There's an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Although Canada is definitely a hockey mad country, especially when it comes to the World Junior Championship tournament, the brain trust at Hockey Canada has changed their approach to selecting their 2014 Under-20 team in hopes of once again finding a golden result.
It has been five long years since Team Canada has won World Junior gold and last year's disappointing fourth place finish was the team's worst result in 15 years. In response, Hockey Canada has flipped the script, bringing back Brent Sutter as head coach. Sutter is best remembered for going undefeated in his previous two occasions behind the bench at the World Juniors, leading Canada to gold medals in both 2005 and 2006. Preserving that perfect record may not be as easy this year, but the changes didn't end with a familiar face as head coach. Canada also dramatically cut down the size of the final selection camp and focused more on developing team chemistry over internal competition.
Canada brought in just 25 players for their final camp, reducing the number of cuts they needed to make to just two forwards and one defenceman. But fewer players hardly means fewer questions from a hockey nation impatient for gold.
First off, there is the overall age of the team. After icing a squad of predominantly 19-year-old players last season, up to 11 player on this year's team could be eligible to return next year. If Hockey Canada can afford to look beyond just this year's tournament, this could set up the team to have an even stronger entry next year when the tournament is back on Canadian soil and hosted by Toronto and Montreal.
Of course, NHL promotions will have an impact on those plans, just as it has impacted this year. Both Morgan Rielly and Nathan MacKinnon are not returning to Canada's World Junior team despite being eligible after cracking the rosters with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Colorado Avalanche, respectively. Furthermore, Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames and Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals were also eligible to play for Canada but instead are sticking with their NHL clubs.
The smaller roster means there will be no competition between the pipes, except for which goaltender gets the nod for the bulk of the playing time. Jake Paterson of the Saginaw Spirit travelled to Ufa, Russia as the third goaltender for Canada's World Junior team last year. Although he didn't see any playing time, the Detroit Red Wings prospect is one of only a few returning players on this year's squad. Paterson has received the nod to start the opening game of the tournament vs. Germany, so it appears that he will carry most of the load over the course of the tournament.
Montreal Canadiens prospect Zach Fucale will serve as the backup to Paterson, but should see action as this WJC progresses. Fucale joins Team Canada with a history of performing well in big game situations, most notably helping lead the Halifax Mooseheads to their first Memorial Cup win last spring.
Looking from the crease out, there's a blue line corps that features a few questions of their own.
First and foremost, there is a leftover issue from the previous year's tournament. During the 2013 World Junior Championship, defenseman Griffin Reinhart was assessed a four-game suspension by the IIHF for a high-sticking incident. Reinhart, a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings, missed Canada's semi-final match due to the suspension, but still has three games hanging over his head. Despite the fact the New York Islanders prospect will be ineligible to play in Canada's opening matches against Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, his experience as a returning player is invaluable.
However, the situation almost became more complicated with the inclusion of Matt Dumba. Loaned to the team by the Minnesota Wild, Dumba is the only Canadian-born NHL player released for the tournament this year. Named as an alternate captain for Canada, Dumba was shaking off some rust in pre-tournament games when he was ejected for kneeing in a match against Team Sweden. While the decision was eventually passed down that the play would not lead to a suspension, it did highlight how easily Canada could find themselves shorthanded as the team adjusts to the more stringent rules enforced by the IIHF.
Ready to step into a larger opportunity is Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts. A draft-eligible player this year, Ekblad is already thought to be a candidate to go first overall at next summer's NHL Draft. Granted exceptional player status in 2011, Ekblad has benefited from the additional time in the OHL and despite his young age, he could be poised to play a huge role for Canada.
The rest of the defensive corps features some offensive talents from the WHL like Derrick Pouliot of the Portland Winterhawks, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Josh Morrissey, a Winnipeg Jets prospect playing with the Prince Albert Raiders. The steady play of a pair of OHL players in Colorado Avalanche prospect Chris Bigras from the Owen Sound Attack and New York Islanders prospect Adam Pelech from the Erie Otters round out the defensive squad.
Up front, the team is expected to be led offensively by returning player Jonathan Drouin. After posting two goals and four points in six tournament games last season as a 2013 draft-eligible, Drouin won the Memorial Cup as a member of the Halifax Mooseheads and was the third overall selection by the Tampa Bay Lightning. A welcome addition to Team Canada, Drouin comes with a few questions of his own after suffering a concussion in early December. Although he has now returned to full game action, Drouin will need to shake off the rust quickly.
Although Drouin has been playing primarily down the middle in Halifax this season, he has spent some shifts on the wing to balance out the lineup. Another player making the move from center to the wing is 16-year-old wunderkind Connor McDavid. Not draft-eligible until 2015, McDavid is the first 16-year-old to crack Team Canada since Sidney Crosby in 2004. Like Ekblad, McDavid was given exceptional player status in the OHL and is playing his second season with the Erie Otters. After lighting the Under-18 tournament on fire last season, all eyes will be on McDavid and how he rises to this new challenge.
While lines are always subject to change, Drouin has been seeing time alongside of the Portland Winterhawks' Nic Petan, who faced Drouin at the Memorial Cup and then was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the second round, along with Ottawa Senators prospect Curtis Lazar, who plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Meanwhile, McDavid has been skating alongside Vancouver Canucks prospect Bo Horvat, a member of the defending OHL champion London Knights, and 2014 draft-eligible Sam Reinhart, brother of defenseman Griffin Reinhart and member of the Kootenay Ice. Those six players are expected to carry the offensive load for Canada, but that isn't to say that the rest of the roster lacks scoring punch.
During the Canada/Russia Subway Super Series, Drouin showed some chemistry with two fellow QMJHL players in Anthony Mantha and Charles Hudon as Team QMJHL was the only league to beat the visiting Russian squad in both games. That trio could also be reunited at some point during the tournament. Mantha, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, came to selection camp with a firm lead in the QMJHL scoring race as a member of the Vald'Or Foreurs. After 50 goals last season, he's averaging over a goal a game this year. Meanwhile, Hudon, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, is looking to have a more positive World Juniors experience this year. Hudon was initially named to last year's squad but was unable to play due to injury. A member of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens when he left for selection camp, rumours abound that he will be dealt to a different QMJHL team shortly after the tournament ends.
Kerby Rychel has already been dealt this season, making the move from the Windsor Spitfires to the Guelph Storm. A Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, Rychel has scored 40 goals in each of the past two seasons and plays a power forward game. Team captain Scott Laughton has already tasted NHL action with the Philadelphia Flyers, having played five games with the team last season. A member of the Oshawa Generals, Laughton's all-weather game will have him seeing time in many different situations during the tournament.
The roster is rounded out by Toronto Maple Leafs' prospect Frederik Gauthier of the Rimouski Oceanic, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Taylor Leier of the Portland Winterhawks, and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Josh Anderson of the London Knights. All three players are noted for their versatility with Gauthier being considered an excellent defensive forward, Anderson a power forward and Leier a two-way player who can fill any role necessary.
Canada may not be the favourite this year, but that doesn't mean that the World Juniors team will escape the immense pressure and attention that comes with the tournament. Like every year, the expectation is the same: winning gold.
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy