Canada revealed its world junior camp roster Thursday and one of the tourney favorites may get even deeper if everything breaks their way. Chicago Blackhawks center Kirby Dach was a late add to the camp squad, while Hockey Canada is still holding out hope that 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere could join him.
If the NHL returns on Jan. 1 as currently planned, Dach would go back to Chicago - but with so much up in the air right now, it would not be surprising if an NHL delay allowed Dach to compete with Canada in the world juniors, which will be held in Edmonton with games beginning Christmas Day. As for Lafreniere, he's a bit more of a long shot. The MVP of last year's tournament with gold-medal Canada, Lafreniere is naturally working towards a roster spot with the Rangers after New York selected him first overall this year. But Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney is going to circle back with Rangers GM Jeff Gorton in 10 days to see if Lafreniere might be made available for the tournament.
Canada's camp begins Nov. 16 in Red Deer and it will be a long one, due to the pandemic and its impact on the hockey world. The 51-day camp will give the team's brain trust time to evaluate players, many of which have not played real games since March. Only players from the QMJHL have played games in the 2020-21 season so far, meaning evaluation will have to be done at camp rather than before it this time. Intersquad games will help that process and first cuts are scheduled to happen in the first week-to-10-days, according to Scott Salmond, senior VP of national teams.
That early cut deadline is actually quite fair for QMJHL hopefuls and kids from the NCAA ranks, where many conferences are aiming for a mid-November start to the college season. Invitees such as Michigan freshman Owen Power (2021 draft), Boston College's Alex Newhook (COL), Wisconsin's Dylan Holloway (EDM) and Northeastern goalie Devon Levi (FLA) would all miss the first games of their NCAA seasons, but at least they'd be safe in the bubble and, should they fall short of the roster, perhaps they don't miss too many games.
As for the roster itself, the biggest question comes in net. The competition is wide open, as Canada doesn't have an obvious blue-chip starter in the Carter Hart mould. For the most part, Canada's forwards and defense are good enough to cover up for so-so netminding, but obviously the hope is that a couple kids turn into this year's version of Nico Daws (NJ) and Joel Hofer (STL), the surprise tandem that helped Canada win gold in Ostrava last year.
Speaking of those skaters, it's an impressive bunch. If everything goes right, Canada could trot out a top line of Lafreniere, Dach and Dylan Cozens (BUF), with Newhook, Connor McMichael (WSH) and Phil Tomasino (NSH) behind them. Oh, and Quinton Byfield (LA) and Dawson Mercer (NJ) behind them, if you can believe it. As per usual, Canada will have way more natural centers than necessary, so there will be some players moved to the wing.
On defense, returnees Bowen Byram (COL) and Jamie Drysdale (ANA) lead the way, while Hockey Canada faves such as Braden Schneider (NYR) and Justin Barron (COL) could very well join them. Thomas Harley (DAL) should be there and whatever the mix, this will be a mobile unit that can also shut down the opposition.
The most intriguing name on the roster is also the youngest: center Shane Wright of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs. The 16-year-old, who joined the OHL a year early thanks to an Exceptional Status designation, was the OHL and CHL's rookie of the year and now he'll get a chance to at least train and compete against elite, older peers. Why was it important for Canada to invite him?
"It's important because he's a hell of a player," said Team Canada coach Andre Tourigny. "As the coach of the Ottawa 67's, I've played a lot against him with Kingston and I don't know if I love him or hate him when he's in that yellow jersey. Every time I saw him, every game, he got better."
It's going to be a very different camp and the whole world junior process is going to be a mental grind for this group of teenagers (and the adult coaches and staff for that matter). To that end, the team will have sports psychologist Ryan Hamilton on board to help with that aspect of bubble life. Hamilton recently fulfilled the same role with the Tampa Bay Lightning en route to their Stanley Cup victory in Edmonton.
In terms of motivation however, that won't be a problem.
"I'm dying to go back to the rink and the players are the same," Tourigny said. "They are excited, they're ready to go. When you can't do what you love to do every day, you realize how much you miss it."