Nothing says "Canadian hockey" like hyping up a tournament for teenagers, many of whom won't be impact players in the NHL. But the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich., earlier this month gave fans and teams a sneak peek at potential World Junior Championship rosters a few months early. Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States took part in the week-long event.
This is a redemption year for Canada after falling short to Finland in the quarterfinals in January. Canada has typically struggled on bigger ice, but the team's last gold medal in Europe came in the Czech Republic in 2008, the host of this year's edition. As always, Canada promises to be a favorite for gold, but USA and Russia will make life miserable for them in Group B.
So, as I did with the United States roster a few weeks back, here's an early projection of the Canadian lineup:
Alexis Lafreniere – Kirby Dach – Joe Veleno
Peyton Krebs – Barrett Hayton – Dylan Cozens
Nolan Foote – Liam Foudy – Akil Thomas
Gabriel Fortier – Benoit-Olivier Groulx – Alex Newhook
The top line is a no brainer: the chemistry between Lafreniere, Dach and Veleno was clear in Plymouth, with the trio combining for eight points and many highlight-reel plays. Assuming Detroit allows Veleno to leave Grand Rapids to play – and play with a potential future teammate in Lafreniere – this will be one of Canada's best lines in many years, combining speed, skill, size and two-way acumen. All three could challenge for tournament MVP.
Scoring will be Canada's strength. Cozens and Dach finished first and third in WHL scoring among 2019 draft prospects last season, respectively, and Hayton serves as Canada's third returning forward after a four-assist showing promise at last year's tournament. Having Foudy, who has pro experience in the AHL, and Groulx, who is coming off an 80-point season, as the other pivots is just icing on the cake. They are complete players who can fill any role.
The two biggest surprises from the showcase were Foote and Fortier. Foote showed improvement last season, scoring 36 goals and 63 points for Kelowna, and his six points led Canada at the showcase. Fortier had three points himself and showcased his blistering wrist shot, even if he wasn't rewarded for it often. He has the potential to be a surprise scoring threat for Canada. He's a natural goal-scorer that adds offensive depth to Canada's roster.
The toughest decision was putting Newhook on the roster as opposed to Raphael Lavoie or even underaged forward Cole Perfetti. Newhook, selected 16th overall by Colorado in June, exploded for 102 points in the competitive BCHL and tied Krebs for Canada's scoring lead at the U-18 World Championship a few months back, but he's been inconsistent at times and his play and 5-foot-9 frame doesn't suit a bottom-line role. Tracey is in a similar boat, but he'll end up in the top six at some point after a dominant season with Moose Jaw in which he scored 36 goals and 81 points. Expect him to start as the 13th forward.
Bowen Byram – Noah Dobson
Ty Smith – Jacob Bernard-Docker
Jared McIsaac – Jett Woo
Canada always seems to excel defensively at this tournament, but there's a caveat that comes with this projection: Byram (Colorado Avalanche) and Dobson (New York Islanders) could crack their respective NHL teams out of training camp. The question then is whether they'll stick with the big clubs and miss the tournament. If they're back in junior, they'll be at the world juniors. If they're not, the depth can handle it. Smith, a wild card to make the NHL himself in New Jersey, saw a slight dip in production as a result of participating at the 2019 tournament, but he still had 69 points in 57 games. His 142 points over the past two years are the most of any major junior defenseman and his 121 assists alone would put him third in the QMJHL. A lot of his production comes from the power play, and Canada will be comfortable giving him plenty of time with the man advantage.
The big question right now is if McIsaac will be healthy enough to play. A depth member on last year's squad, he required shoulder surgery in June, with an expected recovery between late November and early December, right around the time Canada opens up camp. McIsaac won't have much time to prepare, but the coaching staff likely wouldn't have had him along for the showcase if they didn't think he'd be at the real event.
Of note, missing the team is Justin Barron, one of Canada's best defensemen at the showcase. While he definitely turned heads with three assists in three games, Barron was the youngest blueliner at the camp and, with a full, healthy group, there's more than enough speedy, two-way defensemen to make him redundant. Barron should factor into the team's 2020 plans, but when you consider that Calen Addison, Braden Schneider and Thomas Harley, among others, were left off this iteration, it's a testament to Canada's skillful defense.
There was no clear favorite for top spot in the Canadian crease heading into the showcase and that hasn't changed. Colten Ellis had the best individual season of the trio, but he had a rough outing against Finland in the showcase. And while size may not matter for a talented forward, it does matter for a young goalie still developing his game. Ellis isn't big, but Gravel, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound monster with great athleticism, is. Plus, Gravel was the top goaltender at the Memorial Cup, so he knows how to play in pressure-packed situations, which is experience Ellis simply doesn't have.
Then there's Rodrigue, who had a rough year in Drummondville but will have a chance at a QMJHL championship with a Moncton team that looks primed to be a contender. He's the most experienced of the three with Hockey Canada, having played at four previous tournaments across different age groups. A good start to 2019-20 could push him into the starting gig. He was the best of Canada's goalies at the showcase – albeit in limited time – and his history with the team means the national team braintrust will be confident in what he provides. Look for him to get the start in camp.
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