For the second year in a row, Team Canada took the somber and quiet flight home from the World Junior Championship without a medal to show for their efforts. Thankfully for the young men who made up the team, it was also a second straight year where other news in the hockey world quickly drew the attention of media and fans elsewhere. Meanwhile, Hockey Canada is left to once again regroup and diagnose what went wrong and how they can find a way back to their winning ways that were once commonplace and are now proving to be more and more elusive.
In 2013, after finding themselves outside of the medals for the first time since 1998, the spotlight of attention on Team Canada was quickly diffused with the news that the NHL lockout was coming to an end.
This time around, with Canada shut out of the medals in consecutive years for the first time since a three-year streak between 1979 and 1981, the blow was softened shortly after when Hockey Canada announced the roster for their men's hockey team for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Although a national hockey crisis has so far been averted (at least until after the Olympics, where, like the World Juniors, the expectation for the men's hockey team is nothing less than a gold medal), Hockey Canada has to head back to the drawing board, this time with a sense of urgency as next year's tournament is being hosted in Canada.
To their credit, Hockey Canada tried to switch up the selection process for the 2014 WJC in an effort to stop the streak that has now kept them from the top of the podium since 2009. They invited fewer players to the final selection camp in an effort to foster more chemistry rather than focusing on competition for roster spots.
Canada also sent the youngest team out of all the countries participating in this year's tournament and their second youngest team of all-time. Eleven players from Team Canada will be eligible to compete in next year's tournament, although some like forward Jonathan Drouin are unlikely to be available again. In any case, having such a strong returning cast next year should strengthen Canada's effort to regain the throne in the junior hockey landscape.
Here's a look at some of the top performers for Canada at the 2014 WJC.
Most Valuable Player / Best Forward
Throughout the final selection camp, Anthony Mantha was thought to be a bubble player. Canada only had to make two cuts at the forward position, but the Detroit Red Wings prospect was not initially viewed as a lock despite averaging over a goal-per-game in the QMJHL as a member of the Val d'Or Foreurs.
But once Mantha made the final roster, he wasted little time proving that he belonged. The 6'5" forward led Team Canada in both goals (5) and points (11). Overall, he tied for second in the tournament in goals scored and third in points. Unfortunately, like most of Team Canada, his offense seemed to dry up in the games that mattered most. He was held pointless in both the semifinal match against Finland and the bronze medal game against Russia, although it wasn't for lack of effort. Mantha recorded nine shots in those final two matches, including six against the Russians, but could not beat the opposing goaltenders. He finished the World Juniors by being recognized by the media as a member of the tournament All-Star team and being selected as one of Canada's best players by the coaches. Mantha was also twice named Canada's Player of the Game, both in their opening match against Germany and their preliminary round game against Slovakia.
The defensive corps for Canada were an interesting group from the onset. Not only did they feature Matt Dumba, a player who was cut during the final selection camp the previous two years and was released on loan from the Minnesota Wild, but also included was one of 2014's top draft-eligible prospects in Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts. Adding another level of complexity to the blueline was Griffin Reinhart, a returning defender from last year's squad who was suspended for the first three games of this year's tournament due to an incident in Ufa in 2013.
Out of all this, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot of the Portland Winterhawks stood up and provided stability and leadership on Canada's back line. In the seven tournament games, he notched a goal and had five points to lead all Canadian blue liners, while his 22 shots were second only to Mantha on the team. Those numbers also tied him for fifth among tournament defenders. But it was not just his offensive abilities that drew him acclaim. Pouliot paired with Ekblad for the bulk of the tournament and was used as Coach Brent Sutter's most trusted pairing. In fact, they were one of the only consistent elements on the blue line that seemed to be in a constant state of flux throughout the seven game tournament. Pouliot was recognized as Canada's player of the game in their semi-final match against Finland and was also selected as one of Canada's best players in the overall tournament by the coaches.
It seemed like every time Canada needed a crucial goal in the preliminary round, they found it on Nic Petan's stick. It was Petan with the go-ahead goal late in the third period against Slovakia, followed by another marker minutes later in the empty net to guarantee victory. It was also Petan opening the scoring for the Canadians against Team USA, tying the game at one at the midway mark of the second period in a game that Canada would go on to win. Although Petan's offensive contributions tailed off during the playoff round, his four goals placed him second on the team behind Mantha, while his five points tied him for fourth in team scoring. Boasting a team-high shooting percentage, the Winnipeg Jets prospect provided plenty of energy game in and game out. Petan, a member of the Portland Winterhawks, found himself paired primarily with fellow WHL forward Curtis Lazar for the bulk of the tournament and even formed an all-WHL
line as the tournament went on, adding in 2014 draft-eligible Sam Reinhart.
2014 Draft-Eligible Raising His Stock
The old adage with draft eligible players participating in what is primarily an 18- and 19-year-old tournament is that they can't do much to hurt their stock, only improve it. It is a challenge to play in a tournament against the best junior players in the world during a period of time where age, experience and development is considered to be so important. But for a player like Aaron Ekblad, the expectation was not just that he would try to avoid embarrassing himself and his team. Already in his third season with the Barrie Colts thanks to his Exceptional Player status in 2011 and considered to be one of the top prospects eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, Ekblad was counted on to fill a crucial role on Canada's defense. He
emerged alongside of Derrick Pouliot as the team's most trusted pairing, providing steady and solid play at both ends of the ice.
With returning defender Griffin Reinhart missing for much of the preliminary round and veteran Matt Dumba, loaned from the NHL, struggling with a much larger workload compared to how he was used by the Minnesota Wild, it was Pouliot and Ekblad that led Canada's blue line. Ekblad finished the tournament with a goal and two points and was named Canada's top player in their final game against Russia, a losing effort for the bronze medal. Though he was not recognized as the top draft eligible prospect in the mid-season rankings released by the NHL's Central Scouting Services shortly after the tournament's conclusion, Ekblad is definitely in strong consideration to be drafted first overall this summer. In fact, his return to Canada's blueline for next year's World Junior tournament may not even be guaranteed, as the defenseman could jump immediately to the NHL.
Canada WJC Video Interviews & Podcasts
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