Building Provincial Rosters of NHL Players and Why ‘Sub-National’ Tournaments Would be Way More Fun than a World Cup of Hockey
So the NHL wants a best-on-best tournament? Screw international hockey, lets see some intranational best-on-best. Team B.C vs. Team Ontario, Team Michigan vs. Team Westcoast…oh the possibilities…
Danny Bednar is an author and professional geographer with a PhD from Western University. By day he works for the Canadian Space Agency, by night he writes about music, space exploration, and hockey.
In December 2021 we learned that the NHL would not be allowing it’s players to go to the 2022 Olympic Games. While this isn’t surprising, it leaves a hole in many hockey hearts. The draw of the Olympics is several fold. The most obvious is that sports fans love seeing ‘super teams’ and, in hockey, the fantasy line combinations that manifest. So-called “best-on-best” also (somewhat) settles debates and (usually) makes for phenomenal hockey. Finally, if you derive personal joy from some notion of hockey being “our game” then I suppose the Olympics are another dose for your nationalist kick. Whatever our reasons, a lot of us look forward to best-on-best.
In the absence of a best-on-best Olympic hockey tournament in 2022, solutions are abound to be fantasized about. One clear option is an NHL-hosted World Cup played in a bubble city or within one country. But a World Cup of NHLers leaves a lot of good players on the shelf, in multiple ways so to speak. It leaves a lot of good Canadian and American players off teams because of limited rosters spots. In another way, it is secondly flawed as it also leaves a lot of great European players out who are not playing in the NHL. The NHL tried to address the first issue with its 2016 World Cup (i.e. Gary’s Fake Olympics), and one thing we all seemed to learn was that arbitrarily lumping together young players hurt the concept of international “best-on-best” (I’m sure Team USA could have used Austin Matthews…).
International competition is also kinda old-fashioned and, frankly, a bit over-emphasized from a competition perspective given the discrepancies in popularity and populations across countries. Should we periodically find out which country has the best roster of hockey players at a given time? Sure, let the Olympics do that every four years. But if the NHL isn’t going to the Olympics (even if it were) why duplicate the international model if the distribution of NHLers by nationality is nowhere near even numbers? Maybe we need to remember that countries aren’t the only geographic way to divide players.
What if the NHL hosted multiple tournaments of sub-national/regional teams? Curling does it, and so does hockey at various levels up to junior. In Canada this would mean finally settling some age-old debates over provincial supremacy. I’m also suspect that Minnesota and Michigan hockey fans would love to see a best on best game between the State of Hockey and the home of Hockeytown. European NHLers could easily be divided by regions as well (as simple as East, West, and North) and added to the U.S. tournament. In fact you could have an 8 team tournament with U.S and European teams (MI, MN, MA, U.S. West Coast, U.S. East Coast, Scandanavia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe), with the winner playing whoever comes out on top of a Canadian provincial tournament (see below).
For argument’s sake I have expanded upon the scenario by which the NHL did something like this in an August-September timeframe (just before training camp). In this case I have focused on the Canadian example only (sorry, eh), but it gets the point across that the scale of geographical division is malleable. So let’s take a look at the potential fun to be had with a long-fabled best-on-best Canadian provincial tournament.
CASE IN POINT: THE CANADA CUP OF HOCKEY 2022
Which province has the most, or best, NHLers? It’s not a rare Google search, and others have written on the topic. But a list of full rosters is much less discussed (nevermind how a full tournament might shake out). While the idea seems frivolous now, it’s not that out-of-step with the origins of hockey in North America.
Over 100 years ago, before the NHL got started, hockey was all about teams representing cities and provinces, battling one another for bragging rights (sometimes funded by cartoonish local mining barons). When a a certain Governor General had the idea to award the winning team a trophy, the Stanley Cup was born as a tool to ‘unite the country through sport’.
So, what would this ‘Canada Cup’ 2022 (not to be confused with the tournament last held in 1991) best-on-best provincial tournament look like? And how fun would it be?
To keep things even and easy, lets make it a simple 8 team tournament, with teams from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec respectively. To add some depth to the Martimes, we will combine Nova Scotia, New Brunskwick, Newfoundland and Labradour, and Prince Edward Island. To represent the Territories (Northwest Terrioties, Yukon, Nunavut) Dylan Cozens, the only current NHLer from a Canadian Territory, will be added to the combined ‘Team Maritimes and Territories’ (you can imagine better names if you would like).
That puts us at 6 teams. To round out the tournament, two Ontario teams are necessary because, as of midway through the 2021–2022 NHL season, Ontario has more than 3 times as many players to play an NHL game this season (181) then the next province (Quebec has 51).
How does one divide Ontario into 2? Well surely the most entertaining option is to create a team for the Greater Toronto Area (Team Toronto), and have ‘Team Ontario’ represent the rest of the province (having lived in Ontario for the past decade+, it seems like these are two distinct places anyhow).
In developing the rosters below, I assigned players based on their NHL.com birthplaces (I’m not sure Max Domi spent much time in Winnipeg, but oh well). In reality players could opt to play in provinces where they actually grew up. Additionally, I only included players currently on NHL contracts, as if it were a tournament being put on by the NHL (hence no junior/college stars or KHLers).
I didn’t include extras, and so built a standard 23 player roster. We can assume there would be extras (as with the Olympics), but sorting through AHL player bios for the Maritime & Territories team convinced me to let imaginations take over on who the extra, non-roster, players might be. That being said, for most of the teams I noted some players left off the rosters.
With an 8 team tournament, the pools are easy enough:
Western Pool: Team B.C., Team Alberta, Team Saskatchewan, Team Manitoba
Eastern Pool: Team Quebec, Team Ontario, Team Toronto, Team Maritimes & Territories.
Each pool would play a round robin amongst themselves and a basic 8 team, single elimination, tournament would follow.
Using CapFrindly.com’s wonderful Armchair GM tool, here are the provincial squads based on the first half(ish) of the 2021–2022 season. Don’t read too much into the line combos or depth chart placement. I did my best. but trying to craft the perfect lines for a tournament that doesn't actually exist would be an exercise in futility.
Team British Columbia
Captain: Jamie Benn
Despite being well over the NHL salary cap ($90+million), Team B.C. doesn’t have the roster depth that we will see later with the two Ontario teams, nor maybe even Quebec . Speaking of Quebec, Team B.C. fans would experience something familiar to Montrealers for this tournament; the fate of the team hanging largely on the play of Carey Price (if he’s healthy). A resurgent Ryan Johansen tops out an otherwise okay top six. Led by a former Art Ross Trophy winner in Jamie Benn, B.C. wouldn’t be a surefire favourite to win it all, but certainly no bottom feeder.
Potential Additions: D. Hunt (F-NYR), K. Turris (F-EDM), D. Coghaln (D-VGK), Schutlz, J. (D-WSH), M. Jones (G-PHI).
Captain: Brayden Point
Only one sneaky IR placement away from being a cap compliant NHL team, Alberta hosts a high-skill team with a former Hart Trophy winner (Hall) and future many-time Norris winner (Makar). Another team that suffers from comparative depth (wait till we get to the Ontario teams), Team Alberta would nonetheless be very competitive in the round robin and would likely battle it out with B.C. to finish first in the Western Pool. Two game-breakers in hypothetical captain Point and wunderkind Makar would have opposing defensemen on edge at all times. Only a steady performance from Carter Hart would be needed for AB to take their pool.
Potential Additions: J. Beagle (F-ARI), C. Rowney (F-DET), C. Soucy (D-SEA), T. Smith (D-NJD), A. Dell (G-SJ).
Captain: Ryan Getzlaf
Coming in well under the NHL salary cap, Saskatchewan might be the biggest underdog in the tournament if not for their prairie province sibling having major issues in net (see Manitoba next). Nothing flashy on paper, the SK roster doesn't have a single major award winner, yet hosts a Cup winning goalie in what might be the team’s position of strength. While Hotlby isn’t what he used to be, his recent resurgence in Dallas, and Kuemper’s reliable play over the past few seasons on terrible Coyotes teams, give SK the potential to land a big upset or two. Led by an aging Getzlaf, SK could be the Finland of the tournament, a scrappy but skilled squad looking to steal a few 2–1 games on the back of timely goaltending and good defensive structure.
Potential Additions: R. Johnson (F-CHI), D. Tokarski (G-BUF)
Captain: Jonathon Toews
Led by another superstar from the 2010’s, Manitoba has a lot of cup rings thanks to Toews and Keith. Nonetheless, this team made up mostly of Winnipegers is undoubtedly short on high-end skill. Not hosting the potential goaltending stability that Saskatchewan has, MB might be a favorite choice to finish last in the entire tournament. That being said, the defense is solid enough to potentially shut things down and win some low-event hockey. We know Toews thrives in tournament play, perhaps a fountain of youth miracle, and a prime Mark Stone on his wing, could will this team to something.
Potential Additions: B. McCartney (F-ARI), W. Kalynuk (D-CHI), C. Addison (D-MIN), J. Hofer (G-STL).
Captain: Alex Pietrangelo
Our first superteam. Indicated not only by its combined wages blowing past the NHL salary cap (>$113M), but also the depth chart. Claude Giroux as potentially a fourth line centre? Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler as a potential ‘bottom pair’ (though one could argue Nurse and Doughty are a more apt 5–6)? Even if you don’t agree with my line-up decisions (to be expected) whomever is coaching Team Ontario is sitting some skilled players. While the goaltending is solid (as least as of the 2021–2022 campaign), and the defense is all-star quality, the one potential weakness could be pure goal-scorers. Sure there is offensive talent aplenty, but I’m not sure sure who is singlehandedly taking over the game when this team needs a goal or two against tough D from B.C., Toronto, or Quebec.
Potential Additions: M. Smith (G-EDM), M. Weegar (D-FLA), B. Montour (D-FLA), J. McCann (F-SEA), A. Henrique (F-ANA).
Captain: Connor McDavid
Looking at the forwards, you might think this team is a lock to win the tournament…hen you got to the defense. While it’s a lot of quality names on the back-end, it surely doesn’t match the expectations set by the wealth of offensive talent up front. Given the region’s population, there are surprisingly few high-end defensemen from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) playing in the NHL right now. That being said, it probably doesn't matter. This forward group would do all sorts of damage and this top six, in any order, is the best in the tournament. It’s worth noting that in this scenario I have TO opting to take 8 defensemen and 13 forwards. If they need, Subban can play up, but McDavid can surely eat the minutes if they fall short a forward. One final note: A team based out of Toronto with both Tom Wilson and Jordan Binnington? Not only would TO be a favorite to win it, they’re a lock to play villain throughout the tournament.
Potential Additions: S. Wedgewood (G-ARI), E. Bouchard (D-EDM), T. Seguin (F-DAL), T. Toffoli (F-MTL), J. Bailey (F-NYI).
Captain: Patrice Bergeron
If they can get past their local media, this team has quite the potential. Pretty well-balanced up front and flush with good-two way defensive forwards. While the back end isn’t necessarily the best in the tournament, Marc-Andre Fleury should be comfortable behind old pal Kris Letang. With Danault, Gourde, Bergeron, and Huberdeau, QC might have the tournament's best penalty kill. If any weakness is evident, its, again, perhaps the lack of pure finishing talent. Probably not the most high scoring team, but a potential kryptonite to the front-loaded Ontario teams.
Potential Additions: Z. Fucale (G-WAS), J. Lauzon (D-SEA), M. Vlasic (D-SJS), A. Beauvillier (F-NYI), A. Barre-Boulet (F-TBL), A. Lafreniere (F-NYR), F. Gaudreau (F-MIN)
TEAM MARITIMES & TERRITORIES
Captain: Sidney Crosby
Say all you want about a lack of depth, despite having only $48M in NHL salaries on the squad Team Maritimes and Territories has a first line as good as it gets. While COVID may have robbed us of seeing Crosby centre Marchand and Bergeron for an ‘even more perfection line’, Nova Scotia alone provides one of the best top lines you could imagine. Pay no attention to the fact that 3 of the defensemen on this roster haven’t played an NHL game this season, Maritimes and Territories would be the fun scrappy underdogs of the tournament. It wouldn’t necessarily be a one-line team either. Even without splitting Crosby and Mackinnon, the young second line of Cozens, Newhook, and Mercer could give opposing teams fits, just as the youngsters of Team North America did in the NHL’s 2016 World Cup. Playing perfect foe to the big city bullies in their Pool, this squad taking on Team TO would make for extremely entertaining hockey
On paper, Team Toronto looks like the favorite. Nonetheless, There is more parity here than I expected, and having crafted the rosters, I actually think this would be a far more competitive tournament than first thought. Splitting TO from the rest of Ontario helpfully robs both teams of key players. TO ends up surprisingly ‘good but not great’ on the backend, while Ontario looses the absurd forward depth it would have otherwise. It’s safe to assume that B.C. or Alberta would come out of the West (I say AB), but the East is probably too close to call (though TO should be favs).
Of course, in a single elimination tournament, anything can happen. I think everyone would get a kick out of a Cinderella tournament from Team Maritimes & Territories, and the potential media narratives around a questionable Tom Wilson hit or Binnington quote ahead of a Team Ontario vs. Team Quebec game would have Canadian hockey writers across the country salivating to put out content.
While normally, I would admit this is a dumb, or at least an unrealistic, idea. In a COVID world, it’s less dumb than a lot of thing’s we’ve actually seen in the past two years. Hey… and if we can’t get fans in the stands, maybe the NHL could do a Pay Per View model to generate revenue…I kid…I think… (ESPN+, GameCenter…?)
The NHL is getting creative in generating revenue and maybe, just maybe, there are others like me who think international best-on-best should be left to the Olympics or IIHF (especially since so many great European players aren’t in the NHL).
Of course having practically every NHL player on one team or another wouldn’t be as ‘best’ as some best-on-best purists might want in a tournament, but I mean…isn’t the NHL always kinda best-on-best anyways? And when it comes to international hockey, with the exception of team Canada, it’s not like every player in the Olympic hockey tournament is an NHL all-star. In fact many of them would be below NHL quality (yes, even with the NHL going). If Canada beats Finland in the World Cup does ESPN and many of its viewers really care? What if Team West Coast, led by Auston Matthews, upset team Scandanavia or Team Ontario? That’s a ratings spike.
In the end, there is no shortage of ways to divide the world’s best players for the sake of a hockey tournament (or for the sake or revenue generation, the actual driver of these tournaments). Sure countries are fun, but that’s been done. If borders are in the way, who needs ‘em! Lets kick-off NHL training camps in 2022 by finding out if some scrappy prairie kids can upset the big city boys from the GTA.