The World Junior Championship is a global celebration of the game we all love – OK, maybe just the northern part of the globe – but I have the feeling this will be an extra-special tournament for Vancouver Canucks fans.
Vancouver, of course, hosts Canada’s pool in the preliminary round, not to mention the majority of the medal-round matches, with Victoria taking care of the remaining contests. And Western Canada has traditionally been a very strong market for the tournament, which has been on the eastern side of North America the past three times the continent has hosted the holiday classic.
But for Canucks fans, this year’s installment will also provide some delicious sneak previews of a couple high-end Vancouver prospects in Canadian goalie Michael DiPietro and American defenseman Quinn Hughes, either of whom could end up with the MVP award at the conclusion of the tournament.
And of course, there’s also still the possibility Vancouver wins the draft lottery this spring and earns the right to select Quinn’s younger brother Jack Hughes first overall. Jack, the dynamic center, is another player to watch at the world juniors, and the idea of him and Quinn together in a Canucks uniform has to be pretty tantalizing for Vancouver fans.
True, the Canucks aren’t basement-bad this year, but let’s not forget the Philadelphia Flyers jumping way up in the draft in 2017 to snag Nolan Patrick when the ping-pong balls gifted them with the second overall selection. A Hughes brothers reunion is possible, people.
Even the present is fun for Canucks partisans right now. Sure, the team doesn’t always win, but Vancouver is an exciting squad led by Calder Trophy frontrunner Elias Pettersson, with Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Nikolay Goldobin also playing big roles up front. Add in the sudden success of ‘Shotgun’ Jake Virtanen and the first NHL goal for Adam Gaudette, and you’ve got a forward corps that is already pretty exciting.
On the back end, Olli Juolevi is still coming up the pipeline (though it looks like he just hurt his knee), and Hughes will do wonders for the unit once he leaves the University of Michigan. I say “leaves” and not “graduates” because, in my mind, he’s playing regular minutes in the NHL next season. He can still graduate, but he’ll be doing so by taking summer classes, like many ex-college guys do after they’ve left early for the NHL.
And it’s funny now to think about how many folks (myself included) thought the Canucks should have traded veteran defenseman Chris Tanev as part of their rebuild, because we’ve already seen Vancouver play very competitive stretches of hockey, and it doesn’t even have its full complement of youngsters on the roster yet. Tanev is still just 28, and it’s an advantage to have guys like him around when the kiddie blueliners start to filter up.
In net, the future is still Thatcher Demko, but it’s never good to put all your faith in one goalie, which is why DiPietro’s stellar play is such a boon, as there will be options in the coming years. Demko missed all of October and most of November while recovering from a concussion but looked good in his first games back. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I like the idea of Demko at least getting a couple starts for the Canucks at the end of this season (unless they’re fighting for a playoff spot, which, in the dreadful Pacific Division, is very possible), just as preparation for more duty next season.
There’s a lot of optimism for this roster, but let’s also do a little brake-pumping here, because the Canucks may need some time before they are truly a contender again. Demko won’t be your starter next season, and there’s always the possibility Pettersson hits the dreaded sophomore slump. Maybe Vancouver misses the playoffs altogether despite having Hughes on the blueline. And that’s fine; this roster is built for the future, and you have to take steps in order to get to the top. Travis Green is a good coach, and he is being given the right tools to do the job.
In the meantime, Vancouver, enjoy the show at the world juniors.