Oilers star McDavid says young North American team has turned some heads
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TORONTO — Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews may never again line up together wearing the same colours, but if head coach Todd McLellan has his way the concept of Team North America will live on at the World Cup of Hockey.
"If I get a vote I'd like to do it again," McLellan said. "We've proven that this young generation can play with the older ones. We've been very entertaining. I think if you surveyed 99 out of 100 fans they'd probably say 'Put 'em in again.'"
Donning silver, black and bright orange uniforms, the squad of 23-and-under stars from Canada and the United States delivered on the buzz.
They were an exhilarating rush of speed, skill and excitement in three tournament games, presenting awesome combinations of young talent together on one stage. The roster included the last four No. 1 overall picks and five of the last six dating back to 2011.
"I think we've definitely turned some heads and opened the eyes of everyone," said McDavid, the team's captain.
No connection offered more intrigue than Matthews and McDavid, future cornerstones of their respective teams in Toronto and Edmonton. The two flashed explosive speed and creativity together alongside Winnipeg Jets star Mark Scheifele or Buffalo forward Jack Eichel, the second pick behind McDavid in 2015.
It was the allure of combinations like that made North America, which was eliminated Thursday after Russia's win over Finland, the most hyped team of the tournament.
"I think we've meshed pretty well together over the course of these three games," said Matthews, who had three points in three games alongside McDavid, who had three assists.
"I think that definitely everyone on our team has had a good showing," said McDavid. "I think the future looks good for the under-23 guys."
The duo shined right off the hop against Sweden on Wednesday when McDavid burst past four Swedes for a chance against Henrik Lundqvist. Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., snatched the rebound and then shielded the puck from defenceman Victor Hedman while on his knees.
He then found future Maple Leafs teammate Morgan Rielly cross-ice, and the defenceman's blast produced a rebound that Matthews promptly slid past Lundqvist. Wowed by the theatrics, the fans in Toronto later chanted Matthews' name in unison.
"It was awesome," he said of the serenade afterward.
Matthews and McDavid weren't the only No. 1 overall picks to shine for North America.
Nathan MacKinnon, the top pick in 2013 and still only 21, dazzled on the overtime winner against Sweden. All alone against Lundqvist, the Halifax native eluded a poke-check, delivered a wicked deke and then roofed a backhand for his second goal in three games.
MacKinnon thought he'd clinched a semifinal berth for North America only to learn later that he had not. He half regretted his exuberant celebration afterward.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick in 2011, also had three points in three games for North America. Aaron Ekblad, the Florida Panthers' No. 1 pick in 2014, withdrew after only one game because of a suspected concussion.
Though not a top pick, the exploits of Johnny Gaudreau also proved thrilling.
It's uncertain whether the NHL and NHLPA will bring back Team North America in the future and if they do, what that collection might look like. Would McDavid and Matthews, for instance, be forced to play for the squad again in four years or would they be exempt and permitted to play for Canada and the United States respectively?
McDavid, for one, would love to play for his country at the next World Cup.
"I definitely would like the opportunity to try to make a Team Canada," he said Thursday afternoon.
McLellan thinks there's enough young talent coming to fill in the gaps. He hadn't anticipated his team of young stars shining quite like this.
"I thought that we could be dangerous. I thought that we could have fun playing as a team," he said. "But I didn't think we'd have as big an impact on the hockey world as we have had so far. And what the young players are learning and what we kept telling them is they're pretty damn good."
With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Gregory Strong.