Coming off a disastrous finish to the 2014 world juniors in Sweden, where a confused defense corps and feckless power play dropped Canada to a fourth-place finish, the Red and White have a big challenge next year. Not only will expectations still be sky-high, but the tourney will be played in the nation's two most pressure-packed hockey markets, Montreal and Toronto.
Yesterday, Hockey Canada tabbed Gatineau Olympiques coach Benoit Groulx as the bench boss for that squad. Groulx, who was an assistant under Brent Sutter in Sweden, has a consistent history with the national team and is known for getting the best out of his players.
One success story is left winger Martin Reway, who played for Slovakia at the world juniors and was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. Reway came to the Olympiques two years ago with a boat load of skill but not much polish. The youngster credited Groulx with ironing his game out by encouraging the winger to make more simple plays and gifting him with big minutes. Along with improving his totals in Gatineau, Reway tied for fifth in world junior scoring with 10 points in five games.
Similarly, scouts who were following 2014 draft prospect Alexis Pepin were very happy when the struggling power forward was dealt from Charlottetown to Gatineau at the Quebec League trade deadline, since the left winger would then be under Groulx's tutelage.
"It's a good place for him," said one NHL scout. "Groulx will make him work."
In the end, Pepin put up 17 points in 23 games for Gatineau; the same total as he had in 37 games with Charlottetown (and he had decent linemates with the Islanders, too).
Canada will play its round robin games in Montreal before heading to Toronto for the medal round. Groulx will undoubtedly be deluged by the local media in Quebec, while in Toronto, the task will be tamping down the hype around Connor McDavid, the phenom center from the Erie Otters who grew up outside of Toronto and played midget for the city's Marlboros team.
McDavid played a minor role for Canada at the 2014 world juniors and coach Sutter was rightly criticized for throwing the youngster into a shootout cold against the Czechs after sitting him for long stretches in the latter stages of the game.
But Hockey Canada's plan all along was for McDavid to simply get his feet wet in Sweden before taking on a bigger role in Canada. Many of the other top forwards from 2014 will likely be in the NHL or too old to compete, from Jonathan Drouin to Anthony Mantha and Scott Laughton. Given the success Josh Morrissey has had in his brief American League run, he might be a Winnipeg Jet next season, leaving only Chris Bigras to return on defense. Zach Fucale can still start in net, while Eric Comrie would be another excellent option.
In other Hockey Canada news, Derek Laxdal will coach the summer under-18 team that goes to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in mid-August. Held in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this tourney is a great draft preview to kick off the season and is usually won by Canada. Laxdal just led the Western League's Edmonton Oil Kings to a Memorial Cup title.