BUFFALO NY - DECEMBER 28: Zach Kassian #9,Jaden Schwartz #8 and Brayden Schenn #10 of Canada celebrate Schwartz's goal in the first period against the Czech Republic during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship game between Canada and Czech Republic on December 28 2010 in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
The Canadian WJC team is an annual national obsession in the sport's homeland, and no team gets more scrutinized in its selection process outside of the Men's Olympic team. Everyone has an opinion on who should be there, and everyone has feelings on who will be there. There are accusations of regional bias, which I think hold some water, and of course good the old fashioned coach's favourites factor to factor in as well. And don't forget the bias against players playing outside of the Canadian Hockey League, pursuing scholarship options in the United States. In a perfect world, more QMJHL players would get selected every year, as well as more NCAA players, but one thing I've learned from this is that the players they do invite from these leagues are generally held in very high esteem by the Hockey Canada brass.
Comparing players playing in three or more different leagues is a challenge, but it's not quite as challenging as comparing players playing in European junior leagues with North American ones, so choosing a Canadian team is a bit easier as a result. Don Hay is Canada's coach, a junior hockey coaching legend who has been coaching the Vancouver Giants of the WHL since 2005-06. Hay won back to back Memorial Cups with the Kamloops Blazers in 1994 and 1995, leading some of the best junior hockey teams the world has ever seen. His best teams with the Giants were the first two years: he won the WHL Championship in 2006, and as hosts in 2007, won the Memorial Cup for a third time. He's made the playoffs every year as a WHL Head Coach, 11 seasons in total for three different teams (he also coached the Tri-City Americans from 1998-2000).
From his most recent successful team, we can notice some things about the way he chooses his rosters. He likes active puck-moving defencemen, which explains the invitations. He also used a balance between left and right handed shots on D. His defence in 2007 consisted of Cody Franson, Jonathan Blum, Brendan Mikkelson, Brett Festerling, A.J. Thelen, and Brent Regner, which is quite a highly skilled group for a major junior hockey team. He also liked some size amongst his wingers: Milan Lucic, J.D. Watt, and Kenndal McArdle were all key players for him, but he also utilized small skill players like Michal Repik and Wacey Rabbit. He's since coached players like Craig Cunningham and Brendan Gallagher, so he's not afraid to use the small players provided he's got the bigger bodies to help them out. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to how he chooses centres: he just wants good ones no matter which way they shoot, what size they are or what style they play.
With that out of the way, here are my choices for Team Canada's 2012 WJC team based on the players invited to camp earlier this week. If any players from the NHL become available, that would definitely change the final roster:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Jayden Schwartz||Mark Schiefele||Tyler Toffoli|
|Jonathan Huberdeau||Ryan Strome||Mark Stone|
|Quinton Howden||Zack Phillips||Brendan Gallagher|
|Max Reinhart||Michael Bournival||Brett Bulmer|
I'm predicting a bit of a WHL onslaught amongst this group, and when you add Jayden Schwartz to the mix, it's a Western Canadian dominated group up front. I'm not sure if these are the lines I project, as I could see Phillips playing with Huberdeau, this is more the depth chart than anything, although I think between Toffoli and Rattie Hay will try and keep his options open for an offensive winger. Schwartz and Howden are the two returning skaters on the team, and probably form the leadership core on the team.
I explained my liking of Max Reinhart for the team on Buzzing the Net, as he's a centre who I think can play the wing and really provide a lot of options for Hay as a two-way presence. I feel a lot the same way about Michael Bournival, who has been dominating the QMJHL this year when he's been healthy. Bournival is a top faceoff man as well as an offensive threat, and he projects down the line as a bottom six NHL forward. He was also the last player cut from last year's team, and I think he'll be on the final roster for all these factors. Reinhart and Bournival should form an effective checking duo, and I like the idea of adding some size in the mix with Bulmer.
That's a very skilled checking unit, and it's indicative of the level of skill amongst the other 10 forwards. This is a left wing and centre heavy team, and any of the first three combinations on that list could lead Canada offensively this year. Overall, this is one of Canada's better groups up front in recent years, and will only be made stronger if Anaheim releases Devante Smith-Pelly, a right winger with some size and a lot of scoring touch. However, the coaching situation in Anaheim might be a good sign for Smith-Pelly staying: in his first game with Bruce Boudreau, his icetime shot up to 14:46, and he has a goal and an assist in his last two games after only reaching that total in his first 21 games. If Smith-Pelly were to join the team, that would make the battle for the last spot, in my opinion, between Ty Rattie and Tyler Toffoli.
|Left Defence||Right Defence|
|Brandon Gormley||Dougie Hamilton|
|Jamie Oleksiak||Alexander Petrovic|
|Ryan Murray||Ryan Murphy|
I'm picking this defence based on a couple of ideas. One, that the two similarly named Ryans will be forming the top PP unit, which is a pretty safe assumption. Secondly, that Hay values balance amongst left and right handed shots. Thirdly, that Jamie Oleksiak was chosen to play a Jared Cowen style role, in which Canada loads up on defensive pair as a massive shutdown pairing. And that's where Petrovic, a talented two-way defender for Red Deer, fits in. He isn't necessarily the biggest name amongst the group, the only one drafted (or projected to be) outside the first round, and he often gets overlooked on his own team as Mathew Dumba is projected to be a high pick this next year. But Petrovic is a very good player and he's at this camp on the back of his own accomplishments. For the seventh defender, I was debating between Beaulieu and Joe Morrow, and chose Beaulieu for his more polished all-around ability and Memorial Cup experience. It was a very, very close call and really I could've easily chose Morrow instead.
One of the major concerns on the Canadian blueline is injuries: both Murray and Murphy are coming off significant injuries, and if they aren't performing at 100% at camp their spots could be in jeopardy. If Murphy can't go, that opens a potential spot for Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, a top scoring QMJHL d-man who would be needed to run the PP. Another option would be to let guys like Hamilton and Gormley run the PP, and bring in the safer Mark Pysyk as a replacement. Murray would more likely be replaced by a combination of Beaulieu and Morrow.
I am not a believer in bringing back Mark Visentin just because he was on the team last year. He has shown little signs this year that he's amongst Canada's top goaltenders, and in reality, his play last year wasn't all that noteworthy. I won't blame him completely for the third period collapse, but he definitely let in at least one soft goal and definitely did not make the A1 saves the Canadians could've used. Louis Domingue has the best numbers of the group, and has the best size as well. I'm not sure he is the best goalie of the group, judging goalies is really tough to do without watching a lot of tape and judging things like footwoork, positioning, anticipation and rebound control, but given his numbers I'm willing to put some faith that he is more than adequate overall in this regard. Wedgewood is a guy who from what I've seen of him, possesses strong technical skills and in the free-wheeling OHL has managed to post some strong numbers as well. Tyler Bunz is a bit of a wildcard, as he's played behind some pretty darn good teams in the WHL which can inflate one's numbers. It is entirely possible that Canada goes with another combination of Coyotes and Oilers prospects in goal for the second straight year, as both Domingue and Visentin are Coyotes prospects and Bunz and Olivier Roy were both Oilers prospects. Wedgewood is a prospect of the New Jersey Devils.
In the end, this team can definitely win gold. But as we'll be seeing in the coming days, so could a couple of other teams. This is going to be an even more competitive field than we're used to seeing at the WJC tournament. My picks break out to 8 WHL players, 7 OHL players, 6 QMJHL players and 1 NCAA player, for those interested.