Make no mistake, the World Cup of Hockey won't have the exact feel of an Olympics.
"It's pretty tough for anything to really compare to the Olympics," said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former Lightning goalie.
But in one area, this eight-team international tournament that begins Saturday in Toronto, could be better. The top-to-bottom talent, including 12 Lightning players, is second to none, said Europe coach Ralph Krueger, who has been part of international tournaments since 1981.
"I'll tell you right now: There's never, ever, ever been eight teams like this," Krueger told nhl.com. "I believe this is the strongest tournament in the history of hockey without a doubt, without a second, if you just look at the pure level of games."
The NHL-sanctioned tournament includes favorites Canada, United States, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic and Finland, which have combined for all Olympic medals since the NHL started participating in 1998. There's a Team North America, led by Oilers center and 2015 first overall draft pick Connor McDavid, which consists of the top players from the United States and Canada 23 and younger. Team Europe has players whose countries aren't individually represented.
And with the uncertainty whether the NHL will participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea over the International Olympic Committee's reticence to pay insurance and travel costs for the league's players, this may provide a best-on-best alternative.
Weekes, part of ESPN's broadcast crew for the tournament, helped break down key questions.
Can anyone beat Canada?
Canada is considered the favorite by pretty much everyone, and for good reason. The two-time defending Olympic champions are loaded, including with Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. But a team in its preliminary-round group, the United States, might be its toughest challenge. That makes Tuesday's United States-Canada showdown must-see TV. "Team USA, their goalies (including the Lightning's Ben Bishop) are comparable to Canada, which is amazing," Weekes said. "The way Team USA is constructed up front is to be very physical. Also keep an eye on Team Sweden. If (goalie Henrik Lundqvist) plays the way we come to expect, look for them."
Do the young guns have a shot?
North America is the youngest, fastest and probably most fun team to watch. And it isn't lacking confidence. Forward Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche dubbed the 23-and-younger group "the most skilled team here." But can the kids hang with their more seasoned, star-studded opponents, including in a preliminary group with Sweden and Russia? TV analyst Craig Button, a former NHL general manager, doesn't think North America will win a game. Weekes believes it can be a factor. "They've got great goaltending and guys that can light up the score sheet," Weekes said.
Which Lightning player will make the biggest impact?
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is the nostalgic favorite, playing for the top team in his hometown of Toronto. Forward Nikita Kucherov has been paired with one of this generation's top scorers, Alex Ovechkin, for Russia. But Weekes believes Tampa Bay's most influential player in the tournament might be on the blue line. Defense is Sweden's strength, and smooth-skating Victor Hedman can take control at both ends of the ice, especially on the tournament's NHL-sized surface.
The Lightning has an NHL-most 12 players participating in the World Cup. Here's a list by country, with the expected roles.
Canada: Steven Stamkos, top-six forward on tournament favorite
United States: Ben Bishop, expected to be backup goaltender
Russia: Nikita Kucherov, top-six forward in a loaded group; Andrei Vasilevskiy, backup goaltender; Vladislav Namestnikov, depth forward; Nikita Nesterov, depth defenseman
North America: Jonathan Drouin, top-six forward; Jon Cooper, assistant coach
Sweden: Victor Hedman, top-four defenseman; Anton Stralman, paired with Hedman, as he is with the Lightning
Czech Republic: Ondrej Palat, versatile wing likely playing all situations; Andrej Sustr, depth defenseman
Finland: Valtteri Filppula, alternate captain
The eight teams are split into two groups, with the top two teams in each after group play advancing to a single-elimination semifinal. The semifinal winners play a best-of-three final.
Saturday: United States vs. Europe, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2; Czech Republic vs. Canada, 8 p.m., ESPNEWS
Sunday: Sweden vs. Russia, 3 p.m., ESPN; North America vs. Finland, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Monday: Europe vs. Czech Republic, 3 p.m., ESPN; Russia vs. North America, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Tuesday: Finland vs. Sweden, 3 p.m., ESPN; Canada vs. United States, 8 p.m., ESPN
Wednesday: North America vs. Sweden, 3 p.m., ESPN; Europe vs. Canada, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Thursday: Finland vs. Russia, 3 p.m., ESPN; United States vs. Czech Republic, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Sept. 24: Semifinal, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Sept. 25: Semifinal, 1 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 27: Final Game 1, 8 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 29: Final Game 2, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Oct. 1: Final Game 3 (if necessary), 7 p.m., ESPN2