With only four players returning from last year’s gold-medal winning team, Canada will pins its hopes on a squad of 18-year-olds.
Canada | Group A | Roster | THN odds to win: 3:1 If the crop of elite hockey players born in 1996 were a vintage, it wouldn’t find its way into the collections of too many high-end wine connoisseurs. And that is the case worldwide, not just in Canada. With that in mind, much of the core of Canada’s 2016 World Junior Championship team will be comprised of 1997-born players, those who have turned 18 in the past calendar year and were selected in last June’s NHL draft. And while conventional wisdom has suggested that the WJC is beyond the depth of most 18-year-old players, Canada and much of the world will have to turn that notion on its ear in 2016.
Likely with only four returnees on the roster in right winger Jake Virtanen, center Brayden Point, left winger Lawson Crouse and defenseman Joe Hicketts, Canada will rely more on hunger than experience in its quest to repeat the championship it won on home ice in 2015. Canada will have to do without five teenagers in the NHL – Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett, Robby Fabbri, and Jared McCann – but any country with the resources and depth Canada has will not be receiving any sympathy cards from its competitors. And the Americans will feel Canada’s pain without Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin and Dylan Larkin. The only other returnee from last season will be coach Dave Lowry, who was behind the bench as an assistant to Benoit Groulx in 2015. Martin Raymond, who was also an assistant to Groulx, returns as an assistant to Lowry. It will be up to the coaching staff to set an early tempo and establish an identity for the team, one that will be marked by its ability to not only be dogged on the puck but to move it quickly into scoring areas. Its defense will be one that will not hesitate to jump into the play and create a second wave of offense. Canada is, and always will be, among the gold medal contenders in this tournament, but how the team develops its identity and comes together will dictate its fortunes at this year’s world juniors as much as its talent level will. Here’s how Canada looks in each key area:
OFFENSE There was a time when Canada won this tournament almost exclusively on the strength of defense and goaltending, but those teams have been replaced with high-octane squads that can create offense with the best players in the world. And this year’s team will be no different. Not that it will score its way out of trouble all the time, but if there is one calling card on this team, it will be its ability to dazzle and create. Point, who was leading the WHL in scoring through the first quarter of the season, will take a leadership role in terms of both on-ice production and setting an example after playing in last year’s tourney. He and Dylan Strome will likely form Canada’s 1-2 punch at center, and while Point was scoring at a goal-per-game pace this season, both are known more as playmakers than goal scorers. That will be up to the likes of Mitch Marner and Matt Barzal. Crouse, another 1997-born player, will likely wear a letter. And while his offensive production should be limited, he’ll be a force along the boards and on the forecheck, which will create plenty of chances for his linemates. It should be remembered that both the Hartwall Arena and Helsinki Ice Hall are hybrid rinks, which mean they measure 200-by-92.5 feet, smaller than most international rinks but wider than NHL ice surfaces.
DEFENSE It’s not that defense will be a weak link on this roster, but when you look at the candidates there isn’t a huge standout such as Darnell Nurse, Madison Bowey or Shea Theodore, who were the lynchpins of last year’s D-corps. The blueline, though, will be a formidable one, led by Hicketts, the undrafted free agent who was signed by the Detroit Red Wings and will be the only returnee on the blueline. If you’re looking for someone to replace Nurse, who was Canada’s best player in the gold medal game against Russia in 2015, that player just might be Haydn Fleury, a highly touted Carolina Hurricanes prospect. He has continued to grow as an offensive producer this season for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels. If Canada has a replacement for Theodore, it will likely be Travis Sanheim, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect who thinks the game at a high level and plays with a lot of poise. Sanheim and Hicketts are dynamic offensive defensemen who will be required to jump into the play in both the neutral and offensive zones. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Travis Dermott will also help in this regard.
GOALTENDING Delivering a gold medal for Canada can sometimes be a tall order, but that should be no problem for the probable tandem of Mackenzie Blackwood and Mason McDonald, each of whom stands 6-foot-4. Of the two, Blackwood was enjoying a much better season early in 2015-16. A classic butterfly goaltender, he also displays a good amount of athleticism. However, Blackwood was suspended for an incident in the OHL which will carry over to the first two games of the world juniors. Blackwood would have the inside track on the No. 1 job if not for McDonald’s pedigree. McDonald was outstanding for Canada two years ago at the under-18 World Championship in Russia, registering a .930 save percentage as Canada won the bronze medal. In the third-place game, he stopped 38 of 39 shots Sweden fired his way. Given Canada’s offensive ability, its goaltending won’t have to be the lights-out variety that steals a medal, but it will have to stand tall and be solid and, most importantly, not crumble under the pressure that faces this team every year.