Blackhawks

Team North America has been World Cup of Hockey's exhilarating surprise

Team North America has been World Cup of Hockey's exhilarating surprise

TORONTO — First it was Auston Matthews’ spell-binding move leading to a goal. Then it was Johnny Gaudreau’s speed earning him a penalty shot. Then it was Vincent Trocheck’s up-close shot producing another goal.

Just 95 seconds into Wednesday’s game, Team North America was up 2-0 on Team Sweden, which knew full well it was facing a speedy team but had absolutely no answer for it.

“I felt pretty old there, the first 10 minutes, to be honest with you,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “There’s a lot of speed on that team.”

There is a lot of speed. And excitement. And if we’re all lucky, there will be more Team North America hockey past Wednesday.

Team Sweden got past that sluggish start to force overtime, earning a semifinal-round berth before falling to North America, 4-3, in that extra time. And despite playing three great and entertaining games, it’s North America that’s on the verge of elimination. The team needs Finland to beat Russia on Thursday afternoon to advance; Russia is the only squad to best North America, winning 4-3 in what was another exciting tilt.

Let’s just say this is as far as this team gets — and that’s likely the case — it’s still been damn fantastic to watch. Nobody expected this team to challenge the veterans, at least not to this degree. And maybe that lack of notoriety, and the expectations that come with it, is what Team North America needed.

“When you're coming into it with no pressure, you kind of just have fun and let the game flow out there,” said Brandon Saad, the former Blackhawks man/child who at 23 is Team North America’s elder statesman. “We have a lot of talent that can take over the game. The biggest thing is just having fun and letting our skill take over. We're in a pretty good start here.”

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Its finishing ability isn’t too shabby, either. Nathan MacKinnon’s dragging backhand winner against Henrik Lundqvist was a dazzling exclamation point on a 3-on-3 that had onlookers and Twitter abuzz.

“Just hearing the crowd when we won and seeing the fans when we won, it was really cool to be a part of this, a part of this team,” Mark Scheifele said. “Obviously you want to be a part of history, you want to be a part of that whole thing.”

We all knew Team North America was a talented bunch coming into the tournament. Just look at the roster: Gaudreau, MacKinnon, Matthews, Shayne Gostisbehere, Connor McDavid, etc. You expected to see speed and skill but not to this level. It’s been exhilarating hockey, and not many would object if it continued.

“I think we definitely have turned some heads,” McDavid said. “People didn't know what to expect when we came into this tournament, but we've beat two good hockey teams and ultimately maybe even should have beat the Russians. I think we've definitely turned some heads and opened the eyes of everyone what the future of the NHL is like. We're definitely excited about that.”

There are plenty who rue the fact that this team’s creation meant some of America’s hopefuls weren’t on Team USA, which was eliminated in a 4-2 loss to Team Canada on Tuesday night. I still say, right now, even with the kids Team USA wasn’t going to beat Team Canada. But the young Americans are a reminder that, while a window is closing on the current generation, the next group could mean a very bright future for U.S. hockey.

Team North America will be cheering for Team Finland to beat Russia on Thursday afternoon. Those who have been dazzled while watching the kids might be doing the same. There’s no pressure for North America, and it’s playing accordingly. If it’s eliminated on Thursday, it’s nevertheless been one hell of an entertaining and energetic show.

Hawks Talk Podcast: Predicting who Blackhawks will take at No. 3 overall

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AP

Hawks Talk Podcast: Predicting who Blackhawks will take at No. 3 overall

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Slavko Bekovic and Charlie Roumeliotis react to the Olli Maatta trade and how this impacts the Blackhawks' defensive group. Is this the first of more moves to come?

The guys then break down their top-three candidates for the Blackhawks at No. 3 overall and predict who the pick will be on Friday. They also discuss how the Blackhawks' selection may impact the offseason and the big picture going forward.

0:40 – Initial reaction to the Olli Maatta trade

3:45 – How Maatta fits with the Blackhawks

7:45 – Filling Dominik Kahun’s spot

10:00 – Maatta’s contract situation

11:00 – Our top-3 draft predictions

18:30 – Official predictions on who the Blackhawks will pick

24:30 – Is there a wrong pick in the top 10?

27:30 – If the Blackhawks don’t pick D, the forward is…?

29:30 – How the Blackhawks selections shape the offseason

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast

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How Erik Karlsson’s extension with Sharks impacts Blackhawks, Western Conference

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USA TODAY

How Erik Karlsson’s extension with Sharks impacts Blackhawks, Western Conference

The 2019 NHL free agent class — both restricted and unrestricted — is absolutely loaded. But perhaps the biggest fish of them all has already been taken off the board.

Erik Karlsson and the San Jose Sharks have agreed to an eight-year extension worth $11.5 million per year, according to Cap Friendly, becoming the highest-paid defenseman in league history. It’s a significant move for the Sharks, who are looking to keep the band together and take a few more stabs at a Stanley Cup before their window starts to close — Joe Thornton is 39, Joe Pavelski turns 35 in July, Brent Burns is 34, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 32 and Logan Couture is 30.

How the Sharks make the math work going forward will be fascinating to monitor. Thornton, if he doesn't decide to hang up the skates, is a UFA. Same with Pavelski, who is coming off one of the most productive seasons of his career. Both of those players have become part of the Sharks identity, but their futures aren't guaranteed. And then there are guys like Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier, both of whom are RFAs and due big raises.

So how does the Karlsson extension impact the Blackhawks and the rest of the Western Conference?

For starters, the UFA defensemen class just got thinner and that could lead to overpayment across the board from teams looking for impact-type blue-liners because general managers that are looking to make a splash don’t want to come away empty-handed. The Blackhawks were never going to be in on Karlsson, but his contract set the market for this year's class and the fact the signing came before the NHL Draft now gives teams that would've been in on Karlsson an opportunity to refocus ahead of the negotiating period.

In the bigger picture, the Sharks just solidified themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for at least the next couple seasons. While the Karlsson contract may not look the greatest on the back half, given his durability issues, the Sharks had no choice but to offer him a blank check. When healthy, he is a game-changer and a two-time Norris Trophy winner who's still in his prime, and if the Sharks win a title in the next couple years then it was well worth it. You don't let players like him walk.

The Blackhawks are expected to be aggressive over the next several weeks, particularly in free agency but also continuing to explore the trade market. We already saw that when they acquired defenseman Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins, a move that could only be the first of many this offseason. The West might be top heavy, but this past season proved that any team can turn it around quickly and the Blackhawks need to do everything in their power to make sure they're one of those teams.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.