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Canada's role players continue to be willing to do what it takes in pursuit of world juniors gold

With minutes hard to come by on a talented Canadian roster, a few major junior standouts have been asked to take on secondary roles at the World Junior Championship. Accepting their new duties and contributing when they can has been key to Canada's gold-medal chase.
Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – One of Canada’s greatest advantages at the world juniors is depth and this year is no exception. Two of the top scorers in the OHL – Connor McMichael and Quinton Byfield – were technically bottom-sixers in the team’s quarterfinal romp over Slovakia and Byfield, a top prospect for the 2020 draft, has played a minimal role during the tourney to date.

But balancing the egos of major junior stars is part of the coach’s job with Canada, and this year, Dale Hunter has been up to the task.

“It’s been good,” Hunter said. “They’re representing Team Canada here and they’re all buying in. They want to win. Everybody has to play different roles – maybe not on the power play, but maybe you’re penalty-killing or playing on an energy line. Everybody has to contribute.”

McMichael plays for Hunter with the London Knights. Back home, the Washington Capitals first-rounder is used to playing big minutes in all situations. Here in Ostrava, the ice time is carved up a lot more.

“Sometimes it’s tough, sitting on the bench,” McMichael said. “You have to keep yourself in the game. But you’re always ready and I was thankful to get the opportunity. You just go out and give it your all. When you’re out there, you want to prove you deserve more ice.”

Against Slovakia, McMichael did some nice work for the victorious Canadians, scoring what would turn out to be the game-winning goal on one of his patented laser releases.

“I like to think I have a deceptive shot,” he said. “I try to fool them, look one way and shoot the other.”

While McMichael has already had a successful tournament, it’s wild to think that he is also eligible to play in next year’s world juniors. Given how deep the Capitals are at forward, McMichael will really have to turn heads at NHL training camp next summer to warrant a roster spot. Otherwise, Team Canada would get a crazy-talented and now experienced forward back in the fold.

The same can be said for Jamie Drysdale. The best defenseman available in the 2020 draft class, Drysdale earned a surprise slot on the team thanks to his play at December training camp in Oakville. But he’s also the youngest on Canada’s back end, so he’s been the seventh man. Nevertheless, Drysdale’s elite skating has helped him play solidly on the big, international ice and even if he’s not logging the major minutes he gets with the OHL’s Erie Otters, the kid is having a blast.

“I’m just having a good time,” Drysdale said. “It’s so awesome to be here and be surrounded by these kinds of players and this staff. I’m having fun, doing what I can when I’m out there and I’m happy with my role. It’s the world juniors; you don’t get to do this every day, so I’m enjoying it.”

Drysdale actually played decent minutes against Slovakia and was rewarded with some 4-on-4 time in the second period. In the past two games, youngsters such as Drysdale, Byfield and Dawson Mercer (another 2020 prospect who leapt over older players for a roster spot) have been getting more ice time at the end, while Canada has been up by a substantial amount. Getting confidence from the coaches just breeds more confidence in the kids.

“You know what to do,” Drysdale said. “You practise so much it’s not as much thinking as going out and playing. You know you’re here for a reason and you do what you can out there.”

And the messaging from the coaching staff has been clear. While players may be taking on smaller roles than they are used to, they aren’t being forced into a different style, which also gives a youngster like Drysdale confidence.

“They said ‘Keep it steady, don’t force things. We took you for you, don’t change your game,’ he said. “That’s been the message.”

Canada is through to the semifinal and though the road to gold is tough, having every player on the same page makes things a lot easier.

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