Well, the worst-case scenario happened.
The debate as to whether NHL-quality players should participate in the World Junior Championship is a heated one each year. That didn't change this year, even with the pandemic knocking most North American leagues out of action. While some teams elected to keep their star prospects home, Chicago Blackhawks forward Kirby Dach was forced to leave Canada's exhibition contest against Russia on Wednesday evening. On Thursday, TSN's Bob McKenzie reporting that Canada's captain would be forced to miss the rest of the tournament - and even a bit of NHL time, too.
Blackhawks fans have every reason to be upset. Dach is a full-time NHLer. Once the season resumes, Dach will be back where he was last season, trying to carve out a role in the middle-six as the Hawks look to build off of their playoff momentum.
But Dach truly wanted to play for his country. This would have been his first World Junior Championship appearance, and after not playing much since March, the experience would have been a positive. Unlike New York Rangers prospect Alexis Lafreniere, who already has two appearances and a gold and an MVP title to his credit, Dach never got the same chance after making Chicago out of camp last year. When the opportunity arose for a rare shot to participate, Dach had his agent contact Hockey Canada and request a chance to play. Canada had its captain and its star player. For all parties involved, it was a success.
Had Dach not got injured, we could have been talking about a player coming off an MVP-performance, a gold medal around his neck and the confidence to perform at a high level after an extended break away from game action. Instead, Dach will get none of that, other than some game action in intrasquad contests and half a battle against Russia - and, more importantly to his actual employer, missing a portion of the NHL season.
Dach and the Blackhawks clearly saw a benefit to having him playing for a championship over skating alone for a few weeks before catching up with his teammates. Dach is a lock to make Chicago, so it's not like he's a rookie or an outsider looking such as Lafreniere or Toronto's Nicholas Robertson, two players who decided to stay home this Christmas. I commend that - this tournament means so much for so many players and I always value actual game time over practice. On the surface, and I stick to it still today, the positives of playing in an event like this given the circumstances outweighs the negatives. It's just a bummer that the negative side won.
Dach should have a long NHL career. He won't have another shot at winning the World Junior Championship. It's not the top prize in hockey, but it's still something these kids cherish. That opportunity doesn't exist anymore.
Still, Hawks fans have absolutely every reason to be ticked off. It's a shame it had to happen this way, for all involved. And then there's Lukas Reichel (Germany) and Drew Commesso and Alex Vlasic (USA), who already were forced to miss the tournament after being deemed unfit to play, and this tournament has been rough for Chicago's fanbase.
But if you're Canadian, you can at least feel solace in your team's depth. Canada's lines are always a subject of debate when you throw 20-plus of the best junior prospects in the nation together, forcing players to play outside of their comfort zone in an effort to build the best lineup possible. During Canada's exhibition game, two names stood out: Quinton Byfield and Philip Tomasino - the former because of how good he played on the fourth line, and the latter for being the lone forward sitting out.
Each time Byfield hit the ice, he was noticeable. Whether it was his more varied physical presence or his ability to retrieve pucks at a consistent rate, Byfield made the most of his opportunity and Andre Tourigny praised him for that after the game. Byfield is too good to be playing a bottom-line role and he has experience playing the wing at this tournament last year and during training camp. If needed, Byfield can lineup beside Dylan Cozens and create a pure force that no defense will want to stop. You can really fit Byfield anywhere in the lineup and feel confident
And then there's Tomasino, the lone scratch from Wednesday's bout. You know the team's loaded when they can sit a player who had 100 points in 62 games a year after getting drafted - just think of what he could have done in Oshawa this season. Tomasino could join the Nashville Predators after the tournament as part of the club's taxi squad, but right now, the focus is on giving him every opportunity to succeed. Tomasino finished second at Canada's training camp with six points in four intrasquad games, so it's not like he struggled - Canada just has enough scoring depth to go around.
At a tournament like this, the forwards need to be flexible. Maybe it means Cole Perfetti shifts from the left side to the right and adds some extra scoring to a top line that already features 50-goal OHLer Jack Quinn. Or maybe renowned playmaker Connor Zary finds his way up there after an impressive camp. What about Peyton Krebs, who seems to be one of the most underrated prospects on the entire team after returning from injury to record 60 points in just 38 games?
Canada is still considered one of the best teams in the tournament, and with an abundance of talent throughout the lineup, the Canadians can afford to move on from someone they likely didn't expect to get in the first place. But it's a shame, from a personal standpoint for Dach and for fans everywhere, that we won't get a chance to see a top player from the 2001 age group get a chance to win something that clearly meat something to him. Dach's skill would have upped the quality of play, and even if you're not Canadian, you want to see the best of the best.
But don't be too disappointed, Canadian fans: the team is still in good shape.