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2018 WJC preview: Team Canada goes for gold with depth, defense

Canada skates into the 2018 World Junior Championship aiming to improve upon last year’s oh-so-close second-place finish.

You can’t come any closer to gold than Canada did last year, losing in a shootout to Team USA in an instant-classic final in Montreal. But the Canucks still head into Buffalo as the silver medallists, and they don’t enter this year’s event as the favorites. This will be a tough tournament with a lot of parity, and even though the games will feel like home dates thanks to the ravenous hockey hordes of Southern Ontario crossing over the bridge, Canada’s kids will still have to coalesce, and they’ll need a few things to go right if they want to strike gold in Western New York.

The highlight of the preliminary round will no doubt be the outdoor game against the U.S. at New Era Stadium on Dec. 29, but the Canadians will get a challenge right off the hop with Finland as their Boxing Day opponent. With Dominique Ducharme returning behind the bench, Canada has a coach with a championship pedigree who is well-versed in the national program. As per usual, the absences on Canada’s roster will be just as famous as the players who actually don the jersey.

OFFENSE
With Pierre-Luc Dubois entrenched in Columbus and Tyson Jost in Colorado, Canada is missing two very good centers. But the country just churns out pivots, so expect new recruits to pick up the slack. Perhaps the most important combo up front will be Sam Steel (Anaheim) and Jordan Kyrou (St. Louis). The two clicked in a major way at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan and Kyrou in particular has stayed hot back home, torching the OHL as the head of a surprisingly dangerous Sarnia Sting team. Kyrou’s excellent skating ability will give defenders fits at the tournament.

Another star at the WJSS was Robert Thomas (St. Louis), a 2017 first-rounder who plays a smart game for the prospect-machine London Knights in the OHL. Tyler Steenbergen (Arizona) and Drake Batherson (Ottawa) didn’t get summer invites, but have dominated their junior leagues so well that they earned spots. Add in the returning Michael McLeod (New Jersey), Dillon Dube (CGY) and Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay) and you’ve got the makings of a solid attack, albeit one that is not bulletproof. “Up front, it’s one of their deeper skill groups,” said one scout. “But in Michigan, they lacked a certain dimension. Maybe they didn’t have the elite high-end, like a Dylan Strome, but Thomas was great. On paper, they’re deep, but they need to find guys willing to take on third- and fourth-line roles. I’m not sure if they’ve done that yet.” Could a Boris Katchouk (Tampa Bay) or Maxime Comtois (Anaheim) take on that challenge?

DEFENSE
An area of abundance and aptitude, this is where Canada has the chance to put opponents on their heels. Even with Samuel Girard (Colorado) in the NHL, the Canadians have more skilled blueliners than they have roster spots, and the internal competition will serve the team well. “The defense is similar to last year,” said the scout. “Even without Thomas Chabot, it will be one of their biggest strengths. They’ve got a nice mix of guys who can create offense, guys who can run a power play and guys with size and physicality.”

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In terms of puck-movers, returning players Jake Bean (Carolina), Dante Fabbro (Nashville) and Kale Clague (Los Angeles) are all adept at pushing the pace, while at the same time they’re still responsible in their own end. Cale Makar (Colorado), the fourth overall pick in the NHL draft last June, showed a rapid maturation during the WJSS, proving he would not be intimidated by the step up from Jr. A. The fact he has been solid as a freshman at UMass bolsters his reputation, and Makar’s puck skills are second to none. Fabbro was ailing during camp, so the unheralded Josh Mahura (Anaheim) is another solid option if needed. Cal Foote (Tampa Bay) gives the team size and skill. Canada heavily pursued the dual citizen, and this is his only chance for world junior gold.

GOALTENDING
This has been the most controversial position for Team Canada in recent years, and even last year’s silver squad was not immune. The team kept starter Carter Hart (Philadelphia) on a short leash, bringing in Connor Ingram at the first signs of trouble. Eventually, Ingram folded, and Hart came back to help the squad battle for gold. The fact he was on the wrong end against Team USA’s Tyler Parsons in a spirited final is no blemish on Hart’s resume, as they don’t come more clutch than Parsons these days.

With Hart returning, Canada gets an experienced netminder who has gone through the totality of pressure already. Not only that, but Hart will be well rested, since he had to battle mononucleosis at the start of the season and didn’t play much until mid-November. While the backup slot went surprisingly to NCAA Colgate’s Colton Point (Dallas), the Stars pick does have championship pedigree from his Jr. A days – and a lot of size. “My initial thought is that their goaltending is better than it has been in the past few years and that had been their Achilles’ heel,” said the scout. “The guys they have available this year are more established and consistent.”

In a perfect world, Hart is the unquestioned starter who has the backing of his coaches all the way, but if Point has to come in and steady the ship for Canada, at least he’s got a nice pedigree himself and has proven to be a winner with great poise.