By Sean Hartnett
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The World Cup of Hockey will return on Saturday after a 12-year absence. A number of exhibition games leading up to the tournament have been hard-fought and some have been downright nasty.
Keep in mind, this tournament will be played under NHL rules and on standard North American rinks rather than the wider international rinks. Space will be limited and play will be in-your-face. NHL general managers will be gritting their teeth, hoping their players escape the tournament with a clean bill of health.
Given the intense nature of pretournament games, every game could have the feel of a playoff game. This is best-on-best hockey with the six strongest hockey nations, a dangerous Under-23 North American team and another squad made up of an assemblage of European stars. Each team has its share of game-changers.
Here’s a look at 10 players who could thrive on the Air Canada Centre ice:
Johnny Gaudreau – North America: Watching Gaudreau operate on North America’s top line with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel is a thing of beauty. This quick-strike trio skates with lightning pace and moves the puck with sharp execution. “Johnny Hockey” was a dominant figure throughout North America’s 7-4 victory over Team Europe on Sunday.
The 5-foot-9 winger made Team Europe defenseman Luca Sbisa look silly on his way to scoring a highlight reel backhander through Jaroslav Halak’s five-hole. He has four points in two exhibition games.
Patrik Laine – Finland: Expectations are high for the second overall pick of this year’s NHL draft. The 18-year-old left wing will be asked to carry the Finns on the top line and first power play unit. At 6-foot-5 and 206 pounds, Laine possesses huge size and has a pair of excellent hands.
He finished the 2016 World Junior Championship as top goal scorer, chipping in seven to share the honor with No. 1 pick Auston Matthews. Laine has a lot of tools in his bag, but his best asset might be his rocket shot. His powerful one-timer can be best described as “Ovechkin-like.”
John Tavares – Canada: The Islanders captain should have a field day throughout the tournament with Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos as his power play linemates. A dominant figure for the Isles, Tavares stands to benefit from skating alongside all-world Canadian teammates. The high-IQ 25-year-old constantly demonstrates big-game ability, recording 22 points in 24 career playoff games.
Since making his 2009 debut, Tavares ranks eighth among active NHLers with 0.917 postseason points per game and fourth among active skaters with 0.458 playoff goals per game. He is capable of dominating on any given night and thrives as a goal scorer in high-traffic areas.
Patrick Kane – United States: Demanding head coach John Tortorella doesn’t give many players the freedom to operate outside the constraints of his defense-first system. Tortorella has spoken about taking a hands-off approach to allow the reigning Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy winner. The 27-year-old right wing showcased his uncanny ability to operate at his best in tight spaces in USA’s early exhibitions against Canada.
Alex Ovechkin – Russia: Ovechkin plays with off-the-charts passion, especially when he’s representing his homeland. His physicality and desire to be the key man for Russia sets the tone for teammates to follow. He can score from anywhere, so leave him unattended at your peril. The 30-year-old sniper has recorded 42 goals in 92 senior games for Team Russia.
Erik Karlsson – Sweden: Last season, Karlsson became the first defenseman since Ray Bourque and Brian Leetch to record at least 82 points in a single season. He is the master of controlled entries and his ability to generate scoring chances is unmatched by any defenseman on the planet.
Jonathan Quick – United States: Quick appears to be in pole position for USA’s No. 1 goalie gig after a stellar performance against Canada last Friday. He was under constant fire during his two periods of work and was able to make 32 saves while only allowing a single goal. Renowned for his playoff pedigree, he will need to be at his absolute best to lift an American team that struggles to generate offensive zone time.
Auston Matthews – North America: The first overall pick at the 2016 NHL draft constantly torments the opposition. On Sunday, he was at his unpredictable best. To set up an Aaron Ekblad goal, Matthews weaved his way past three defenders toward the slot and placed the puck right in Ekblad’s wheelhouse.
Mats Zuccarello – Team Europe: Every Rangers fan knows that Zuccarello plays with a burning desire on a nightly basis. The 5-foot-7 winger excels at winning puck races and never backs down when opponents try to get under his skin. He displays a coolness in possession and is a master at setting up linemates.
Sidney Crosby – Canada: No list is complete without the best player in the world. There’s nothing more that needs to be said other than Crosby simply brings his “A” game when the pressure is on for Canada. The captain of Team Canada has collected 37 points in 31 senior games for his country.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey