A dozen players eligible to play for Canada at the world junior hockey championship will start this season on NHL rosters.
While Canada has depth to contend for a gold medal without them, these are impact players who by themselves can make a difference in the country’s bid to reclaim gold at the world under-20 men’s championship.
“They’re elite players at this age,” Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast said.
Canada, a silver medallist the last two years, opens the world junior hockey championship Dec. 26 in Edmonton versus Finland.
Both the Alberta capital and Calgary are host cities. The majority of players in the 10-team tournament will be those born in 1992 and 1993.
You can count Boston forward Tyler Seguin and Carolina winger Jeff Skinner out of the mix for Canada right now. The 19-year-olds are firmly entrenched with their clubs, having already played a full season in the NHL.
There is an unofficial countdown for the rest. Once they play their 10th NHL game, the first year of their entry-level contracts kick in and they’re more likely to remain in the NHL for the season.
Centres Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton), Ryan Johansen (Columbus) Sean Couturier (Philadelphia), Mark Schiefele (Winnipeg) and Ryan Strome (New York Islanders), wingers Brett Connelly (Tampa Bay) and Devante Smith-Pelly (Anaheim), plus defencemen Erik Gudbranson (Florida) and Ryan Murphy (Carolina) are all on their NHL team’s opening night rosters.
They attended the Canadian junior team’s summer camp in Edmonton in August. Left-winger Brett Bulmer, who wasn’t invited to summer camp, is still with the Minnesota Wild.
The Canadian Hockey League and NHL have an agreement that teenagers can’t play in the minor pros. If they can’t stick with their NHL clubs, the only other option is to return them to the junior ranks.
“I know from being in the NHL how much the tempo of the game does up once the season starts compared to exhibition games,” said Prendergast, who spent 20 years in the Edmonton Oilers organization.
“I would think of the 10 that are still there, probably five of them are going to stick and if we get the other five back that’s great.”
Prendergast declined to say which five he thinks will stay and which five he’ll have for the Canadian junior team.
“All these kids have earned the opportunity to play up there,” he said. “Now it’s up to the NHL GMs and coaches to decide whether from a development standpoint, to keep them up there and not play them a lot or is it better for them to go back to junior and develop?
It’s still possible for an NHL team to decide in December their teenager would benefit from playing in the world junior championship and make him available for selection camp.
Johansen, Couturier, Connelly and Gudbranson would be a major boost to Canada’s gold-medal chances because they have the experience of playing in the 2011 world junior tournament in Buffalo, N.Y.
“Especially with the tournament in North America, the pressure these kids are going to be under, they’re going to be under the microscope every day,” Prendergast said. “When you’ve got guys who have lived it and been through the ups and downs that go with it, it’s great to have.”
Gudbranson would be the lone second-year defenceman should he return, although Canada is expected to have a strong, deep defence even without him. Johansen centred the most dominant forward line at summer camp with wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Matt Stone.
Smith-Pelly was a revelation at camp. He was often the best player on the ice, using his strength and size to create space for linemates Nugent-Hopkins and Jaden Schwartz while exhibiting strong puck skills.
The Oilers will likely hang onto Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick this year’s draft, at least until centre Sam Gagner returns from his ankle sprain.
Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff says Scheifele will be in the lineup for the Jets opener Sunday versus Montreal, but beyond that was noncommittal about the future of the Kitchener, Ont., native.
Barring injury between now and December’s selection camp in Calgary, Prendergast can still count on having some weapons for his arsenal.
The return of Huberdeau to the Saint John Sea Dogs from the Florida Panthers this week was huge for Canada. Huberdeau, the Memorial Cup MVP, is a difficult player to contain.
“He’s a top-six forward,” Prendergast said. “He does the one thing we’re going to need desperately in this tournament, which is score.”
Huberdeau’s camp linemate Stone started the Western Hockey League season on a tear with five goals and eight assists in his first five games for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Canada will have at least three veterans of the 2011 squad back for 2012. Schwartz, a St. Louis Blues prospect, returned to Colorado College this season and is a candidate to wear the captain’s “C”.
Forward Quinton Howden (Florida) and goaltender Mark Visentin (Phoenix) are back with the Moose Jaw Warriors and Niagara IceDogs respectively. Howden suffered a reported concussion in a Panthers rookie game and hasn’t played a WHL game yet.
Another key player for Canada is defenceman Brandon Gormley, who would have made the 2011 squad if not for a knee injury. Phoenix sent Gormley back to the Moncton Wildcats and that’s a boon for the national junior team. He’ll easily be a top-four defenceman for Canada.
With the advent of the NHL’s salary cap, clubs are tempted to keep younger players because they are cheap labour. For a player drafted this year, for example, his annual salary of $925,000 pand performance bonuses count against the cap of $64.3 million.
The tendency for the NHL to skim off Canada’s best is why Prendergast invited 47 players to summer camp. Twenty-two will be named to the Canadian team.
Prendergast is keeping the NHL players on his depth chart for them. Below them, he subtracted players he didn’t feel performed well at summer camp and is adding those who stand out early in their junior seasons.
Canada isn’t the only country whose junior team is waiting on decisions in the NHL. Switzlerland’s Nino Niederreiter, a Portland Winter Hawk, remains on the New York Islanders’ roster, albeit on the injured list.
U.S. forward Brandon Saad will start the season with the Chicago Blackhawks and defenceman Justin Faulk with the Carolina Hurricanes. Defenceman Adam Larsson (New Jersey) winger Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado) and forward Mika Zibanejad (Ottawa) are eligible to play for Sweden’s junior team.