OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – The key to a Canadian gold medal was always going to be about difference-makers. The squad is blessed with depth every year, but some teams – like last year’s entry – don’t get big individual performances at the right times. Left winger and top 2020 NHL draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere has that skill written in his DNA, but unfortunately he's banged up right now with a knee injury and Canada can’t assume he’s going to be there in the next couple days as the world junior playoff round begins.
One player that could fit that bill? Nolan Foote. The Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder had a booming goal for Canada early in what turned out to be a 7-2 romp over the host Czechs on New Year’s Eve and his ability to score will become crucial now that the games will be tightening up.
“As much as I can, I want to step up big,” Foote, a right winger, said. “When that opportunity is there, you want to definitely take it. We’re all connecting right now.”
The son of retired star NHL defenseman Adam Foote and younger brother of fellow Tampa Bay prospect Cal Foote, Nolan is the only forward of the three, but having like-minded family members helped develop the right winger’s most lethal skill - that cannon from the point.
“Lots of shots in the backyard,” Foote said. “I always worked on it with Cal and my dad. Cal and I would pass one-timers to each other and it’s always been a thing I’ve loved working on. We had a rink set up our last years living in Denver before moving to Kelowna and it was perfect.”
Foote currently stars for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL, the Memorial Cup hosts and a dangerous side in the B.C. Division. Team Canada goalie Joel Hofer plays in the WHL for Portland and lucky for him, the Winterhawks play in the U.S. Division - minimizing the visits from Foote.
“I only see him four times a year,” Hofer said. “Which is good.”
Surely Foote at least takes a little something off his shot when Canada is practising though, right?
“No, no, not at all,” Hofer said. “And I don’t want him to take it off. Going into the game, not many people can shoot it like him. If I can stop his shot in practice, I think I’ll be alright. But most times he comes out on the higher end.”
And according to Foote’s WJC center, it’s not just about the release itself.
“His shot is world-class, but the underrated thing is how he finds lanes and gets open,” said Arizona Coyotes rookie Barrett Hayton. “And he gets it off quick.”
Offense wasn’t a problem against the Czechs and it wasn’t an issue the game before against Germany. And it would be easy to dismiss Slovakia as a cupcake opponent for the quarterfinal, as that side has very little high-end skill or depth. But they play the games for a reason and Slovakia does have a netminder who can steal games in Samuel Hlavaj, who plays in the QMJHL for Sherbrooke.
So putting away Slovakia early under a blanket of goals would make for a much less nervous night for Canada - you never want an underdog hanging around in a single-elimination game, after all. Foote can bury teams on a power play and luckily for Canada, he’s not alone. Detroit Red Wings prospect Joe Veleno got his first goal of this year’s tourney in the game against the Czechs, as did big Buffalo Sabres pick Dylan Cozens. And who knows? Maybe Canada will get a medal-round miracle from Lafreniere.
As long as someone is scoring, Canada will be in a position to get another crack at Russia in the semifinal, assuming the Russians can douse the Swiss in their quarterfinal matchup. Canada was dealt a humiliating 6-0 loss in the round robin by Russia and while Hayton tried to play diplomat, Foote didn’t sidestep the tantalizing idea of a rematch.
“It would be awesome to play them again and get revenge,” he said.
Canada will definitely need its guns blazing in that potential semifinal showdown and Foote would be a top candidate to make it happen. But first, they need to take care of Slovakia.
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