2011 WJC: Team Canada built to beat Americans in Buffalo

By Jason Menard

And now it’s all over now but the playing. Team Canada’s 2011 World Junior Championship roster has been set and it’s clear by its make-up that the Canadian brass are entering the tournament with one team squarely in its sights: Team USA.

Team Canada announced its final roster today — 22 players, comprised of 13 forwards, seven defenseman, and a pair of netminders that’s long on size, speed, and grit, but short on NHL experience and — potentially — goal-scoring prowess.

The club will be led from the back end, with a talented and deep pool of blueliners led by a trio of returning veterans: Jared Cowen (OTT), Calvin de Haan (NYI), and Ryan Ellis (NAS). With a number of the top offensive prospects currently holding down roles with various NHL clubs, Team Canada will be led from the blue line.

In Ellis and Simon Despres (PIT), the club has a pair of offensively gifted talents who will key the club’s all-important blueline. They’re joined by Cowen, de Haan, Tyson Barrie (Colorado draft pick and last year’s top defenseman in the WHL), Erik Gudbranson (FLA), and Dylan Olson (CHI) to form a defensive contingent that’s long on size, physicality, and power. In fact, even with the inclusion of the 5’10 Ellis, the Canadian blue line averages 6’2 and 207 pounds.

For many the exclusion of a pair of Ryans: Murray and Murphy, was a surprise. Both players reportedly played extremely well at camp and have shown all season long that they can be the key to a dynamic offensive attack. However, in choosing the seven blueliners that comprise the final roster, Team Canada has shown a desire to win the physical game — a nod to the traditional strength of the U.S. roster, with it powerful forward crew.

These blueliners will be protecting a pair of solid netminders. The QMJHL has a history of providing netminders to this club and this year is no exception. Olivier Roy (EDM) enters the tournament as the presumptive favorite to play the lion’s share of the club’s game and he is ably backed up by Niagara’s Mark Vinsentin (PHO). Again, there was a mild surprise in the fact that J.P. Anderson (SJ) was not selected to the roster, as Team Canada’s head coach Dave Cameron is also the head coach of Anderson’s OHL club in Mississauga.

Up front, Team Canada won’t be boasting the offensively gifted crew that it’s long been known to ice. In fact, several of the top scorers from the junior ranks were either early cuts or not even invited to the selection camp. This year’s Canadian roster features an interchangeable collection of forwards that enable the club to mix-and-match lines. The roster is heavy on two-way players confirming Cameron’s desire to play in all zones. Prior to the camp, he described this year’s team as being a blue-collar bunch — with the selections, he’s crafted a roster to fit that vision.

Team Canada’s forward ranks will be filled by Carter Ashton (TB), Casey Cizikas (NYI), Brett Connolly (TB), Sean Couturier, Cody Eakin (WAS), Marcus Foligno (BUF), Curtis Hamilton (EDM), Quinton Howden (FLA), Ryan Johansen (CLB), Zack Kassian (BUF), Louis Leblanc (MTL), Braydon Schenn (LA), and Jaden Schwartz (STL).

Couturier is draft eligible this year and will be expected to contribute offensively. His fellow 2011 draftee, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, was also thought to have a strong chance to make the squad thanks to his playmaking abilities, but the club again has shown a preference for size, grit, and experience.

Probably the best example of this philosophy is courtesy of Foligno’s inclusion on the roster. Thought to be a bubble pick early on in the camp, Foligno’s camp performance made it impossible for Cameron and crew to eliminate the second-generation OHLer. Not necessarily an either or situation between Nugent-Hopkins and Foligno, the latter’s inclusion is reflective of Team Canada’s desire to populate the team with fast and physical players.

Only Schenn is a returnee to Team Canada, leaving the team thin on WJC experience up front, but there’s a tremendous amount of leadership on this roster, as a number of Team Canada’s players are captains or assistants on their home clubs.

Cizikas and Kassian bring size and physicality in spades, although no player in the Team Canada’s forward contingent weighs less than 180 pounds. But this is not a collection of lumbering oafs heading to Buffalo. In fact, Canada may ice one of the fastest, best-skating teams, featuring a lethal combination of speed, skill, and size. Again, that can be viewed as a direct response to the continued development — not to mention last year’s gold-medal-winning performance — of Team USA. The Americans have shown over the past few years that they may be producing the highest-end skilled players with speed. By combating that offensive flair with four-line deep size and speed, Canada’s roster seems tailored for a U.S. showdown.

Schenn will be counted on as the nominal offensive leader, but he’ll need support in the form of a balanced attack. While Couturier and Leblanc will have to step up and shoulder the offensive load, Team Canada will very much be a group effort scoring. Cameron himself has stated that this team has no number-one line, but rather four number-two trios.

That balance is enviable, but in a tournament that often comes down to elite players making superlative individual plays to take their team to the next level, this all-for-one philosophy can be risky. Again, while this roster seems tailor made for a faceoff against Team USA, the lack of an obvious game-breaker could play a role in games against Russia (Team Canada’s opening match — and one that’s traditionally given the Canadian squad fits due to slow starts), Sweden, and the emerging Slovaks.

While that transcendent talent (such as a Crosby, Tavares, Eberle, or Hall) may not be on the roster — although the WJC has proven time and time again that stars will emerge — there is certainly plenty of elite players on the roster. In all, the team features 15 NHL first-round draft picks (as well as a future number-one selection in Couturier). The WHL leads the way with nine members on the squad; with the OHL and QMJHL contributing seven and four players respectively. Two members come from the collegiate ranks.

Last year, Team USA spoiled Canada’s party on its home soil, and prevented it from winning its sixth straight gold medal. This year, Canada’s looking to return the favor in Buffalo. And while Team USA is looking for a repeat performance, so too is Team Canada — a repeat performance of the last time the WJC was held in the USA. In 2005, Grand Forks and Thief River Falls hosted the tournament. Team Canada took home the first of its five straight gold medals.

The Canadians are hoping to start another streak this year — and by all appearances they’re going to do it with a team designed to beat the Americans at their own game — on their own soil.