It's been heartbreak the last two years for Canadian fans at the World Juniors. First, the team's run of five gold medals was abruptly ended on home turf in Saskatoon two years ago by John Carlson's OT winner, lifting the United States to their second ever gold medal. Then last year, in Buffalo, Canada (as the swarms of fans re-christened the American border city that week), it was their oldest international rival that did them in. Russia stormed back from a 3-0 deficit with a stunning five goal third period that played out like a national catastrophe in the world's most obsessed hockey nation.
So, the national hype machine is in full force after a lot of anger, hard questions, what if scenarios (but if we only had Tyler Seguin), and bemoaning the state of Canadian goaltending that sees better goalies consistently playing for other nations. The fact of the matter is, Canada is still the driving force of the World Junior tournament, and their string of runs to the Finals now stands at an unprecedented 10 consecutive tournaments. And yes, consistently, the Canadians have the most players unavailable for the tournament due to playing in the NHL.
This year that list includes point per game NHL players Seguin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, last year's rookie of the year Jeff Skinner, and a trio of players from last year's silver medal winning team: Ryan Johansen, Sean Couturier, and Erik Gundbranson. Two of those players (Skinner and Couturier) are out with concussions now, but even without those two they have more players made unavailable by their NHL teams than anyone else (Sweden is next at two). But what is available is really all that matters now: and it's a pretty dynamic and deep group of players.
Head Coach Don Hay has a lot of options at his disposal, and the team is returning captain Jaden Schwartz, NHLer Brett Connolly, forward Quinton Howden, and polarizing goaltender Mark Visentin. The defence is completely rebuilt with an emphasis on puck movement and the team's identity is more based around skill than grit from last year. While last year's team was built to take down the Americans, one of the lessons Hockey Canada took is to not take the European competition too lightly. This is a wise strategy by the Canadians, although its unbelievable it had to be a deliberate one.
After the jump, we'll look at the roster in greater detail.
After the jump, we'll look
|Michaël Bournival||C||5'11"||190||May 31/92||Shawinigan||QMJHL||Avalanche (3/71, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Brett Connolly||RW||6'2"||181||May 2/92||Tampa Bay||NHL||Lightning (1/6, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Brendan Gallagher||RW||5'8"||179||May 6/92||Vancouver||WHL||Canadiens (5/147, '10)||none|
|Freddie Hamilton||C||6'1"||192||Jan 1/92||Niagara||OHL||Sharks (5/129, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Quinton Howden||LW||6'1"||183||Jan 21/92||Moose Jaw||WHL||Panthers (1/25, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Jonathan Huberdeau||LW||6'1"||176||Jun 4/93||Saint John||QMJHL||Panthers (1/3, '11)||none|
|Boone Jenner||C||6'1"||203||Jun 15/93||Oshawa||OHL||Blue Jackets (2/37, '11)||none|
|Tanner Pearson||LW||6'0"||196||Aug 10/92||Barrie||OHL||Undrafted||none|
|Mark Scheifele||C||6'1"||192||Mar 15/93||Barrie||OHL||Jets (1/7, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Jaden Schwartz||LW||5'9"||192||Jun 25/92||Colorado College||WCHA||Blues (1/14, '10)||U20 (1)|
|Devante Smith-Pelly||RW||6'0"||212||Jun 14/92||Anaheim||NHL||Ducks (2/42, '10)||none|
|Mark Stone||RW||6'2"||205||May 13/92||Brandon||WHL||Senators (6/178, '10)||none|
|Ryan Strome||C||6'0"||183||Jul 11/93||Niagara||OHL||Islanders (1/5, '11)||none|
The Canadian forward group is led by Schwartz, who seems to be a good bet to be Canada's leading scorer. But big contributions are expected of 18 year old centre Mark Scheifele, NHL wingers Devante Smith-Pelly and Connolly, and Memorial Cup hero Jonathan Huberdeau. There is a lot of different elements that Canada wil be drawing on for its offence, and while Schwartz and Huberdeau provide the raw skill and elite passing, Scheifele brings the strong two-zone play we're accustomed to seeing form the likes of Ryan Johansen, while Smith-Pelly and Connolly bring a physical dimnesion that allows them to get to the tough areas for the skill players to hit them with the pass. The offence doesn't stop there: Ryan Strome is hoped to be a bit of an "x-factor" for Canada, a forward with game breaking potential that isn't relied upon defensively, while Mark Stone, Tanner Pearson, Freddie Hamilton and Brendan Gallagher can provide a lot of offence from a depth role.
Guys like Michael Bournival and Boone Jenner will be the energy forwards, taking key minutes on the penalty kill, and start the cycle game 5 on 5. If you're looking for potential fan favourites, Jenner is a great place to start. As for experience, the team isn't completely relying on 19 year olds, and that could be a minor concern, especially down the middle.
|Nathan Beaulieu||6'1"||190||Dec 5/92||Saint John||QMJHL||Canadiens (1/17, '11)||none|
|Brandon Gormley||6'1"||196||Feb 18/92||Moncton||QMJHL||Coyotes (1/13, '10)||none|
|Dougie Hamilton||6'4"||194||Jun 17/93||Niagara||OHL||Bruins (1/9, '11)||none|
|Scott Harrington||6'2"||198||Mar 10/93||London||OHL||Penguins (2/54, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Ryan Murray||6'0"||198||Sep 27/93||Everett||WHL||Elig. 2012||U18 (2)|
|Jamie Oleksiak||6'6"||245||Dec 21/92||Saginaw||OHL||Stars (1/14, '11)||none|
|Mark Pysyk||6'1"||185||Jan 11/92||Edmonton||WHL||Sabres (1/23, '10)||none|
Defence is usually Canada's big advantage, and if they do hold an edge over any team in the tournament in one department, it is most definitely on the blueline. Gormley should be the leader of the group, contirbuting in all situations. Dougie Hamilton offers a ton of size and skill, and might be the most tantalizing prospect of the group... if that group didn't include Ryan Murray. Murray is an 18 year old who has the rare distinction of representing Canada twice in the U18 tournament. Expect Murray to be a key contributor on the PP, but it looks like he'll be playing his off-side here on the third defensive pairing with either Scott Harrington or big man Jamie Oleksiak.
Nathan Beaulieu has the potential to be the team's PP quarterback, although that role could be a bit more flexible than in year's past when Ryan Ellis was the go-to-guy in all 5 on 4 situations. Mark Pysyk is the local boy of the group, playing for the local WHL team as well as playing in the area he grew up in. Expect Pysyk to be the steady, stay-at-home guy in a pairing with Beaulieu.
|Mark Visentin||6'1"||194||Aug 7/92||Niagara||OHL||Coyotes (1/27, '10)||U20 (1)|
|Scott Wedgewood||6'0"||194||Aug 14/92||Plymouth||OHL||Devils (3/84, '10)||none|
Mark Visentin returns, the goaltender of record for the infamous third period meltdown in last year's gold medal game. Visentin gets a rare shot at redemption, and he's been in a bit of a haze in the OHL this year, posting a sub-.900 SV%. Visentin is a rarity in recent years in that he's a Canadian goaltender who was drafted in the first round, but there are other options for Canada in goal and it seems Hockey Canada likes Visentin better than all of them. It's a nice vote of confidence for the talented keeper, but he has to convince his coaching staff. In pre-tournament action, Scott Wedgewood outplayed Visentin, and it appears that the staff is reluctant to name Visentin the #1 goaltender going in, preferring to let the situation play itself out in the preliminary round.
In the end, goaltending is the big question mark for Canada, the one position where you can definitely say that there are other nations with better options. Everywhere else, Canada looks like a gold medal contender, and really, the goaltending has the potential to show that as well. But it's a tougher go for Canada this year, and not just in the preliminary round with the USA, Czechs and Finns. There are five teams that legitimately seem to have teams that can win this tournament, whereas most years there only seem like two or three true contenders. The home crowd advantage seems to be waning the more often the tournament is held in Canada, as other nations are getting used to the intimidating atmosphere.
If Canada doesn't win gold, it'll be a disappointing result. But there are more nations that are taking that attitude into Calgary and Edmonton these next two weeks.
Prediction: 2nd in Group B.