While Pat Quinn is a coach who rewards offensive creativity, don’t expect a run-and-gun approach for Canada at the 2009 world junior hockey championships.
The hallmark of Canada’s success in four straight gold medal finishes in this tournament has been a tight, unyielding defence through all three zones on the ice, and pressuring the opposition into coughing up the puck.
While Quinn will loosen the reins on his creative talent when Canada has the puck, he says his team can’t give up odd-man rushes to score goals.
“Hopefully we’ll have players who are conscious about the two-way game,” Quinn said. “If we want to win a medal we’ll have to be.”
Canada begins its title defence Friday versus the Czech Republic at Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place.
The Czechs, Kazakhstan, promoted Germany and the U.S. are in Canada’s pool. Sweden, Russia, Finland, Slovakia and promoted Latvia make up the other.
The top country in each pool at the conclusion of the preliminary round get byes to the semifinals. The runners-up play the third-place team from the other pool in the quarter-finals.
The pressure on the Canadian players this year is immense. They’re attempting to tie the country’s record for consecutive gold medals won, set between 1993 and 1997. And they’re trying to do it before a home crowd that wants nothing less than another championship.
Team captain Thomas Hickey feels the weight of expectations.
“To be honest, a lot,” the Seattle Thunderbirds defenceman said. “You’re expected to win the gold medal.
“We’re all feeling that heat, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the joy you get playing for Canada.”
There’s a considerable chunk of talent and experience missing from this team. Eight Canadians eligible to play for the junior squad are currently in the NHL and six of them helped Canada win the 2008 world junior tournament.
Brandon Sutter (Carolina), Kyle Turris (Phoenix), Sam Gagner (Edmonton), Steve Stamkos (Tampa Bay) and Colton Gillies (Minnesota) would’ve made Canada dominant up front, particularly through the middle.
Canada is without the size and power of defencemen Luke Schenn (Toronto) and Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), who also generates a lot of offence from the back end. The New York Islanders also kept 19-year-old forward Josh Bailey in their lineup.
So forwards John Tavares of the Oshawa Generals and Zach Boychuk of the Lethbridge Hurricanes as well as defencemen Hickey and P.K. Subban of the Belleville Bulls are the four returning players from last year’s team that won gold in Pardubice, Czech Republic.
What was already a young team got younger when 19-year-old winger Dana Tyrell of the Prince George Cougars injured his knee in Canada’s first exhibition game last week. He was replaced by 17-year-old Evander Kane of the Vancouver Giants.
Canada heads into the world junior tournament with eight 18-year-olds and two 17-year-olds in the lineup.
The Russians, U.S. and Swedes are each coming with an experienced, proven scorer up front: Nikita Filatov, James van Riemsdyk and Oscar Moller respectively.
Canada doesn’t have that going in, although Tavares, 18, could prove to be that player in this tournament and stake his claim as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL draft.
The line of Boychuk, centre Cody Hodgson of the Brampton Battalion and Jordan Eberle of the Regina Pats has shown moxie on offence in exhibition games.
If five-on-five offence is an issue, Quinn has addressed that by beefing up the power play. He kept an extra defenceman, 17-year-old power-play specialist Ryan Ellis, and carried 12 forwards instead of 13.
“We expect to be a good five-on-five team,” Quinn said. “We don’t want to give up goals and neither do other teams so it’s tough to score in those situations.
“Special teams are always important in any top competition.”
Goaltending is a question mark as neither Spokane’s Dustin Tokarski or Chet Pickard of the Tri-City Americans have international experience at the under-18 or under-17 level.
What works in their favour, however, is they don’t have to adjust to a wider European ice surface. The angles will be the same as they are with their club teams.
“To bring a gold home for Canadians here would be something special,” Tokarski said. “It’s the biggest stage possible.”
Canada’s defencemen look to be the strength of the team because of their size, mobility and ability to move the puck. Hickey and Alex Pietrangelo were the fourth overall picks in the last two drafts by Los Angeles and St. Louis respectively.
Expect Hickey and Colton Teubert of the Regina Pats to be out on the ice against opposing team’s top lines.
The towering Tyler Myers of the Kelowna Rockets and Keith Aulie of the Brandon Wheat Kings are difficult to beat one-on-one. Cody Goloubef, the lone college player out of Wisconsin, and Subban are effective at both ends of the ice.
The defence can make life easier for Tokarski and Pickard by keeping shots to the outside where the goalies can see them.
Canadians want gold more than any other country and the adrenaline rush their players will get from the home crowd will fuel their legs when they’re fatigued.
“Before I go to bed at night, I think about what it’s going to be like and how special this opportunity is,” Tavares said. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime thing to play for your national junior team in what the country sees as the biggest tournament in the world to them, maybe other than the Olympics, for Canadian hockey.
“For it to be in Ottawa, in the nation’s capital and to go for five, there’s obviously high expectations and there’s excitement and great pride of wearing the Canadian logo.”
Subban experienced the thrill of winning the gold in the Czech Republic but expects to feel more emotional playing for it at home.
“Playing in front of your country in front of 19,000 people at Scotiabank Place every game, that feeling that I had last Christmas, I’ve been craving it ever since to have that feeling again,” he said.