By CHRIS PERELLI
There’s no doubt that Canada will be a favourite to win the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships, but based on previous efforts, they certainly aren’t a lock to win.
Every year, Canada sends some of the best players in the world to this tournament and, on paper, should blow away the competition. However, since their World Junior dominance from 2005-2009 that saw them win five straight gold medals, Canada has only medaled three times in the last five years. This includes two straight years in which they did not medal. In 2013 they blew a third-period lead to Russia in the bronze-medal game and last year, in their least valiant effort in the last 10 years, lost a lopsided game to Finland in the semi-finals.
Once again, Canada’s roster looks poised to dominate the round-robin portion of the tournament. With top National Hockey League (NHL) draft picks like Michael Dal Colle, Max Domi, and Jake Virtanen headlining the veteran presence, Canada far exceeds the speed and skill of any other nation at the tournament.
Aside from their depth, there are a few question marks surrounding this squad, one of the biggest being the health of Connor McDavid, who broke his hand in a fight in late October. He is questionable to return to any action prior to the tournament. McDavid, prior to his injury, was scoring at a higher rate than Sidney Crosby in his draft year and is projected to not only go first overall in the 2015 NHL draft, but to be an NHL superstar with the likes of Crosby.
Fortunately, the injury isn’t as severe as a torn ligament or a concussion, meaning that once the hand heals there are very minor lingering issues post-injury. The only issue with McDavid’s return will be his transition back to a high level of hockey. With such a short tournament, there is no grace period for McDavid to work his game back. There may be a few minor setbacks in his game, especially since the injury has halted his off-ice workouts. There’s one thing certain with McDavid and that is that he will be heavily leaned upon in every situation on the ice.
One thing missing from previous Canadian teams is the balance of offence and defence in the forward group. Shown heavily in 2013 during their third-period collapse in the bronze medal game, Canada has not been able to grind out victories against hard working teams.
The 2015 roster looks to have addressed that need. Leading the way defensively will be Toronto’s 2013 first round draft-pick Fredrik Gauthier. The six-foot-five, 220-pound centre is no offensive weapon, as he recorded only seven points this season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). However, his game has evolved into an “NHL ready” game. He has absolutely dominated the face-off circle and is responsible in his own end. His priority on the 2015 WJC roster will be defensive-zone draws and assisting with the penalty-kill and protecting leads.
Canada will once again face the issue of their top camp invites making NHL rosters. Last year, team Canada took a major hit with Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan, Morgan Rielly and Griffin Reinhart all playing for their NHL teams. This year, they’re losing pivotal parts of their roster with Johnathan Drouin, Aaron Ekblad and Bo Horvat making their respective teams. The eligibility of Curtis Lazar, Anthony Duclair and Sam Bennett is uncertain, as their teams are undecided as to whether they will release these players for the tournament.
The biggest question mark of all, which started for me the year they took Olivier Roy over Calvin Pickard, is their goaltending. For years, Canada pumped out some of the best goalies in the NHL, but since Carey Price in 2007, Canada has yet to have a dominating force in goal.
This year, Zach Fucale will return as the starting goalie with Winnipeg Jets draft pick Eric Comrie backing him up. Fucale, who puts up great numbers with Halifax of the QMJHL, was a considerable “dud” last year at the tournament. The knock on Fucale is he appears to be sheltered by a strong team in Halifax and has yet to strive when tested.
The goaltending prowess nationally is held currently by Finland who continually brings dominant goalies to the tournament, much like the goalie factory that Quebec was not too long ago. In order for Fucale to have success in this tournament, he will have to prove that he is maturing and developing at a good pace. No one would be happier than Canada and the Montreal Canadiens if he showed large strides this year.
On defence, this team has taken a major hit with Ekblad making the Florida Panthers. With their only real dominant defenceman not returning, Canada will have to eat up his minutes by committee.
From a shutdown perspective, six-foot-seven Samuel Morin and six-foot-five Darnell Nurse will lead the charge on the back end.
Morin, a nasty, fierce competitor will drive skilled opposing players mad with his strength and long reach. Nurse can provide some offence, but his primary concern will be using his large frame to keep opposing players to the perimetre of the ice.
This combination will surely improve Canada’s penalty kill and assist heavily in defending leads, which has been of concern for Canada in the last few years.
Canada is certainly a favourite to win, as they are every year; however, in order for that to become a reality, they will need to turn these question marks into answers.
There will be no shortage of goals from a Canadian offence that is poised to score on demand. The story will end with the quality of defence and goaltending that Canada will obtain. Whether the story has a hapy ending or not is yet to be seen.