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Cold War: Who has the best shot of winning the World Cup of Hockey?

Galya Gubchenko illustration

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 19 NFL Preview II Issue. Subscribe today!

AFTER A 12-YEAR hiatus, the World Cup returns for Round 3 on Sept. 17 in Toronto, with eight teams vying for global bragging rights, including the new continent-spanning Team Europe and Team North America, with 23-and-unders from the U.S. and Canada. Who will win? For that, we used the goals versus threshold (GVT)* metric -- think WAR -- to rank each roster. Then we sought out ESPN's mullet man himself, Barry Melrose, to pinpoint each team's X-factor player. Spoiler alert: The Canadians appear to be good at hockey.


1. CANADA

Just how good is Canada? The likes of Taylor Hall and P.K. Subban (who both posted north of 50 points in the NHL last season) didn't make the cut. Despite the scratch of the Stars' Jamie Benn, forwards on this roster recorded an average of 65 points last season -- seven more than the U.S. team, the next-highest group. All seven defensemen averaged over 23 minutes per game, and Carey Price, the 2014-15 NHL MVP, will man the net. Giving Sidney Crosby and the Canadians home-ice advantage to defend the team's 2004 title almost feels unfair.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: LW BRAD MARCHAND
"I think Marchand is a real lightning rod for Canada. If they're a little flat, he will go out, run into somebody, get somebody mad and get Canada fired up."


2. UNITED STATES

For those who've forgotten, the U.S. did win the first World Cup back in '96. And if Patrick Kane (46 goals for the Blackhawks) & Co. can give Team USA's trio of goaltenders (Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop, who combined for a .923 save percentage) enough goal support, it has a shot this time too. The U.S. can grind down opponents with centers Ryan Kesler and David Backes in front of the net, creating opportunities for playmakers such as Kane, Zach Parise and T.J. Oshie. The test for the U.S. comes early: a faceoff with Canada in the preliminary round on Sept. 20.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: LW JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK
"JVR is a 6-foot-3 forward with skill. The Americans need a big forward to have a successful tournament, and he is a bit of a wild card. A real pivotal player."


3. SWE​DEN

The Swedish roster combines experienced vets in forward Loui Eriksson, center Nicklas Backstrom and Canucks twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin with youth in the form of defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Filip Forsberg. The Swedes play a fast finesse game and can move the puck up ice in a hurry -- their defenders averaged 33 assists in the NHL last season, more than the average for any other team. Sweden has ten 20-goal scorers, which should provide plenty of cover for goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who holds a .923 save percentage over the past five seasons.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: LW GABRIEL LANDESKOG
"I think it's time for these young Swedes to take over up front, and Landeskog is one of those guys. He's obviously a leader -- Colorado made him the captain very young."


4. RUSSIA

What to expect from Russia? Fast, physical, powerful -- just like its best player, left winger Alex Ovechkin, who netted 50 goals for the Caps last season. Russia's forward group -- led by Ovi, St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Datsyuk and Chicago's Artemi Panarin -- averaged 0.33 goals per game last season, third best of the eight teams. But will that be enough to counter shortcomings on the defensive side? The defense lacks a true game breaker, and none of Russia's three goalies bettered a 2.75 goals-against average last season.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: RW VLADIMIR TARASENKO
"Every year Tarasenko is a dominant player -- one of the top point getters, runs the power play. I think it's time for him to show people how good he is on the big stage."


5. NORTH AMERICA

It's unfair to criticize this squad for being young. It literally exists for that reason. Still, the roster has just a combined 240 games of playoff experience, and six of the players have yet to skate in a playoff game. Break out the Baby Bjorns! Then again, what's age when you've got skill in the trio of phenoms Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews and the size of Seth Jones (6-4) and Colton Parayko (6-6) on defense? Also, the goaltending situation cleared up this spring with Matt Murray's Stanley Cup heroics for the Pens. Don't sleep on the JV team.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: LW BRANDON SAAD
"The vast majority of this roster hasn't played significant minutes in big games -- Brandon Saad has. The more important he becomes in the lineup, the better he plays."


6. EUROPE

Europe falls into the dreaded Group A with the U.S. and Canada -- which would be great if this were a U.N. cocktail party and not, you know, 
a winner-take-all hockey tournament. Europe's bigger problem? This is the oldest squad at the World Cup, with an average age of 30. The team will lean on the two-way play of center Anze Kopitar (plus-34) and scoring of winger Mats Zuccarello (26 goals). But the key will be picking the goalie, as the Islanders' Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss are both capable of winning games -- but also capable of blowing them.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: D ROMAN JOSI
"Josi is going to be on the ice against every other team's best player. He's going to see a ton of tough minutes, plus kill penalties and play the power play."


7. CZECH REPUBLIC

The good news? Forward Roman Cervenka, a late injury replacement for David Krejci, scored 23 goals last season in the Czech Extraliga, the most of anyone on the Czech roster. The bad news? Ten players on Team Canada and seven on Team USA surpassed that tally. The Czech Republic will need wingers Jakub Voracek and Ondrej Palat (55 and 40 points, respectively, last season) to take over games and goalie Petr Mrazek to play like he did in the first half of last season for Detroit (.932 save percentage before the All-Star break, .899 after). Defense is another story: The Czechs lack anyone who played at least 23 minutes per game last year.

MELROSE X-FACTOR: RW DAVID PASTRNAK
"With his speed and shooting ability, Pastrnak can get open. He's got a lot of experience for a guy at his age and could really become a star of that Czech team."


8. FINLAND

Patrik Laine checks in as the youngest player in the tournament, but the 18-year-old might have to put the Finns on his back at the World Cup. Laine, who scored 17 goals in Liiga last season, joins only one NHL 20-goal scorer on the roster, the Panthers' Aleksander Barkov. On the other end of the ice, Olli Maatta and Sami Vatanen will have to be ready for big minutes on defense, and Tuukka Rask, who led Finland to a bronze medal in the 2014 Olympics, will have 
to rebound in net from a poor NHL campaign by his standards (2.56 GAA for Boston).

MELROSE X-FACTOR: C MIKKO KOIVU
"Koivu has size, skating ability and a hockey pedigree but always leaves me wanting more out of him. I still think he's the most talented forward on that team."

*Goals versus threshold (GVT) is calculated based on a three-year weighted average of the goal differential for each player on each roster compared with a replacement-level NHLer and then adjusted to likely ice time in the World Cup. Courtesy of Hockey Abstract and Hockey Prospectus.