Monday, July 20, 2020

Which team’s history can build the best six-country lineup?

The NHL is headed back to the Olympics, thanks to the new CBA. Assuming they can work out a deal with the IOC, we’ll finally see the return of best-on-best international play on the sports world’s biggest stage.

To celebrate, let’s spend some time on an international-themed question: Which NHL team can build the best six-man starting lineup of players from six different hockey nations?

Specifically, we’re going to be looking for one player each from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland and Russia/the old Soviet Union. We’ll round out the lineup with one player from somewhere else, such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, etc. The team with the best six guys wins.

Simple, right? After all, most of these teams have been around for decades, and have had players from all around the world. How hard can it be to find six stars from different countries who’ve all suited up for the same team?

Well, hold that thought, because this is going to get trickier than you might think. But first, as always, some ground rules:

  • A player’s country will be the one he played for internationally or, if we don’t have that, where he was born.
  • We want three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie, but otherwise we don’t care about who plays where. This will be tough enough for some teams without having to worry about matching up wingers or which way a defenseman shoots.
  • Teams can use any player who played for them, but they only get credit for those seasons, not his whole career. If we put Wayne Gretzky on the Blues roster, they’re getting 21 regular-season points and a neutral zone turnover in overtime and that’s it.

Make sense? Take a minute to try to come up with a starting six for your own favorite team. We won’t do all 31 teams here, but we’ll carve off enough of the league to give us a good sense of how this works. And we’ll start with one example that illustrates just how challenging this can be …

Edmonton Oilers

Forwards: Wayne Gretzky (CAN), Jarri Kurri (FIN), Leon Draisaitl (GER)

Defense: Boris Mironov (RUS), Lee Fogolin (USA)

Goalie: Tommy Salo (SWE)

Admit, that’s not anywhere near as good a lineup as you expected, right? The Oilers, for all their ups and downs, have been blessed with some of the very best players in NHL history. But almost all of them have been Canadians, so once you slot Gretzky into the forward ranks you’ve wiped out a ton of talent. No Connor McDavid, no Mark Messier, no Pual Coffey or Grant Fuhr or Taylor Hall.

We do have some relatively easy calls for the other forwards, since Kurri might be the best Finnish player ever, and Draisaitl seems like a slam dunk to fill the “other” slot. But that leads to another problem: The Oilers’ best Americans have all been forwards, including Doug Weight and Todd Marchant. We’ve run out of room to use them now, so we’re stuck with Lee Fogolin on the blue line. He’s paired with Mironov because the Oilers have never had many Russian players and if we don’t use him then we might be stuck with Nail Yakupov.

Salo isn’t a bad option to round out the team – he’s actually third all-time in games played in net for the franchise – but it’s not a great lineup top-to-bottom, even with a couple of all-time greats. This might not be so easy after all. Let’s see if we can find a team that does a little better.

St. Louis Blues

Forwards: Brett Hull (USA), Vladimir Tarasenko (RUS), Jori Lehtera (FIN)

Defense: Chris Pronger (CAN), Carl Gunnarsson (SWE)

Goalie: Jaroslav Halak (SVK)

Another mixed bag. We’ve got two Hall-of-Famers; Hull’s international resume puts him on Team USA even though he was born in Canada, meaning we can use Pronger too (or Al MacInnis if you’d prefer). Tarasenko is an easy choice up front. Things fall off a bit from there, since the Blues don’t have much history with Finnish or Swedish stars. Lehtera is pretty much mandatory as the only Finn to even hit triple digits in games played for the franchise, which fills out the forwards and bumps Patrik Berglund out of the running for the Swedish spot, forcing us to pick Gunnarsson for the back end. Halak’s no Cujo or even Mike Liut, but he’s good enough to beat out Roman Turek for the goaltending job.

The Blues give us a bit more balance than the Oilers could offer, but there must be better options out there. Now that we’ve got the hang of this, let’s level up to the Original Six and see what we can find when we have a full century of history to work with.

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards: Saku Koivu (FIN), Mats Naslund (SWE), Tomas Plekanec (CZE)

Defense: Andrei Markov (RUS), Chris Chelios (USA)

Goalie: Jacques Plante (CAN)


So here’s the thing. Typically when we do these sort of team-building exercises, the Original Six teams have a big advantage, because they’ve got so much more history to draw on. But this time, that really doesn’t matter, because the first half of the NHL’s history is almost exclusively Canadians and a handful of Americans. Those extra few decades of existence don’t really help.

You can see that play out with the Habs — they have a rich history of legendary stars, but they’re almost all Canadian. I toyed with slipping in Halak as the goaltender so that I could get a Maurice Richard or Larry Robinson onto the roster, but I think we pretty much have to use our Canadian spot in net. I went with Plante, but you could slot in Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden if you want.

Still, even without the Rocket, this is a reasonably strong lineup, with two Hall-of-Famers and nobody that really jumps out as an obvious weak spot. Let’s see what some of the other Original Six teams can do.

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