Over the past two weeks in Russia, Hockey Canada’s Olympic braintrust has been involved in a talent evaluation of some of the nation’s best players who aren’t a part of the NHL ranks. Among the group taken to two tournaments — the Sochi Hockey Open and Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov — are former NHLers, career AHLers and a few players who have spent the majority of their pro careers playing their trade across the pond.
And after two weeks and six games spread across eight days, Canadian GM Sean Burke may have been able to pluck some favorites from Canada’s motley crew made up of 31 forwards, 14 defensemen and three goaltenders from a variety of teams and leagues throughout Europe and Asia. So, who stood out?
There may be no Canadian player — offensively, defensively or between the pipes — who had a better showing at either tournament than Mason Raymond. Not that he necessarily needed to, of course, as he was one of the few Canadian players at either tournament who has played and shown effectiveness in the NHL. But Raymond’s showing at the Sochi Hockey Open was enough that he may have already secured his spot at the Olympics.
Raymond, a veteran of 546 NHL contests who skated in four games for the Anaheim Ducks in 2016-17, showed flashes of the offensive ability that allowed him to stick around in the NHL for nearly a decade. His speed was a weapon, but he also showcased playmaking ability with a nice set-up during Canada’s tight tilt against the rival Russian squad and his game-winning goal against Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the bronze medal game was a thing of beauty. Left with time and space behind the net, Raymond did his best Mike Legg impression, scooping the puck up lacrosse-style and depositing it from behind the net.
One of Raymond’s running mates during the tournament, Gilbert Brule, may have also made his case. Brule was the recipient of Raymond’s set-up in the contest against Russia and added an assist in the bronze medal game against Magnitogorsk, setting up Raymond for the game’s opening goal. Brule, who has 299 games NHL experience, also drew good reviews from coach Willie Desjardins.
The biggest surprise among the cast at either tournament may have been Taylor Beck. Splitting time between the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors and Hartford Wolf Pack in 2016-17, Beck was a point-per-game player and brought that production over to the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov. He dotted the scoresheet in the opening game of the tournament, scoring twice, including a power play goal, and finishing with three points in Canada’s 5-1 win over Sochi.
Other notables who will draw attention come February could be Brandon Kozun — who broke out in the KHL last season — Ryan Garbutt, Andrew Ebbett, Justin Azevedo, Sean Collins and Andrew Gordon. Veteran Derek Roy also played well, picking up two assists last week.
Both tournaments featured a number of rearguards who are recent NHL castoffs, including Cam Barker and Carlo Colaiacovo, but the most obvious standouts were those who have spent the past several seasons playing on the big ice.
Offensively, Mat Robinson was the leader among all Canadian defensemen at either tournament. The diminutive defender — he stands 5-foot-10, 185 pounds — came into the two Russian tournaments having spent the past four seasons of his career in the KHL and his ability to be productive against that level of competition was evident. In three games, Robinson found the scoresheet twice with a goal and an assist. And even if he didn’t turn heads, Robinson’s recent history with the Canadian national team, suiting up and scoring three points in three games at the 2016 Deutschland Cup, may give him a leg up.
Robinson was the defensive leader at the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov, though, while the first set of defensemen at the Sochi Hockey Open were led by the duo of Chay Genoway and Maxim Noreau. Genoway, who played at the Deutschland and Spengler Cup last season, used his speed to his advantage, while Noreau was able to get on the board with a goal against Russia in the group stage in Sochi.
Much like Robinson and Genoway, Noreau’s history with Team Canada could make him an enticing selection come February, too. Noreau has suited up in three Spengler Cups — 2012, 2013 and 2016 — and has been part of the leadership group in the past two tournaments. In 2013, he was an alternate, but took on the captaincy at the 2016 tournament, leading Canada to a gold medal and earning a tournament all-star team nod.
In terms of production, the other standouts were Jesse Blacker, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Shawn Lalonde, who each had a point in the tournament.
For the two tournaments, Hockey Canada brought along three goaltenders: Justin Peters, Ben Scrivens and Kevin Poulin, who was the lone netminder to compete in both tournaments. However, despite getting the nod at both tournaments, it may be Poulin that’s going to have the most uphill battle to earn his spot on the team.
In the two games Poulin played, he allowed four goals against on 39 shots, though three of those goals came in the spirited affair against Russia’s own version of a ragtag national team. In that contest, one that decided whether Canada would play for gold in Sochi, Poulin was beaten three times on 22 shots and it could be argued that one or two of the goals against were ones Poulin would like back. He was beaten five-hole twice from the low slot, the second of which came on a broken play where Poulin was slow to react, and the third goal against came off of a power play one-timer from the high slot after Canada had tied the contest.
And even though Poulin’s overall play — 35 saves on 39 shots in 119 minutes of action — isn’t downright awful, it’s going to be tough for him to outshine the play of his fellow netminders.
Peters, signed by the KHL’s Dinamo Riga this summer, was the likely standout of the group, stopping all but one of the 36 shots he faced in two games. In Canada’s first game in Sochi, Peters stopped all 23 shots he faced in an overtime victory over the KHL hosts, and in a bronze medal contest against Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Peters was near perfect again. The lone goal against came on a blueline blast during a Metallurg power play as Canada went on to a 3-1 victory. Peters has 83 games NHL experience as a backup with the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals and Arizona Coyotes, with whom he spent the 2016-17 season.
As for Scrivens, who has 144 NHL games under his belt, he stood up to both of his tasks well. Arguably given the toughest task of the two tournaments, Scrivens managed to stop 22 of 24 shots from a powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg squad that featured Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, among other former NHLers. Scrivens then backstopped Canada to bronze against SKA Neva, St. Petersburg’s farm team, stopping every shot he faced en route to a 4-0 victory.
Canada will next hit the ice in a one-off tuneup against the Swiss national team on Nov. 8 before taking part in the Karjala Cup in Helsinki, from Nov. 9-12. One month later, Canada will take the ice for the Channel One Cup in Moscow, which runs from Dec. 12-17, and take a week off before participating in the Spengler Cup from Dec. 25-31. Rosters for the three tournaments and tuneup game have not yet been announced.
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