The World Junior Summer Showcase has kicked off in Kamloops, B.C., with Canada, Team USA, Sweden and Finland all getting their bearings by playing some competitive hockey in August. All of this leads up to the 2019 world juniors in Vancouver and Victoria and Canada gets the honor of defending gold on home ice.
If the Canadians want a repeat, they will have to get great goaltending – and if the Americans want revenge for watching the Canucks take gold in Buffalo, they’ll need a standout too.
Goalie development has been sub-par in Canada for years. The world juniors used to be a tourney where the nation’s netminder often stole gold for the squad, but results have been much more mixed recently. The exception to the rule is Philadelphia Flyers prospect Carter Hart, who was very much integral in last year’s gold-medal win and probably would have been named all-star goalie if voting occurred after the gold medal game.
As it is, votes are due by the first intermission, since ballots need to be tabulated. Personally, I voted for Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson because Canada had a much easier path to the final, but obviously I would have voted Hart based on the final result because he was strong in the golden showdown and truly had no weak performances.
This year, Canada invited four netminders to Kamloops and if I’m laying early favorites, I’m going with Michael DiPietro (Vancouver) as my starter and Matt Villalta (Los Angeles) as the very capable backup. Olivier Rodrigue (Edmonton) could certainly make a case for himself, while undrafted Matthew Welsh seems to be the stalking horse.
At first blush, the size of the crew is a little troubling, as only Villalta is tall at 6-foot-3. Welsh is just 5-foot-11, while DiPietro and Rodrigue are listed around six feet and 6-foot-1, respectively. Now, I’m going against my own bias here in picking DiPietro, but he has never been held back by his size before. His athleticism and battle level help him overcome a lack of frame and the fact he has succeeded in the pressure cooker before gives me faith. After all, at 17 he helped the Windsor Spitfires win the Memorial Cup on home ice and he was incredible in the final against Erie. The Otters came at him with names like Dylan Strome, Taylor Raddysh and Alex DeBrincat and ultimately, it didn’t matter. DiPietro was the showstopper.
For the past two years, DiPietro has been a shutout machine for the Spitfires, breaking his own record this past year with seven after tallying six the year prior. Since much of the Memorial Cup talent left in 2017, he had to be great this past year and he was. Based on his personality and talent, I don’t see why he can’t replicate his greatness at the world juniors.
In Villalta, Canada has another ace, one who helped Sault Ste. Marie run roughshod over the OHL in the regular season before falling in the playoff final to a very sturdy Hamilton squad. Villalta will be on another strong Hounds team this year, but his body of work proves he is no passenger, either.
As for the Americans, they are blessed with size. Kyle Keyser (Boston) is the shortest at 6-foot-2, while Keith Petruzzelli (Detroit) is 6-foot-5 and Cayden Primeau (Montreal) is 6-foot-3. I like Primeau right now, based off his amazing freshman season with Northeastern University. His game really came together on the Huskies and he’ll get plenty of starts for them in 2018-19. Petruzzelli really struggled in his first year at Quinnipiac, but if he can settle down, he certainly has the frame to be impenetrable.
What I would love to see however, is Spencer Knight get the second spot behind Primeau. Knight is a 2019 draft prospect playing with the U.S. NTDP and one of the top goalie products to come out of America in years. He’s got size at 6-foot-3 and a ton of talent. He could be the starter for two more world junior tourneys after 2019 and that sort of security would be a blessing for Team USA, where the netminding pipeline has been very fruitful in recent years.
The North American teams should always be in the mix for gold at the world juniors, but with Sweden, Finland and Russia lurking in the brackets, nothing can be taken for granted. Goaltending can raise you up at the world juniors or it can sink you. It’s only August, but the wheels must already be turning for the brass of Team USA and Canada in this regard.