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Team North America

Team North America gives USA Hockey hope

Future looks bright after performances at World Cup

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- The hope for USA Hockey has been on display in the World Cup of Hockey 2016. It has just been wearing gray, black and orange instead of red, white and blue.

With a roster of players 23 or younger from Canada and the United States, Team North America has been everything Team USA has not -- fun, fast, skilled and successful -- and the Americans have contributed right alongside the Canadians.

Americans Auston Matthews, Vincent Trocheck and Johnny Gaudreau scored Team North America's first three goals against Team Sweden on Wednesday, and Gaudreau assisted on Nathan MacKinnon's overtime goal.

The 4-3 win improved Team North America to 2-1-0. If Team Finland defeats Team Russia on Thursday (3 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVA Sports), Team North America advances to the semifinals.

Americans have scored six of Team North America's 11 goals in this tournament. They have produced 15 of its 31 points. Two Americans are tied for the team lead in points with four: Gaudreau and Shane Gostisbehere. Two Americans are part of a three-way tie with MacKinnon for the team lead in goals with two: Gaudreau and Matthews.

Video: NAT@SWE: Matthews scores 30 seconds into game

Contrast that with Team USA: It came to play with a gritty identity and has scored two goals in two games. It is 0-2-0, already eliminated and will play for pride against Team Czech Republic on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

"You can see some of the guys on our team," Gaudreau said. "There's two, three, four, five of us that hopefully could have made the U.S. team. But we're excited just to be a part of this World Cup tournament. It's not every day you get to play in this type of situation, and this gives us a chance to play in this kind of tournament. We're very fortunate that this team was there for us, and we try to make the most of it."

No one knows how many members of Team North America would have made Team USA had they been available, except Team USA management, which hasn't revealed that publicly and is unlikely to do so. No one knows whether the NHL will participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics or what the format would be for a World Cup of Hockey 2020 either.

But we know this: Two of the top four American goal scorers in the NHL last season are playing for Team North America, not Team USA: Brandon Saad, who scored 31 goals for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Gaudreau, who scored 30 for the Calgary Flames. Gaudreau, with 78 points, tied for sixth in the NHL with two members of Team USA: Joe Pavelski and Blake Wheeler.

Four more of the top 20 American goal scorers in the NHL last season are playing for Team North America: Trocheck, who scored 25 goals for the Florida Panthers; Jack Eichel, who scored 24 for the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, who scored 23 for the Detroit Red Wings; and J.T. Miller, who scored 22 for the New York Rangers.

Video: NAT@FIN: Eichel puts home rebound on the power play

The fourth highest-scoring American defenseman in the NHL last season was on Team North America instead of Team USA too: Gostisbehere, who had 46 points for the Philadelphia Flyers. Seth Jones had 31 points for the Nashville Predators and Columbus. Jacob Trouba had 21 for the Winnipeg Jets.

And then there's Matthews, selected No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He hasn't played an NHL game yet. But at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, he led the United States in goals with six and tied for the lead in points with nine.

The point is that USA Hockey has young talent, whether Team USA management had access to it or not, whether it wanted it or not. That talent will be better off for this experience, playing at warp speed with guys like MacKinnon and Connor McDavid, playing against established national programs like Team Finland, Team Russia and Team Sweden. In 2018 or 2020, these players will be a little older and a little more experienced, and they should be even better than they are now.

"They have a tremendous and bright future ahead of them in USA Hockey," Team North America coach Todd McLellan said. "They're quality individuals. They're tremendous players."

So are the Canadians on Team North America's roster. So are young players from other countries, like Patrik Laine of Team Finland. But if these Americans -- plus, say, Alex Galchenyuk, who had 30 goals and 56 points last season for the Montreal Canadiens -- are available, USA Hockey must take advantage of them and emphasize skill instead of grit. It has a chance to look far better than it did in this tournament.

"We've got some great guys on our team, and there's still some great guys on [Team USA], as well," Gostisbehere said. "It's going to be a good blend of the veterans to the younger guys. It's exciting to see, and it's a bright future, I'd say."

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