2015 WJC Preview: Canada looking to return to golden ways on home ice

By Glen Erickson
Connor McDavid - Team Canada

Photo: Erie Otters forward and 2015 prospect Connor McDavid (L) is returning from an injury just in time to compete for Team Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

When Team Canada embarks on its mission to capture a gold medal at the 2015 World Junior Championship, they will do so with a group steeped in offensive skill, both up front and on the back end.

It has been a long time for Canadian hockey fans, as Team Canada has not won gold at the WJC since 2009. It’s a time frame that seems like an eternity in some quarters across a rabid hockey nation. If the current collection of players, which includes seven returnees from last year’s team, can reclaim the title they will have to do it on home ice. Tournament games will be split between Montreal and Toronto.

There has been significant emphasis on defense in recent years as Team Canada coaching staffs of late have appeared to focus efforts on responsible defensive zone coverage instead of a high-pressure offensive attack. Perhaps the 2015 WJC will see Team Canada achieve some level of comfort with winning games by a 5-4 count, rather than electing to try and smother opponents defensively in low scoring affairs. The 2015 edition certainly appears capable of delivering on a run-and-gun approach. In any case, finding ways to win in a relatively short tournament is always the order of the day.

Team Canada dominated the Russians in its first pre-tournament game, outshooting the visitors by a count of 53-20. The effort, however, went for naught, as Russia won by a score of 2-1 in a shootout. Later, Canada clipped a pesky Sweden, 5-2. And then, in its final pre-tournament contest, Canada hammered Switzerland by a score of 6-0. All told through the three pre-tournament games, Team Canada directed 70 more shots at their opponent’s goal than they gave up.

Among Canadian media types this season, the 2015 WJC seems to have become primarily a re-run of last year’s coming out party of sorts for one Connor McDavid, the Erie Otters’ phenom. He is being tabbed as the consensus first overall pick at the upcoming NHL Draft next June.

There is some merit to the daily barrage of hype, expectation and wonderment, given that McDavid comes equipped with a super-sized skill set. Some have suggested that as McDavid goes, so go the fortunes of Team Canada. However, an examination of the entire roster confirms there is no shortage of depth and elite talent for head coach Benoit Groulx to utilize.

The return of Curtis Lazar is perhaps the biggest selection camp story, as the power forward arrived on loan from the Ottawa Senators just prior to Team Canada’s first pre-tournament game against Russia. Lazar, who was a key contributor to the Edmonton Oil Kings’ Memorial Cup run last spring, was also among the top performers at the WJC last year. His enthusiasm and experience, combined with drive and determination are tremendous assets. Lazar has been named team captain, while McDavid will be an alternate.

Lazar is not the only key player on loan from an NHL team, as Anthony Duclair will also don the maple leaf. He returns to Team Canada after spending the first half of the season in New York with the Rangers. Duclair scored 50 goals last season for the Quebec Remparts, and parlayed that success into a job in the NHL this season. He has tallied one goal and added six assists while compiling a +4 rating in 18 games. The pair of NHL forwards will provide important leadership contributions.

On another note, it is entirely possible that one or both might be returned to their junior teams after the WJC. That being the case, a WJC gold medal would likely offset some of the potential disappointment from a return to juniors.

Sam Reinhart (BUF) also played in the NHL this season, appearing in nine games before the Sabres returned him to the Kootenay Ice. Reinhart, also an alternate captain for Team Canada, has almost single-handedly elevated the Ice from also-rans to playoff contenders in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with eight goals and 19 assists in 15 games. A gifted, patient forward, Reinhart is another of Team Canada’s WJC returnees after cracking the lineup last year.

Nic Petan (WPG) of the Portland Winterhawks is back again, another dynamic offensive forward with a measure of patience and puck skills that make him eminently dangerous in the attacking zone. Petan has the potential to excel on the power play and also provides the coaching staff with plenty of versatility.

Among the other forwards, Brayden Point (TBL) of the Moose Jaw Warriors, Max Domi (ARZ) of the London Knights and Robby Fabbri (STL) of the Guelph Storm made good impressions from the outset at camp and provide even more skill and finesse in the attacking zone. Each handles the heavy traffic very well; Point and Fabbri with great vision and Domi with perhaps a bit more of a rambunctious approach.

Domi has been especially productive in the pre-tournament games playing alongside Duclair and Reinhart. Fabbri exploded for 45 goals last season with the Guelph Storm, then followed that up with 28 points in 16 post-season games. Point has scored 17 times and added 27 assists in 29 games this season while compiling a +11 rating on a team in Moose Jaw that would not qualify for the post-season if the playoffs started today.

While the forward group contains a handful of smaller skilled players, the Team Canada roster is not without some size and brute strength. Frederik Gauthier (TOR) and Lawson Crouse (2015) check in at 6’4”, while Nick Ritchie (ANA) goes 6’3” and 225 pounds. Nick Paul (OTT) also checks in at 6’3 and Jake Virtanen (VAN) is a bull at 6’ and 210 pounds.

Gauthier is back again for the 2015 edition. The 215-pounder is among the biggest forwards in the tournament and will be looked upon to muscle his way through opponents, although his forte thus far in junior hockey has been excellence on the defensive side. The Rimouski Oceanic forward has been slowed somewhat this season, collecting 14 points while appearing in only 15 QMJHL games. He should be fresh when the pucks drop in earnest come Boxing Day.

Virtanen, who skates for the Calgary Hitmen, is a pure power forward. After successful off-season shoulder surgery, Virtanen has been a key contributor in Calgary with 23 points in 20 games. The injury aside, the exuberant Virtanen is likely to be a fresh and boisterous addition at this WJC. Ritchie has scored 14 times and added 18 assists in 25 games with the Peterborough Petes this season. When at his best, Ritchie makes opposing defenseman very uncomfortable while he is deep in the attacking zone.

If Virtanen, a right-handed shooter, is a force to be reckoned with, Paul provides Team Canada with similar attributes as a left-handed shooter. The North Bay Battalion forward has collected 34 points in 27 games this season. Paul can be a banger in the corners and will certainly create loose pucks and discomfort in the attacking zone.

Crouse, like McDavid, is eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft. Already pro-sized, the Kingston Frontenacs’ 211-pounder will most certainly add to his frame in the coming years, while the WJC experience should elevate his confidence moving forward.

The goaltending is in very good hands with returnee Zach Fucale (MTL) and Eric Comrie (WPG). Fucale, who was traded from the Halifax Mooseheads to the Quebec Remparts while at the selection camp, may be the odds-on favorite to carry the load between the pipes. But Comrie, who toils for the Tri-City Americans, is more than capable of being the number one guy. Only two goaltenders were invited to this selection camp rather than the four that Team Canada has auditioned in past years. The last truly dominant Canadian goaltender to perform at the WJC would be Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, the tournament MVP back in 2007. Coincidentally perhaps, Price was a member of the Tri-City Americans at that time.

Charged primarily with defending their own zone, the group of rearguards collectively possess the skills to contribute on the scoreboard with some regularity. The ability to headman the puck quickly will enable the forwards to move up ice with speed against opponents, but this heady group of defensemen have demonstrated a knack for knowing when to force the play offensively. What latitude they will be given by the coaching staff remains to be seen, but hopefully the group can flourish at both ends of the rink.

Five of the seven defensemen are from the WHL including Josh Morrissey (WPG), the only returnee. He was recently traded by the Prince Albert Raiders to the Kelowna Rockets but has yet to play a game for his new team. Morrissey was very effective last season when he was called up to join the St. John’s IceCaps for their 20-game AHL playoff run. Look for Morrissey to be a catalyst on the power play at the WJC.

Madison Bowey (WSH) is the only right-handed shooter among the defensemen, so he is sure to see plenty of minutes on special teams. He’s a burly defender, yet he’s proven very capable on offense for the Rockets. Shea Theodore (ANA) is the go-to-guy on the back end with Seattle, providing a much similar contribution to the Thunderbirds as Bowey does in Kelowna. While not as physical as Bowey, Theodore is just gritty enough in his own end to win puck battles and transition to offense. Joe Hicketts (DET) of the Victoria Royals provides big offensive skill on the back end, although it arrives in a largely deceptive, 5’8” and 186-pound package.

Dillon Heatherington (CLB) of the Swift Current Broncos might just be the closest example of a stay-at-home defenseman on Team Canada’s roster. At 6’3” and 196 pounds, he’s a big, mobile player who has greatly improved his transition game. It would make for an interesting pairing if Heatherington were teamed up with big Darnell Nurse (EDM), who checks in at 6’4” and 190 pounds. The rangy Nurse, who toils with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, can be a gritty, physical defender.

Samuel Morin (PHI) will be most interesting to watch. The 6’7”, 224-pounder is a load on defense for the Rimouski Oceanic. As his mobility continues to improve, he becomes a very difficult defenseman to move around. His ability to keep the front of the net clear will be greatly appreciated by the goaltending tandem.
     
Team Canada Roster (by league)

QMJHL: 3
WHL: 10
OHL: 7
NHL: 2
NCAA: 0

NHL Draft Status

Eric Comrie: 2013; WPG; Round 2; 59th
Zach Fucale: 2013; MTL; Round 2; 36th

Madison Bowey: 2013; WAS; Round 2; 53rd
Dillon Heatherington: 2013; CBJ; Round 2; 50th
Joe Hicketts: 2014 Free Agent: DET
Samuel Morin: 2013; PHI; Round 1; 11th
Josh Morrissey: 2013; WPG; Round 1; 13th
Darnell Nurse: 2013; EDM; Round 1: 6th
Shea Theodore: 2013; ANA; Round 1: 26th

Lawson Crouse: 2015 Eligible
Max Domi: 2013; ARI; Round 1; 12th
Anthony Duclair: 2013; NYR|; Round 3; 80th
Robby Fabbri: 2014; STL; Round 1; 21st
Frederik Gauthier: 2013; TOR; Round 1; 21st
Curtis Lazar: 2013; OTT; Round 1; 17th
Connor McDavid: 2015 Eligible
Nick Paul: 2013: DAL; Round 4; 101st (traded to Ottawa Senators, July 1, ‘14)
Nic Petan: 2013: WPG; Round 2; 43rd
Brayden Point: 2014: TB; Round 3; 79th
Sam Reinhart: 2014; BUF; Round 1; 2nd
Nick Ritchie: 2014; ANA; Round 1, 10th
Jake Virtanen: 2014; VAN; Round 1; 6th

 

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