The Canadians took home WJC gold last year in Buffalo thanks to a total team effort that saw all four lines contribute up front and the tournament-winning tally notched by Tyler Steenbergen – the only forward who hadn’t scored for the team until then. There was no superstar on the team, with goaltender Carter Hart perhaps the closest to warrant that distinction, but Canada played as a wolf pack and was unstoppable after losing the outdoor game to Team USA – though the Swedes probably got jobbed a bit by the officials near the end of the gold-medal game.
Nonetheless, expect a similar look from Team Canada this season, where a plethora of talent makes them a conservative favorite to repeat as champions.
Thanks to a wealth of choice at this position, Canada will be dangerous no matter which line is on the ice. The fluidity of the roster before the final camp in December was a nod to that depth. The Anaheim Ducks sent Max Comtois back to junior and the big two-way winger will be a favorite to wear a letter in Vancouver. He’s the only returnee, too, as Robert Thomas (St. Louis) and the injured Alex Formenton (Ottawa) and Gabe Vilardi (Los Angeles) won’t be donning the maple leaf in Vancouver.
Elsewhere, decisions were made to inject high-tempo players such as Barrett Hayton (Arizona) and Joe Veleno (Detroit) into the roster, while versatile Nick Suzuki (Montreal), scoring machine Morgan Frost (Philadelphia) and elite playmaker Cody Glass (Vegas) found their place on the roster.
The X-factors among the forward group include Owen Tippett (Florida) – who is blessed with speed, size and scoring acumen, but not so much attention away from the puck – and top 2020 draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere, one of the most prolific scorers in the QMJHL, despite his young age. Lafreniere will be a key part of next year’s edition, but given he’s more than just a point-producer, he could be an underager that helps make a difference for Team Canada.
There will be no returnees on the blueline for Canada, but it’s hard to see the position as a weakness, based on the candidates available.
Evan Bouchard (Edmonton) started the year in the NHL and has not missed a beat since returning to the OHL, tallying more than a point per game for the London Knights. He’ll be a solid presence thanks to his all-around game. High-end puck-mover Noah Dobson (New York Islanders) also made the squad. He won a Memorial Cup last year with Acadie-Bathurst and is now doing his best on a young, rebuilding team. Another great puck-mover is Ty Smith (New Jersey), a frequent international player for Canada who has also been leading the WHL in offense from the blueline as a member of the Spokane Chiefs.
Tidily enough, Canada has an equal amount of left and right shots in that group, which is preferable (though not necessary) for this tournament. The aggressive Josh Brook (Montreal) got a long look, too, and the blueliner, who plays for Canada coach Tim Hunter with WHL Moose Jaw, earned his spot. Meanwhile, Canada dipped into NCAA territory, adding Denver’s Ian Mitchell (Chicago), who surely has the necessary skills to contribute.
While nothing is air-tight for Canada, it really does look like the starter’s job is there for Michael DiPietro (Vancouver) to take and run with. Not only has the Canucks prospect won a Memorial Cup and set the OHL Windsor Spitfires’ franchise record for wins, but he was also a rare third goalie taken by Canada to the World Championship last year. Hmm, what experience could that have been preparing him for? DiPietro doesn’t have the traditional size of a big-time goaltender, but everything he has done so far in his junior career points to an athletic competitor who simply gets the job done.
Backing up DiPietro is Ian Scott (Toronto), who wasn’t invited to Canada’s summer camp but has been nearly unbeatable for WHL Prince Albert this season, losing just once in his first 20 decisions. Scott also played well in the CHL-Russia series, winning his leg of the WHL portion and surrendering just a single goal.
The Hockey News’ Gold Odds: 2/1