NHL players make worlds a tournament to watch this year
The hockey world championships have been overshadowed by the Olympic tournament since the 1998 Nagano Games, the first to feature NHL players.
Not this year.
The NHL's decision to skip the Pyeongchang Olympics had an impact. Amid tepid interest in South Korea, the games were often played in half-empty arenas. It will be a different story in Denmark.
The organizers say ticket sales have reached their planned target of 300,000 even before the tournament opens in Copenhagen and Herning on Friday. And there's no need to worry about a lack of stars. Although Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are busy with their bid for a Stanley Cup three-peat, some of the sport's biggest names will be on the ice in Denmark.
Canada will be led by NHL leading scorer Connor McDavid after his Edmonton Oilers didn't make the playoffs, teammate Leon Draisaitl has joined Germany, and the United States will be captained by Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane.
Here's a look at the annual tournament that will be played in Denmark for the first time:
The event has 16 nations playing in two groups of eight, with the top four in each group advancing to the playoffs.
Olympic champion Russia, defending champion Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Belarus, Slovakia, France and Austria are in Group A. Matches will be played at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen.
Canada, Finland, the United States, Germany, Norway, Latvia, Denmark and South Korea are in Group B. They will play at the Jyske Bank Boxen in Herning.
In Friday's opening games, Canada will take on the United States while Russia faces France.
The final is scheduled for May 20.
Captained by McDavid, who just clinched his second consecutive Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer with 108 points, Canada is the team to beat at the worlds.
McDavid and Wayne Gretzky are the only two players in NHL history to win the scoring race more than once at 22 years of age or younger.
McDavid will be joined by veteran Buffalo forward Ryan O'Reilly. Both were on the team that won the world title in Russia two years ago.
New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal, who is among the finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy for the NHL's rookie of the year, was also named in the squad.
"We have a mix of youth, experience and strong leadership qualities among these players as they have represented Canada on the international stage previously from the world juniors up to last year's championship," Canada co-general manager Sean Burke said. "Their previous success and experience can only help us in our ultimate goal of bringing home a gold medal."
The Canadians, who will again be led by Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters, won the title in 2015 and 2016 after finishing second last year.
RUSSIAN COACH SWAP
In a surprise move less than a month before the worlds, Oleg Znarok stepped down as coach of Russia's hockey team after leading the country to the Olympic title — its first in 26 years.
Playing as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" because of the country's punishment for doping, Znarok's team beat Germany 4-3 in overtime in the final.
Znarok became coach in March 2014, taking over a team that lost in the quarterfinals on home ice at the Sochi Olympics. The Russians went on to win the world championship gold that year.
He was replaced by Ilya Vorobyov, one of his assistant coaches, but will still work with the team as a consultant.
Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, who is in a tight Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, won't be available. But Vorobyov can rely on a mixture of NHL-based players and the home talents from the Russia-based KHL, widely considered the strongest league outside the NHL.
Florida Panthers right winger Evgenii Dadonov and SKA St. Petersburg veteran Pavel Datsyuk are among those to make sure Russia remains a contender for gold, even though a lack of the NHL-experienced defensemen and goaltenders could harm the team's ambitions.
OTHERS TO WATCH
The United States hopes to improve on last year's fifth-place finish and has a team strong enough to make it happen.
Kane's presence will no doubt improve the quality of play. He last played at the world championships in 2008, his first season in the NHL and the last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs, and was in the U.S. team at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.
Buffalo Sabres rookie and world junior MVP Casey Mittelstadt was prevented from playing by a groin injury, but some others will be there, including a trio who claimed bronze at the 2015 worlds in the Czech Republic. They include Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin, New York Islanders forward Anders Lee and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy.