Solid performances set stage for Canadiens-flavored Canada/U.S. showdown

By Jason Menard

While the World Junior Hockey Championships are being held in the Montreal Canadiens‘ general neighborhood, they’re playing right in the organization’s head scout’s backyard — and the club’s director of player recruitment and development Trevor Timmins is enjoying the opportunity of seeing some of his kids so close to home.

Timmins, taking time out during the second intermission of the contest between the Czech Republic and Germany, explained that the three Canadiens prospects currently playing in the tournament have acquitted themselves well — despite some contests where the competition has been less than formidable. That will all change courtesy of a New Year’s Eve match-up of two of the tournament’s marquee — and undefeated — teams: the 3-0 Team Canada, featuring defensive prospect P.K. Subban, and the 3-0 U.S. squad, who boast a pair of Habs’ prospects in forward Danny Kristo and former first-round selection Ryan McDonagh.

"I only saw him the first game and it wasn’t much of a challenge for the team [an 8-2 victory over Germany]," Timmins said. "He’s playing on the first pairing and the first PK unit. They’re counting on him to be a shutdown guy and he’s doing his job. He’s playing physical. 

"I know he’s got more offensive ability in him than he’s been allowed to show in this system — I guess we’ll see tomorrow night against Canada."
 
McDonagh has been a force on the blueline this tournament, teeing off on point shots during the power play and creating room for his goaltender in front of the net. Coming into last night’s game, McDonagh had accounted for one assist in two games. He was a plus-one, with two penalty minutes. Following the blowout, he’s plus-five with two assists to his credit.

"I’m just trying to do whatever the coaches ask of me and whatever it takes to help us win games," McDonagh said. "Each of us play a role and some players are asked to be more of an offensive force. I want to play a solid all-around game and be a physical presence."

Many expected McDonagh to be a part of the U.S. squad last season, but he was not named to the final roster. "You always want to represent you country on an international level, but it didn’t work out last year," he said. "Sure I was disappointed, but that motivated me to come back this year and make a difference."

In a tournament dominated by 19-year-olds, 18-year-old Danny Kristo is gaining ample experience, which will serve him well next year should he — as expected — return to the WJC wearing the stars and stripes. This year, he’s already started making his mark on the club with several big hits.

"I’m just trying to take everything in, do what’s asked of me, and play when I get the opportunity," Kristo explained. "Last game I didn’t get to play very much, so I just wanted to make the most out of the opportunity today."

Timmins added his experience this year should serve him well during next year’s tournament — much in the same way that Subban’s limited role led to a better understanding of his role this season.

"[Kristo]’s a young player on that team and he’s on their fourth line, their first PK unit. I thought he handled himself very well that first game," Timmins explained. "He hurt his knee blocking a shot in the next game and didn’t get to play too much in that one, but the coaches have told me that he’s going to play a lot [in Tuesday night’s game against Kazakhstan]. He’s a young guy and he’s filling a role — so far he’s done a great job."

Although held scoreless in the first two games, Kristo has been solid defensively and had earned a plus-two rating prior to Monday night’s game.

While prior to the laugher against the Kazaks, both of the Habs’ American prospects had struggled to find the net, the same certainly could not be said for the Canadiens’ Canadian. 

Last year, Subban played a limited role with Team Canada, appearing in seven games but failing to make a mark on the score sheet. As a returning player, he was expected to play a key leadership role with the club and he’s delivered. In three games — all victories — Subban is tied for the tournament lead in defensive points produced with five, which includes two goals. He’s played a key role on the power play and, as noted, he’s leading the tournament in plus/minus.

"He didn’t play a lot last year, but he was around and saw what the others had to do to win a gold medal," explained Pat Quinn, Team Canada’s head coach, who was in attendance at last night’s USA/Kazakhstan contest. "He’s really an energy person. He seems to be well-liked by his teammates and he plays with a lot of heart. He’s been a good addition to our team.

"You always want characters that have character and he seems to be that kind of young man. He’s got a good sense of humor and the guys, you know, they really seem to like him. I mean, you can go around but if you’ve got a bunch of sourpusses then it’s pretty hard to get through stuff. So he gives us some comic relief at times — he and John Tavares are like Frick and Frack, they seem to have a lot of fun together and [P.K.]’s been good that way."

Timmins is not surprised at Subban’s ability to be a key team player, nor is he surprised by his performance, explaining that this is just an extension of his development to date.

"Well, everybody loves P.K. He’s had an outstanding tournament so far. He’s on the first PP unit and if you look at the power play so far he’s unbelievable," Timmins said. "He’s tied for eighth in scoring [at the time of the interview]; he’s the top plus-minus player at plus-10. I just can’t say enough good things about P.K. Hopefully he keeps up this level of play and helps Canada progress through the tournament. 

"It’s not just at this level, but in the OHL and with us in Montreal, his development and maturity [have increased] — he’s a year older. He’s developed a lot as a person, as a prospect, and as a hockey player. He’s learned a lot over the past year from his experience here, to what we teach him at development camps and training camps, and his playoff experience in Belleville. He’s a year more mature all around and it shows in his development both on and off the ice. You see it especially with his decision-making with the puck and his play without the puck. It’s really matured and he’s well on his way to becoming a good pro."
 
While Subban’s statistics have been eye-popping to date, without diminishing his play or his talent, his coach suggests that circumstances have had a role in his success.

"I think he’s been in the right place at the right time, let’s say. We’ve got some good players here and plus/minus is a good statistic, clearly," Quinn explained. "He’s been playing mostly with Cody Hodgson‘s line and that whole five-man unit has been pretty good. They’ve been not playing the other teams’ better lines — they’ve been mainly facing their second lines, so they have an advantage in that way. It seems to be paying off for us so far."

The New Year’s Eve contest between Canada and the U.S. promises to be both club’s first real test of the tournament. Canada opened the tournament with an 8-1 victory over the Czech Republic. The club followed that game up with a 15-0 demolition of Kazakhstan and a solid 5-1 victory over Germany in back-to-back contests. The Americans hammered the Germans 8-2, then survived a surprising challenge from the Czechs with a 4-3 victory. Last night’s game — in name only — against the Kazakhs ended in a 12-0 trouncing, in which Kazakhstan fired its second shot of the game five and a half minutes into the second period — after 29 shots (and six goals) by the U.S (final shot tally: 61-10). 

In that game, the two future Habs combined on a beautiful goal, with McDonagh carrying the puck up the right-side boards, crossing the Kazakhstan blueline, where Kristo picked up the puck and rifled a wrist shot over the right shoulder of Andrei Yankov. That assist doubled McDonagh’s point total for the tournament, while Kristo’s goal was his first point of the young tournament.

"It’s a huge relief to get that first point out of the way, but it’s too bad it came in a blowout like this," Kristo said.

From a developmental perspective, however, games like these don’t offer much in the way of positive returns.

"Games like those blowout games, you have to be careful in your evaluations," Timmins said. "You have to be there more as a fan than as a scout. The games against Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Russia — those are the ones that count [when evaluating]."

McDonagh added that during games like that, it’s important for the team to remain focused on the smaller things. "It’s tough, but you’ve got to be able to concentrate on the fundamentals. You’ve got to focus on making good plays and good habits," he said. "We’re on the bench, cheering each other on to keep doing the little things and keeping each other sharp."

So the stage is set for some of the Habs’ brightest prospects to face off in a key tournament match. And if the U.S. players feel they were playing in front of a hostile crowd against Kazakhstan — where a sympathetic Canadian crowd cheered the arrival of the overmatched Kazakhs on the ice, including giving the Kazakh goalie a rousing cheer for his first save, while booing the Americans at every opportunity — that’s nothing compared to what the club will face New Year’s Eve against the hometown favorites. And the future Canadiens don’t expect anything less from the Canadians.
 
"We’re playing in one of the greatest hockey environments in the world and [tonight]’s atmosphere should be outstanding," Kristo said. "I know the Canadian fans are going to throw everything they have at us — and we’ll be looking forward to it."