The defending IIHF Under-18 World Championship, gold-medal-winning Team Canada has arrived in Finland ready to defend its title with a squad that’s laden with international experience and elite talent.
The squad, which features 23 players from the Canadian Hockey League (12 WHL, six OHL, and five QMJHL), is led by returning defenseman Roland McKeown of the Kingston Frontenacs. McKeown, who was a member of last year’s gold-medal-winning squad, will be counted upon to provide some leadership.
But he won’t be alone in that role.
In fact, 20 of Team Canada’s players have competed at previous Under-17 Hockey Challenges, and 13 roster members were on Canada’s gold medal-winning 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament entry in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
With a bevy of international experience, which should serve them well at this year’s tournament in Lappeenranta and Imatra, Finland, along with some highly touted prospects on the roster, Canada enters this year’s tournament with a strong opportunity to repeat.
Before getting into the Canadian roster, it’s interesting to note who is not taking part. Projected first-rounders Sam Bennett and Spencer Watson, both of the Kingston Frontenacs, were injured during their first round OHL playoff ouster, and the mercurial Josh Ho-Sang was left off the roster.
It will be also be noteworthy to watch the play of 1997-born Travis Konecny in this tournament as he comes off an OHL Rookie of the Year campaign. And, behind the bench, Kevin Dineen will be coaching his second national team in almost as many months — leading the U-18 squad into its title defence after guiding Canada’s women’s national team to Olympic gold.
Canada will be bringing three goalies to Finland. The Chicoutimi Sagueneens’ Julio Billia saw action in 41 games this season, posting a 3.52 goals-against average behind a .894 save percentage. Mason McDonald, of the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders, posted similar numbers — a 3.44 goals-against average and .900 save percentage in 39 games — in a season that saw him traded to the Islanders from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. And they’re joined by the Niagara IceDogs’ Brent Moran, who saw action in 40 OHL matches, with a 3.85 goals-against average and .891 save percentage.
Moran and McDonald are both large goaltenders — 6’4" and 6’3" respectively — but both are fairly lanky, with Moran checking in at only 190 pounds and McDonald weighing in 10 pounds lighter than that. Billia, at 5’10" and 160 pounds, is relatively small in comparison. Based on their seasons, none of the goalies have truly laid claim to the number-one role and Coach Dineen will likely choose to ride the hot hand.
Fortunately, Canada will also have the benefit of an imposing blue line corps to protect its questionable goaltending.
Four of the seven blueliners suiting up for Team Canada are 6’2" or larger, including Calgary Hitmen teammates Travis Sanheim and Ben Thomas. And that quartet doesn’t even include the most experienced — and, arguably, the most talented — member of the crew, Kingston’s McKeown (6’0.5", 185).
In addition to Sanheim (6’3") and Thomas (6’2"), the Canadian defensive corps features Brandon’s Ryan Pilon (6’2", 210), Red Deer’s Haydn Fleury (6’2", 205), Gatineau’s Alexandre Carrier (5’11", 175), and Victoria’s Joe Hicketts (5’8", 175).
Hicketts will be looking to prove himself this season after missing much of the 2013-14 campaign with a shoulder injury. But when he was in the lineup, Hicketts made a difference, scoring 24 points in 36 games and finishing the season with a +25 rating. His offensive ability will be welcome on Team Canada.
Up front, Canada will be bringing a smaller, younger group to Finland, which includes three 1997-born players (the aforementioned Konecny, Seattle’s Mathew Barzal, and Kingston’s Lawson Crouse).
Size-wise, six forwards are listed at 5’10" or less, but it will be a quick, offensively dynamic, and talented crew that Canada will count on to keep its opponents off their game. One of those players, who will be counted upon for offense is Moose Jaw’s Brayden Point, who finished his WHL campaign tied for 11th in scoring with 36 goals and 91 points.
Team Canada also features a couple of players with NHL family ties in Sherbrooke’s Daniel Audette (son of former NHL player Donald), who scored 21 goals and added 55 assists this year, and Brandon’s John Quenneville (second cousin of Joel).
The squad will also look to OHL forwards Brendan Perlini (34 goals with Niagara) and Konecny (26 goals) to provide offense as part of a balanced, but young, attack.
The strength of Team Canada is on its blueline and it’s rolling the dice with a young, small, but dynamic forward group. If the chemistry works, then that alchemy could turn this year’s efforts into gold for a second consecutive year.
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard