As recently as two seasons ago, the Subway Super Series felt more contrived and cynical than the latest Hollywood remake.
The six-game, east-to-west showdown between the Russian Selects and a cast of many from the Canadian talent pool in major junior hockey was kind of mishmaw. It serves a purpose to Hockey Canada as an audition for the national junior team selection camp, for sure. But it's not series in the conventional sense. The CHL essentially has a fresh lineup for every game (more than 30 players will rotate through for Team OHL), whereas Russia has to play six games in 11 days in 4-5 time zones with the increasingly burning legs, save for using North American-based players.
Russia also used to regularly play possum, leaving main cogs for its world junior tournament squad home and sending over players who were as faceless as the easily outwitted extras in the original, can't-be-outdone Red Dawn. It came off as a cash grab by times.
That all changed in 2010, when the Russian Selects won the series for the first time. Point being, the Super Series can produce compelling viewing and it's the only puck fix locked-out NHL fans might get, although hope springs eternal with the big league's game of CBA chicken. The Super Series a chance to form an opinion on how a 17-year-old prodigy such as Nathan MacKinnon could fit into a lockout-year edition of Team Canada, or how far away 15-year-old wunderkind Connor McDavid is from wearing the Maple Leaf at Christmastime.
Here's a primer of what to look for with Game 1 set for this evening in Blainville-Boisbriand, Que. (7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, Sportsnet/TVA Sports/NHL Network USA).
Team QMJHL might struggle — Typically, the series follows the same pattern. The fresh-legged Selects typically fare well during the eastern leg of the series before fatigue sets in. Motivation is typically high, since the Quebec League has more Russian content than the two circuits to the west. (Many Russian juniors who come to North America prefer the Q, not just because of the finesse but because the shorter time-zone change makes it easier for family and friends to keep up with their games.) As Sportsnet's Patrick King explained, the Q's pride is on the line here, even though the league has produced the past two MasterCard Memorial Cup champions.
If the pressure's on the QMJHL players to get their league back in the win column, it won't be coming internally.
"We cannot have that pressure on our shoulders," Team QMJHL head coach Andre Tourigny explained. "It's not about what happened the last few years. For me, it's all about what will happen Monday." (Sportsnet)
How will MacKinnon wing it — The Halifax Mooseheads star is the second-leading scorer among those eligible for Team QMJHL, but the lockout has gifted Canada with an abundance of centres. So the 17-year-old Cole Harbour, N.S., native (yeah, yeah, same hometown as Sidney Crosby, you're the first to notice) is pencilled on right wing flanking Jean-Sébastien Dea and Huberdeau.
Alas, MacKinnon might be the only one of the three 17-year-old Mooseheads NHL draft prospects you see much of Monday and Wednesday. His deft-handed linemate Jonathan Drouin is nursing a foot injury while goalie Zach Fucale might play only a limited role.
Team OHL will probably be fine — The Upper Canadians are 18-0 all-time in the series, although they usually get a bigger break between matches since games 3 and 4 are sandwiched around the OHL's weekend-heavy schedule.
The OHL boasts four likely returnees for Team Canada: centres Mark Scheifele and Ryan Strome and defenders Dougie Hamilton and Scott Harrington. Boston Bruins first-round pick Malcolm Subban will be scrutinized closely in Game 3 in Guelph on Thursday — especially on glove-side shots — since the job of being Canada's No. 1 netminder is his to lose. Rushing defencemen and NHL first-rounders Cody Ceci and Ryan Murphy, each late cuts of the 2012 iteration of Team Canada, will also be ones to watch.
Mr. Yakupov goes to Sarnia — The Edmonton Oilers No. 1 overall pick will return to his old OHL stamping ground for Game 4 on Nov. 12. Nail Yakupov deserves a warm reception. He didn't desert Sarnia to play in the KHL; he simply worked out a contingency plan. Besides, he did go directly to the best league in the world which is actually playing.
Putting the D in Dub — Team WHL's strong suit is its defenceman who have the ability to freelance and freewheel. That roll call includes Toronto Maple Leafs No. 5 overall selection Morgan Rielly, who should be lock to lace 'em up in Ufa, Russia on Dec. 26, along with the likes of the NHL's No. 2 pick Ryan Murray and 18-year-old Brandon Wheat Kings star Ryan Pulock. The squad also suits up an additional three NHL top-10 picks in Matt Dumba, Derrick Pouliot and Grifffin Reinhart, who all have another year before this to crack Team Canada.
Seriously, a top-10 NHL pick is going to be left off Canada's blueline.
A darkhorse rises — Last season, undrafted 19-year-old Tanner Pearson slid into his role with high draft choices like it was a warm bath. The then-Barrie Colt made Team Canada and was the top pick of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. This time around, the top point getter on the QMJHL and WHL squads, Jean-Sébastien Dea and Kamloops Blazers' JC Lipon, are both undrafted players. There's a true underdog story one can love.
The Super Series can seem inscrutable to the uninitiated. But it's the only hockey on conventional TV this week, so it's worth getting to know.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.