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U20 World Junior Championships Preview: Team Canada

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Brayden Schenn, who had an extended eight game tryout with the Los Angeles Kings this fall, is the only returning forward from last year's silver medal winning team.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Brayden Schenn, who had an extended eight game tryout with the Los Angeles Kings this fall, is the only returning forward from last year's silver medal winning team. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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In Canada, the nation takes Christmas Day off hockey, aside from playing the game with family and friends at the local rink or frozen pond.  It's the start of winter according to the seasons, but in Canada, it's really just a holiday with family after at least six weeks (upwards of ten where I live) of cold weather and permanent snow.  The national cable sports network, TSN, decided to broadcast the World Junior Hockey Championships during the holiday season, and in time it became a holiday tradition of sorts.  Today, it fills ten of the twelve days of Christmas with international junior hockey, only taking a break on New Year's Day, which is now being filled by an outdoor hockey game in the United States if you so desire.  From Boxing Day through January fifth, if you're in Canada, you can watch a ton of hockey. 

The early days of the World Juniors wasn't kind to Canada, as the USSR dominated the tournament in its beginnings in the 1970s through the 1980s.  It took until 1982 for Canada to strike gold, a tournament played in Minnesota.  In fact, Canada has won three of the four tournaments to be held on American soil, winning in '82, '96 (Boston), and '05 (Grand Forks).  The only time the Canadians have not won on American soil was in 1989 in Anchorage, Alaska, which ended with the Canadians finishing fourth (and the USSR winning).  So the United States has been kind territory to the Canadian team in the past, and with the games being held pretty much right on the USA-Canada border in Buffalo and Niagara, New York, this year's edition is going to get a ton of fan support. 

There's little to explain about Canadian hockey development:  Canada relies heavily on their own major junior hockey system, which has three independently run leagues with teams in nine of the ten Canadian provinces and five American states.  The players are mainly teenagers, though each team is allowed three twenty year olds and two import players from outside of North America.  Americans and Canadians are both classified as nationals, free to compete for the same roster spots with each other, although the content is primarily Canadian.   Most importantly for Canadians, the system works, and shows no signs of really being at risk.  Youth participation levels in hockey are still strong, though there are some concerns about recent immigrant populations not taking up the sport at the same rates as second or third generation Canadians.  There are rinks in nearly every community across the country, and if nothing else, there's usually an outdoor rink nearby that is usable for three months or so. 

So, quite simply,  we don't need too much of a big picture discussion on this one.  Canada had an amazing run of five straight gold medals from 2005-09, that all ended on January 5 of this year in my hometown of Saskatoon, when John Carlson of the USA put a goal short side past Canadian goaltender Martin Jones in overtime.  Payback is definitely a motivating factor for the Canadians, even though there is no guarantee that they'll even get to play the Americans at all this year.  I contacted Neate Sager, who runs the excellent Yahoo! Canadian Hockey League blog called Buzzing the Net, to ask some questions on the players.  I have a pretty good handle on the WHL talent, which is the league that's supplied the most players this year, while Sager pays more attention to the OHL in his backyard. 

Canada is obviously a favourite every year at this event, but this year is a bit more challenging.  They play a contender in Russia in the first game on Boxing Day, and wrap up the round robin against Sweden on New Year's Eve.  Is this a schedule a plus for the team, or are there too many questions with this group to play a key game so soon?

The order of opponents is pretty favourable, notwithstanding this is the Group of Death. Canada is playing three exhibitions, so if it's not ready for Russia on Boxing Day, when will it be ready? The Sweden game is also the second leg of a back-to-back for the Tre Kronor. Canada will be coming off an off-day and what everyone expects will be something less than a nailbiter vs. Norway. 

Canada makes a big deal about its team every year, and every year there always seems like there's a goaltending question.  Is the goaltender choice more important this year, or is the team strong enough in front of him that it won't matter much?

There is probably more scrutinity devoted to the goaltending choice after the way Jake Allen struggled in 2010 during the final vs. Team USA and the shootouts Canada got in during the '09 WJHC. It never stops being vital, although philosophically, it is better to have an overall defensive strength which keeps a team from having to ride a hot goalie. Coach Dave Cameron is capable of producing that type of team. 

Which of the three Ryans (Murray, Murphy and Nugent-Hopkins) that were cut late was the most surprising?

Ryan Murray, by process of elimination, even though he is still two years out from entering the NHL draft. He's awful young (turned 17 in Sept.) but he gave it a good run at the final selection camp. Nugent-Hopkins and Murphy being cut can be explained away due to youth and size.

Is the fact that Cameron, an OHL coach, chose more WHL players than OHL players significant?  What kind of role does Cameron intend to use his own club captain, Casey Cizikas? 

It is significant because it speaks volumes about some of the currents in the OHL. Its crop of top-end scorers this year skews young and not necessarily Canadian; only five of its top 20 scorers are Canadians in their age-19 seasons and none are higher than 10th (Edmonton Oilers third-round centre Ryan Martindale). Throw in the early graduations of Ryan O'Reilly, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Jeff Skinner, Tyler Seguin and Kyle Clifford and the OHL might be drawn down a little. That could change in a year or two, since I believe 18 of the 40 young men in the Top Prospects Game are from the O.

It could be the WHL has more to offer in all-around players who play the 200-foot game. It's not for nothing that label can be put on both Americans on Team USA, Mitchell Callahan and Emerson Etem.

Cizikas will be a key penalty killer and will try to grind down opponents.

Team Canada - 2011 U20 Roster
# Name Pos S/C Ht. Wt. Year Hometown Club Drafted (Rights)
25 Carter Ashton RW L 6'3" 219 1991 Saskatoon, SK Tri-City (WHL) 1/29, '09 (TB)
22 Tyson Barrie D R 5'10" 190 1991 Victoria, BC Kelowna (WHL) 3/64, '09 (COL)
11 Casey Cizikas C L 5'11" 191 1991 Mississauga, ON Mississauga (OHL) 4/92, '09 (NYI)
28 Brett Connolly RW R 6'2" 181 1992 Campbell River, BC Prince George (WHL) 1/6, '10 (TB)
7 Sean Couturier C L 6'3" 192 1992 Bathurst, NB Drummondville (QMJHL) '11 Eligible
2 Jared Cowen D L 6'5" 227 1991 Allan, SK Spokane (WHL) 1/9, '09 (OTT)
3 Simon Despres D L 6'4" 222 1991 Laval, QC Saint John (QMJHL) 1/30, '09 (PIT)
24 Calvin de Haan D L 6'1" 189 1991 Carp, ON Oshawa (OHL) 1/12, '09 (NYI)
21 Cody Eakin C L 6'0" 187 1991 Winnipeg, MB Swift Current (WHL) 3/85, '09 (WAS)
6 Ryan Ellis D R 5'10" 184 1991 Freelton, ON Windsor (OHL) 1/11, '09 (NAS)
17 Marcus Foligno LW L 6'1" 200 1991 Sudbury, ON Sudbury (OHL) 4/104, '09 (BUF)
5 Erik Gudbranson D L 6'4" 211 1992 Orleans, ON Kingston (OHL) 1/3, '10 (FLA)
16 Curtis Hamilton LW L 6'3" 202 1991 Kelowna, BC Saskatoon (WHL) 2/48, '10 (EDM)
12 Quinton Howden LW L 6'3" 192 1992 Oak Bank, MB Moose Jaw (WHL) 1/25, '10 (FLA)
19 Ryan Johansen C R 6'2" 193 1992 Port Moody, BC Portland (WHL) 1/4, '10 (CLB)
9 Zack Kassian RW R 6'3" 226 1991 LaSalle, ON Windsor (OHL) 1/13, '09 (BUF)
20 Louis Leblanc C R 5'11" 181 1991 Point-Clare, QC Montreal (QMJHL) 1/18, '09 (MTL)
4 Dylan Olsen D L 6'2" 223 1991 Calgary, AB Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA) 1/28, '09 (CHI)
31 Olivier Roy G L 5'11" 186 1991 Causapscal, QC Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL) 5/133, '09 (EDM)
10 Brayden Schenn C L 6'1" 192 1991 Saskatoon, SK Brandon (WHL) 1/5, '09 (LA)
8 Jaden Schwartz C L 5'10" 184 1992 Emerald Park, SK Colorado (WCHA) 1/14, '10 (STL)
30 Mark Visentin G L 6'1" 198 1992 Waterdown, ON Niagara (OHL) 1/27, '10 (PHX)

2011 Draft Hopeful:  C Sean Couturier

Not Made Available:  C Matt Duchene (COL), LW Evander Kane (ATL), C Ryan O'Reilly (COL), LW Kyle Clifford (LA), LW Taylor Hall (EDM), C Tyler Seguin (BOS), C Jeff Skinner (CAR).

Notable Absentee/Cut:  C Brandon Pirri, D Ryan Murray, D Ryan Murphy, F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, RW Scott Glennie, D Stefan Elliott (couldn't resist)

Team Staff:  Kevin Pendergrast (Head Scout), Scott Salmond (General Manager), Dave Cameron (Head Coach), Ryan Huska, Andre Tourigny and George Burnett (Assistant Coaches).

Considering this is supposed to be a team lacking in talent, this team sure is stacked.  Fifteen first round draft picks, four returning players, fifteen nineteen year olds, no seventeen year olds, and all but one player has been NHL drafted, and that one undrafted player is going in the top three in the next entry draft.  With such a large roster, the Canadians will surely be looking to physically intimidate other teams, but they'll have to watch the penalties that could result from such play.  There isn't going to be too many easy shifts against this team, and there's no reason to look at them heading into this tournament as any sort of underdog.  Canada is motivated, talented, and will have a ton of fan support.  Any team that beats them will have played an incredible game, but there are teams that here that can play that kind of incredible game. 

Prediction:  1st in Group B, silver medal.