While we all wait excitedly for regular season Pens hockey to begin once again, we have been able to see a few Pens players from the roster of defending champions compete in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, an eight-team best-on-best tournament that ended with Team Canada emerging as the winner.
Six players and one coach represented the Penguins at the World Cup: Captain Sidney Crosby was selected to Team Canada as well as chosen for the captaincy. Forward Evgeni Malkin was picked for Team Russia. Defenseman Olli Maatta joined Team Finland. Goalie Matt Murray took control of the crease for Team North America. Forwards Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin were both chosen for Team Sweden. Head coach Mike Sullivan was picked to be an assistant coach behind the Team USA bench.
They all met varying levels of success in the tournament. Sidney Crosby, who is as much Captain Canada as he is Captain 412, took an active hand in leading the tournament favorites to a first-place victory, adding a WCH gold and a WCH MVP award to his already extensive list of trophies, honors, and accomplishments.
En route to the victory, he posted a dominating performance in the Canada-Russia semifinal, taking Malkin and the rest of the Russian squad out of the tournament. Neither Murray nor Maatta managed to make it past the round robin; Murray suffered a broken hand in the second round robin game for Team NA, where he was pulled in a 4-3 loss to Russia, and although his backup John Gibson helped the young guns to a 4-3 overtime win in their third and final game against Sweden, Russia’s win the next day to advance to the semifinal removed the North Americans from contention. Meanwhile, Maatta’s Finns posted one of the most disappointing team performances of the tournament, finishing with no wins and all losses in the round robin. Hornqvist and Hagelin along with the masterful Swedish team only made it as far as Malkin did, advancing to the semifinal and expected to meet Canada in the final only to be shockingly upset by the biggest surprise of the tournament, Team Europe. Coach Sully, who was handed the terrible misfortune of having to be an assistant coach to John Tortorella and not having Phil Kessel on the American bench, saw his team put up an embarrassingly awful tournament where they did not manage a single win and were eliminated from contention in their second round robin game at the hand of Crosby’s Canadian team.
Although that was how the tournament resulted for the seven Penguins at the tournament, their respective teams’ finishes didn’t necessarily correlate with each player’s individual performance. So here I’ve ranked the six Penguins players who played in the World Cup based on their personal success and the way they played. I’ve excluded Coach Sully, because a) it’s hard to judge how much he can really be blamed for Team USA’s debacle and b) who can blame him at all when he’s trying to help Torts coach a team that picked guys like Abdelkader, Dubinsky, and Byfuglien instead of the leading American scorer at Sochi, Kessel?
Without any further ado, here’s my opinion of how each 2016 Stanley Cup Champion who participated in WCH 2016 performed.
1. Sidney Crosby, F (Team Canada)
Well, here’s a no-brainer if I’ve ever seen one.
Following a season that ended with Crosby winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy and leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind why he should still be considered the best player in the world, he was only able to enjoy an extremely short summer before he joined Team Canada, predictably as team captain, to play in the World Cup right before Pens hockey officially returned. So did he miss a beat since hoisting the Cup in June? Of course not.
Crosby, who played on Canada’s top line between Boston Bruins forwards Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, had a tournament where he produced on a level that he doesn’t normally achieve in international competition. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he only managed to produce a goal and two assists, although regardless he led Canada to a gold medal as team captain. At the World Cup, Crosby managed to match his Sochi points total in his very first round robin game vs. the Czech Republic, scoring the opening goal and adding two assists. He continued to produce effectively all the way until the final game of the tournament, finishing with more points than any other player after totaling up to 3 goals and 7 assists in six games played. His line was agreed upon as the best and most productive line in the entire tournament, and Crosby’s efforts, production, and on-ice leadership led to him being honored as the tournament MVP as well. Pretty good way to continue a year where he won the Stanley Cup and was the playoff MVP.
In short, in the mind of most analysts, writers, commentators, and most in the hockey world, Crosby’s performance at the World Cup reasserted that he is the best player in the world at the moment, if the way his NHL season ended this June didn’t already do that.
2. Matthew Murray, G (Team North America)
Matt Murray had arguably the worst ending to the tournament of all the Pens representatives; not because of the way his team ended up in the standings, but because he ended up going home with a broken hand that will cause him to miss the beginning of the NHL season. The injury was sustained in Team North America’s second round robin game vs. Team Russia. Murray didn’t have a great game there; he allowed a four-goal second period surge by the Russians before being pulled, and his team pulled to within one goal but couldn’t complete the comeback.
Other than that, though, from what I saw of Murray’s play in the pretournament and round robin before being injured beyond potential participation in the tournament, he is still the calm and solid goalie who endeared himself to Penguins fans after playing a major role in the Pens’ Stanley Cup victory last season. His pretournament play was solid, including a shutout in the team’s first game of the pretournament round vs. Team Europe, and was enough to secure him the starter position for the round robin over Pittsburgh native John Gibson. Throughout the portions of the tournament he was able to play, he looked good in terms of positioning and demeanor and continued to strike me as a goalie poised for a successful career in the NHL. So despite the poor fashion in which the tournament ended for him, the fact that his play looked so positively similar to everything people praised about his performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs earns him the #2 spot on this list.
3. Patric Hornqvist, F (Team Sweden)
Patric Hornqvist wasn’t overly impressive statistics-wise; in four games played with Team Sweden in the tournament, he only posted two assists. So I’m ranking him here not for his showing in the box score, but for what I saw from him in the games he played.
Hornqvist has a well-earned reputation as a hard-working, grinding forward who plays a physical game. He played that role especially well in the playoffs en route to the Stanley Cup, doing all of the hard work people have come to expect from him: taking a beating in front of the net, blocking shots, making hits, taking hits, and overall contributing at both ends of the ice. He continued to play that game effectively for Sweden, doing much of the offensive and defensive work that doesn’t often show in the stats. He allowed his team to make many plays by filling a role that not every player would be up to playing night in and night out. It’s good to see Horny continue with the style of play that makes him so valuable to the Penguins, even if he doesn’t often receive the appreciation he deserves for all he does out on the ice. For these reasons, he earns the #3 spot on this list.
4. Evgeni Malkin, F (Team Russia)
Evgeni Malkin wasn’t horrible in this tournament, but he didn’t play up to his own standard, either.
In 4 games played with Team Russia over the course of the tournament, Malkin did a decent job of posting points, tallying one goal and two assists. But his play overall was just as disappointingly average as his points total. His lackluster performance considering the fact that he is supposed to be one of the superstar talents on Team Russia was especially visible when his Russians met the Canadians in the WCH semifinal. While Crosby enjoyed a dominant night and looked to be in spectacular form, Malkin looked off and definitely not at the top of his game. He struggled to finish his chances and to get much going, and only managed a secondary assist on a Nikita Kucherov goal.
His World Cup play was similar to much of his playoff play last season in all the wrong ways. It can’t be said that Malkin wasn’t showing effort, but you can’t say he really managed to achieve as much as he should either.
5. Carl Hagelin, F (Team Sweden)
Carl Hagelin isn’t ranked second to last on this list because he played badly, but rather because he wasn’t very visible on the ice (except for his speed flow, which, of course, is only really rivaled on Team Sweden by Erik Karlsson). His game didn’t look off to me, and he played just the type of speedy game Penguins fans have come to love seeing from him, but at the same time, I can’t say that Hagelin’s play was as effective as Hornqvist’s was.
In 4 games played in the tournament, Hagelin only tallied one assist. Now, in his defense, he probably isn’t one of Sweden’s go-to-guys in terms of offense, and wasn’t one of the players who anyone was expecting some huge offensive production from. Maybe he didn’t find near as much chemistry on Team Sweden as he has found playing on a line with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. But that said, there also aren’t many reasons to rank him higher on this list, and that’s why he sits at #5.
6. Olli Maatta, D (Team Finland)
There’s no denying that Olli Maatta’s pretournament overtime goal against Sweden, pictured here, was awesome. But once it got down to the actual tournament, Maatta didn’t quite perform up to standard.
Not only did his team perform poorly, the only team other than Team USA to go winless in the round robin, but Maatta also performed under expectations for a player considered one of Finland’s brightest young defenseman. In the round robin, his stats were mightily unimpressive. He didn’t manage to post a single point and finished -1. In three games, he posted only 4 shots. Those aren’t the worst stats seen in the tournament, but it does appear disappointing considering what we know of Maatta’s skill and potential. It’s entirely possible that Maatta’s performance suffered because he was playing on a team that struggled to get much going, but for a guy who’s considered a leader in the defensive corps despite his young age, you’d hope to see better.