellan will shuffle his lines until he’s satisfied with the combinations. The Edmonton Oilers coach admitted it’s been a difficult task, especially since he and his coaching staff do not know each player very well yet.
“We’re just looking for a starting point,” sad McLellan. “We put groups together based on how we feel players might play with each other. We’d like to keep consistency with lines, but we also need to experiment.”
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McLellan has yet to name a team captain, though he’s expected to give it to McDavid.
“It’s an evolving process,” said McLellan. “We have an idea of who should be stepping up, but we want to see it throughout training camp and throughout an exhibition game or two.
“We’re looking for a strong leadership group. It’s a lot of pressure on an individual to wear a ‘C’. We’ll be looking for a group effort. But we will end up with a captain and a few assistants.”
The under-24 team will play preliminary matches against Team Europe and the Czech Republic before the tournament begins.