Canada is coming off its worst World Junior Championship performance in nearly two decades after finishing sixth in Helsinki last year. True, the Canucks had to play the sizzling hosts in the quarterfinal, but had Canada not dropped two of four games in the round-robin, its first elimination match would have been against a more favorable opponent. Coaching and strategy under Dave Lowry were weaknesses, and in retrospect, it’s hard to explain why Travis Konecny and Anthony Beauvillier – both of whom made their respective NHL teams out of camp this year – had such minor roles on a team that could have used more spirit and jam, especially since both players can put up points, too.
But the past is the past. This is Dominique Ducharme’s team now. The QMJHL Drummondville bench boss was an assistant with Canada last year, but the tournament became a bittersweet affair for the past Memorial Cup champ when his father passed away during the proceedings. So far, he has shown a cool head and an ability to mitigate the media’s handwringing surrounding the team – which lost all three games in a summer exhibition tournament against Sweden, Finland and the United States in Plymouth, Mich. The challenge of putting together a winning roster seems particularly difficult this season, with so many eligible stars killing it in the NHL. Despite Hockey Canada’s tendency of pushing NHL squads to release players when the tournament is on home ice, some arguments (Mitch Marner from the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example) probably aren’t even worth starting.
Based on the round-robin draw, Canada will have two very difficult games, starting with its opener against archrival Russia. If the United States can ruin the Canucks’ New Year’s Eve, then the home side will once again be faced with a tough quarterfinal opponent in the crossover. So clicking right away is imperative for a team that has medalled just once in the past four tournaments. That, of course, was a gold medal in Toronto two years ago – but Connor McDavid is not walking through that dressing room door again.
The best news for Canada is Dylan Strome will be available. Now back with the OHL’s Erie Otters, the Arizona prospect will have every bit of motivation to ragdoll this tournament with his size and skill. At 19, he should dominate whenever he is on the ice. Matt Barzal, who got into two games with the New York Islanders, will be another key returnee, and his elite playmaking ability will be an asset. That’s a great 1-2 punch down the middle. Pierre-Luc Dubois struggled in his return to the QMJHL after Columbus shocked the world by drafting him third overall this summer, but he was beginning to round into form by mid-November. Most importantly, Dubois found chemistry with big, scoring winger Julien Gauthier (Carolina) at the CHL-Russia series, and if those two ‘Q’ stars can get on the same page, they’ve got the size and talent to overwhelm the enemy. Another important alum from last year’s team is Mitchell Stephens. The Tampa Bay pick captained the OHL in the CHL-Russia series and showed off the skill and determination that makes him a natural leader. Like Konecny and Beauvillier, Stephens was criminally underused in Helsinki, but that will not be the case again.
As per usual, Canada will blend aggressiveness and skill up front. Some years, it bowls countries over with its physicality. In other tournaments, the Canucks get into penalty trouble when their hits become too loud for the international officials. Tampa Bay prospect Mathieu Joseph could be a huge difference maker in that respect. Along with being an excellent goal scorer for QMJHL Saint John, Joseph is also a verifiable shift disturber who takes the body with force.
This will not be a bruising blueline, but that’s not a prerequisite for success. What Canada will have is an excellent array of mobile puck movers, headlined by Saint John’s Thomas Chabot. He was with Canada last year but returns with NHL experience thanks to an opening stint with the Ottawa Senators. He only got into one game with the Sens, but his return to the ‘Q’ was sizzling right from the start, as the two-way threat posted eight points in his first four games. Right behind Chabot is Carolina first-rounder Jake Bean, a smart and offensively dangerous player with WHL Calgary. Bean missed some of the season due to a broken finger, but he had plenty of time to get up to speed. Other big names to keep in mind include Montreal pick Noah Juulsen (who does have some bite and size to his game) and Nashville first-rounder Dante Fabbro. While Hockey Canada favors the CHL over the NCAA, Fabbro’s early defensive work at Boston University is too hard to ignore – and he has played internationally for his country many times already.
It’s been the biggest point of contention for Canada lately, and while there are some favorites, keep an open mind when it comes to the candidates – because history has shown Canada needs more than one netminder in this tournament (sometimes during the same game). Philadelphia pick Carter Hart has the best pedigree, and his numbers with WHL Everett back that up. He repelled the Russians in Game 2 of the CHL-Russia series, stopping 33 of 34 shots for a big WHL victory. That helps erase the beating he took at the hands of Sweden during the summer exhibition tournament. Joining Hart is Tampa pick Connor Ingram, who actually went undrafted his first year of eligibility. Like Hart, Ingram has just OK size, but he gets the job done out west with Kamloops.