It’s funny how a couple years ago there was a lot of hand-wringing in Canada about the lack of elite skill players coming out of the Great White North. Looking at this year’s roster for the World Junior Championship, it seems Canada is a factory for top-shelf talent.
Led by points machine John Tavares, Canada’s forward corps doesn’t boast a single player taller than 6-foot-1 or heavier than 203 pounds – and the 6-foot Tavares is the one who weighs 203 pounds. Jordan Eberle, Edmonton’s first pick (22nd overall) in 2008 and one of the more impressive players at camp, comes in at 5-foot-10. Buffalo first-rounder Tyler Ennis (26th overall in ’08) is like an even smaller version of Eberle at 5-foot-8; tons of skill and the ability to survive in the rugged Western League, but not one to knock an opponent’s head off.
In past years, Canada could always count on at least a couple power forwards to put the hurt on the opposing defense. Last time, there was Colton Gillies and Shawn Matthias, both 6-foot-4 and solidly built. Matthias, in fact, has been credited for hounding Swedish blueline giant Victor Hedman off his game in 2008.
Back in 2005, the Canucks trotted out Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry and Andrew Ladd – all 6-foot-3 future NHLers.
“Canadian hockey usually has players who can take the body and we’ll certainly ask the team to finish their checks,” coach Pat Quinn told me, before noting, “listening to our scouts, we have a different set of skills than in the past.”
Even the defense, while not small, is certainly calibrated for goals. True, defensive-minded behemoths Tyler Myers (6-foot-7) and Keith Aulie (6-foot-6) are there, but the only 2009 draft-eligible player who made the cut other than Tavares is 5-foot-10 Ryan Ellis, whose stat line reads an unreal 48 points in 30 games.
Thomas Hickey, one of only four returning players from last year’s gold medal team (Tavares, Zach Boychuk and P.K. Subban are the others), will be the captain of the squad and once again, it’s the Los Angeles prospect’s offensive acumen and power play quarterbacking ability that make him special.
How will this roster translate on the ice? It will be intriguing. Sweden certainly has the horses to take the gold away from Canada and talents such as Hedman, Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, Marcus Johansson and Jacob Josefson are all potential first-rounders in this summer’s draft, with Hedman and MSP top-5 material.
The Russians will have Nikita Filatov, who has already played NHL and American League hockey this year, plus major junior stars such as Evgeny Grachev and Dmitri Kugryshev, who have thrived on the smaller ice surfaces of Canada.
But the real test will be the Americans, whom Canada will face in the round robin. Maple Leafs prospect Jimmy Hayes and Nashville first-rounder Colin Wilson are both workout kings, while James van Riemsdyk (second overall to Philadelphia in 2007) is rounding into a prototypical power forward at the University of New Hampshire.
With a full complement of major junior players – the 6-foot-3 Eric Tangradi is having a huge year for Belleville of the Ontario League – the U.S. knows Canada’s roster well and have never shied away from Canuck contact anyway.
Should Canada navigate that gauntlet to a fifth straight gold medal, it will certainly be earned with quick wrists and skates, not necessarily shoulders and hip checks.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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