In many ways, it’s the tournament that Canada forgets — and, as evidenced by its early returns, it appears that Team Canada may have passed over the beginning of the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Zug and Lucerne, Switzerland.
And while a surprisingly challenging opening match victory over Latvia may have sounded the alarm among players and fans alike, Canada is hoping that it — along with underwhelming play in the exhibition games — serves as a wake-up call.
Competitive on a global scale in the Olympics, the World Juniors, and other tournaments, a combination of a less structured development program and the ongoing Canadian Hockey League playoffs is serving to undermine the availability of its elite talent.
Even the idea of a top-flight scorer, like the London Knights’ forward Mitch Marner, parachuting in to provide some back-up is out of the question, due to Marner’s injury situation.
So, while the tournament is dominated by countries like the USA, the majority of whom come from its national development program, Canada’s stuck with a piecemeal roster, absent some top talent, trying to medal in a tournament that has seen the Canucks off the medal podiums in 11 of the last 15 tournaments.
The main hope is for the offense to catch lightning in a bottle and have the team score its way to its first gold since 2013 when a certain phenom named Connor McDavid was on the squad.
Find consistency quickly. Unlike other teams in the tournament, the Canadians don’t benefit from an extensive, insular development program. The players are thrown together and expected to become a cohesive whole, the sum of which is larger than its parts, in a very quick fashion. And while some of these players have played with each other previously — either on club teams or in other tournaments — most of them are coming from disparate teams with disparate styles.
Talent can only win out over team when the talent plays as a team. And that’s the challenge for the Canadians — finding that consistency and chemistry quickly, in a tournament that goes by in the blink of an eye.
Despite missing top players, like Mitch Marner, they still have some quality offensive talent. The team is led up front by 79-point man Jansen Harkins, 22-goal man Mitchell Stephens, and 62-point man Nathan Noel. Scoring 11 goals in its opening game is a testament to its offensive ability.
Canada also has a number of players with international experience — and, more importantly, international success. Defensemen Ethan Bear, Guillaume Brisebois, Jeremy Roy, and Matthew Spencer join forwards Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Harkins, Nicolas Roy, and Mitchell Stephens, and netminder Zach Sawchenko as players who were on Canada’s gold medal-winning U-18 squad at last year’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
The team also is stacked totally with players who ply their trade in the CHL — which offers a high-level of competition and should help the transition to tournament play.
Obviously, a lack of familiarity — at least in comparison to the other teams in this tournament. Canada has to come together quickly, especially on the defensive end, to earn success. Offense can be freelanced, but defense requires understanding where your teammates are going to be and a knowledge of the systems.
Just as scoring 11 goals in its opening game is a positive harbinger of things to come, allowing six goals to Latvia is a negative bellwether when projecting how they’ll fare against better squads in the upcoming games.
Part of that problem is between the pipes. The Canadians don’t have that shutdown netminder on the roster. Evan Cormier saw action in 22 games with the Saginaw Spirit after being obtained from the North Bay Battalion. In those final 22 games, his save percentage was a pedestrian .893, which was combined with a 3.48 goal against average. His counterpart, Sawchenko, played in 49 games with the Moose Jaw Warriors, and his numbers were not measurably better: .896 save percentage and 3.32 goals-against average.
Canada’s international squads often start slow and build to a crescendo, once a team of disparate stars comes together with a few games and practices under its belt. Offensively, Canada has the talent to score with the best of them — even despite missing some talented players still playing in the CHL playoffs — but questions on the blue line and between the pipes may prove to be its undoing.
Chemistry is an interesting thing — sometimes it can fuse together and create a whole that’s stronger than the some of its parts and sometimes it can blow up in your face. Team Canada is hoping for the former, but it is still very much a work in progress.
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