Canada 2009 WJC preview

By Jason Menard

This year’s edition of Team Canada promises to be a little more special than editions past. The question is whether the club will live up to that promise and bring home a fifth consecutive gold medal in front of a home-town crowd.

New head coach Pat Quinn broke from tradition and selected eight defensemen for this year’s club, leaving room for only 12 forwards. That extra blue line spot went to Ryan Ellis, the 17-year-old rearguard from the top-ranked Windsor Spitfires. Although becoming just the first 17-year-old blueliner since Jay Bouwmeester in 2001, Ellis’ offensive talent and power-play proficiency convinced Quinn to add him to the roster as a power-play specialist.

In addition, the 2009 World Junior roster stands as a bit of a departure from previous iterations of the team, as it’s one that’s not overwhelmingly large. Up front, the tallest player measures 6’1.5. This forward unit has been selected for its combination of speed, scoring ability, and solid two-way play — they’re not going to beat anyone into submission.

The blueline, however, makes up for that size in spades. The twin towers of Tyler Myers (6’7.5) and Keith Aulie (6’6) are just the very tall tip of the iceberg. They’re joined by Colten Teubert (6’3) and Alex Pietrangelo (6’2.5) providing bulk from the back end. And what the other blueliners may lack in size, they more than make up for with experience. Both Thomas Hickey (LA) and P.K. Subban (MTL) are returning gold-medal winners who will be looked upon to anchor the blueline and provide much-needed experience on a team filled with inexperienced but talented newcomers.

In fact, only four players return from last year’s gold-medal squad. Zach Boychuk (CAR) joins the aforementioned duo, but all eyes will be on the returning player who arguably will find the expectations of a nation and the fortunes of his club rest firmly on his shoulders: John Tavares. One of only two undrafted players on Team Canada (Ellis is the other), Tavares will be the center of attention on this team. The subject of trade rumors all year (which will only subside thanks to the so-called Steve Mason Rule, which prevents Christmas-season trades), the excitement of a gold-medal run may be the least hectic part of his draft-eligible season. So far, he’s looked ready for the challenge in selection camp.

Although only four players have World Junior experience, this is a club heavy on experience at upper-level competition. All but one player is on a CHL roster, and all but two have been drafted by NHL clubs. Team Canada gets an early tune-up against a tournament favorite this Friday against Sweden. The club’s initial three pre-tournament games will shed light on the one unanswered question on this team — who is the starting goalie?

Forwards

Twelve forwards, five NHL first-rounders (not including potential No. 1 overall pick Tavares), two second rounders, and the feel-good story of Team Canada. The latter, of course, is Angelo Esposito (ATL), who made the club in his fourth attempt (avoiding a Dan Cleary-esque shutout). Once a potential No. 1 pick, Esposito has fallen off. He fell to 20th in the 2007 draft, was deemed expendable by the Penguins and traded in the Marian Hossa deal last year, and has struggled over the past couple of seasons to live up to his prodigious hype. That said, he’s come into camp this season with a renewed attitude, willing to do whatever it took to make the club — even if that meant a part-time checking role. With his already-noted chemistry with Tavares, there’s little chance of that happening this year, but Esposito has embraced the essence of the Canadian World Junior entry. 

For a club that’s so deep in talent, players who may be No. 1 centers or regulars on the first power-play unit on their junior club often have to embrace totally different roles in this international competition. Esposito has finally understood that and is reaping the benefits of his attitudinal adjustment.

Since the tournament is being played on the smaller North American ice surface, the Canadians are relying on smaller, quicker forwards to generate a sustained forecheck. There are no big bruisers among this forward unit, but there are some solid checkers. Patrice Cormier (NJ) is by far the most comfortable in the two-way game and will likely anchor the checking line that Quinn has suggested he’ll use throughout the tournament.

Tavares and Boychuk have been named assistant captains and will be looked upon to provide the offensive spark. Cody Hodgson (VAN) , Tyler Ennis (BUF), and Jordan Eberle (EDM) provide depth and offensive skill. While Brett Sonne (STL), Stefan Della Rovere (WAS), Dana Tyrell (TB), Jamie Benn (DAL), and Chris DiDomenico (TOR) round out the forward units.

Defensemen

This unit is arguably the strength of this club, in both senses of the word. To compensate for the relative lack of size up front, Quinn has formed a rugged, nasty back end with size, complemented by offensively gifted blueliners like captain Hickey and assistant captain Subban. Cody Goloubef (CLB), the lone NCAA player from the University of Wisconsin, rounds out the octet on the blueline.

As with the forwards, all but one defenseman (Ellis) has been drafted by NHL clubs: four in the first round, two in the second. 

The one with the least experience is Ellis, but Quinn has stated that he wants the youngster to run the point on the power play — a position he ably filled as a member of Team Canada’s under-18 team. A desire to keep Ellis as strictly a power-play specialist necessitated the addition of a seventh defenseman, so that an injury wouldn’t force Ellis into the regular rotation.

Hickey will be counted on to play key minutes at both ends, while Subban will look to repeat the pattern of Karl Alzner (WAS) last year — returning from a year on the Team Canada fringes to star in his second go-round.

Goaltenders

Here’s where Team Canada’s big question lies — and it’s a challenge to have a question mark on arguably the marquee position for the tournament’s marquee team. Who will follow in the very large skates of such players like Steve Mason and Carey Price. Competing for the job will be Chet Pickard (NAS) and Dustin Tokarski (TB).

Pickard had the opportunity to learn from Price’s experience, as he served as his back-up for two years in Tri-City, including the half-season when Price returned from his WJC MVP performance. This season, Pickard’s been riding a bit of a roller coaster between the pipes, but he has shown enough promise in the past to be the first goalie selected in last year’s draft. He also displays a similar comportment to Price in that his exterior remains calm, regardless of the external pressures.

Tokarski, a 200 fifth-round pick who plays for the Spokane Chiefs, has shone under the bright lights in the past. He is the reigning Memorial Cup MVP and top goaltender and backstopped his club to a midget AAA championship back in 2006. Although no goaltender has grabbed the reins for Team Canada, one would expect the job to be Tokarski’s to lose.

Coaching

Quinn’s qualifications as a coach are well known, including earning the Jack Adams trophy during his tenure behind the Vancouver Canucks‘ bench. He is comfortable with junior-aged players as well, having won the Memorial Cup both as a player and as a team owner.

His staff is rounded out by assistants representing each of the CHL’s leagues. Medicine Hat’s Willie Desjardins, Mississauga’s Dave Cameron, and Drummondville’s Guy Boucher join Quinn behind the bench and provide solid support and familiarity with the players as all but Goloubef play in the CHL.