2016 WJC Review: Undisciplined play prevents Canada from defending gold

By Glen Erickson
Brayden Point, Travis Sanheim, Mitch Marner, Jake Virtanen and Dylan Strome - Team Canada - 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship

Photo: Team Canada players celebrate during their quarterfinal match against Finland, but there wasn’t much to celebrate after that country’s sixth place finish at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship (courtesy of MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images)

 

 

Team Canada made the trek to Finland last month with the same goal it always sets for the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. That is, capture a gold medal. It is generally felt in Canada that achieving anything less is considered to be a failure.

Prior to the event, and even during the selection camp, there were a multitude of questions for the Canadian entry. Primarily, the group’s lack of experience was a concern, although this reality will almost always be downplayed. For those who had the temerity to ask in advance of the WJC if this edition of Team Canada was in fact good enough to win, the answer returned was a resounding “no”. Even a tournament with perhaps five very solid teams, its ultimate finish in sixth place overall was still well below Canadian expectations.

Canada completed preliminary round play with a record of 1-1-0-2, scoring victories over Denmark (6-1) and Switzerland (3-2). The result against the Swiss required that Canada survive overtime and a shootout. Losses to the USA (4-2) and Sweden (5-2) legitimized questions about the group’s chemistry and discipline compared to the other top teams.

A measure of redemption was readily available for Canada when it faced Finland in the quarter finals. The high-scoring affair in Helsinki was action-packed, but also riddled with mistakes. The game, which Canada lead 2-0 until the last minute of the first period, saw the opportunistic Finns battle back over the last 40 minutes to earn a semi-final berth. When Finland ousted Canada by a count of 6-5, the result marked the first time in 18 years that Canada did not reach the WJC semi-finals.

Suffice to say that undisciplined play by the Canadians was a huge contributing factor in the loss. Canada took a total of nine minor penalties, a few of which were retaliatory fouls that negated power play opportunities. Ultimately, each team scored twice with the man advantage, which included the Finns’ game winner while Canada was two-men short.

Specialty team play was pivotal throughout the tournament, producing mixed results for Team Canada. While its power play was very good, with six goals in 18 chances for a 33 percent conversion rate, the team allowed seven goals against in 17 shorthanded situations. That’s a penalty killing success rate of 59 percent, good for last among the 10 teams at the WJC. Finland surrendered the most power play goals in the event with eight, albeit in seven games.

What makes the penalty killing performance even more curious is the fact that Canada amassed only 50 total penalty minutes at the WJC. Canada averaged 10 penalty minutes per game, which tied it for second overall with Slovakia. Yet its 25 minor penalties were by far the most among teams that played only five games. Finland, with 58 penalty minutes, averaged just over eight minutes per game through seven contests, the best mark in the tournament. Finland and Canada were the only two teams that did not take either a major or misconduct penalty during the tournament.

The goaltending performances were far from outstanding. Canada’s save percentage was second-worst in the 10-team tournament at .860, ahead of only the Swiss. Behind an inconsistent performance by the skaters, Mackenzie Blackwood and Mason McDonald were unspectacular while combining for a 3.58 goals-against average.

The top three players in the tournament for Canada, selected by the Canadian contingent, were defenseman Joe Hicketts (DET), forwards Mitch Marner (TOR) and Mathew Barzal (NYI).

Hicketts was the most consistent performer throughout the tournament, but he will also be dogged by an own goal against the Americans and a delay of game penalty late in the tilt against the Finns. Hicketts, one of only four returnees from the 2015 gold medal winning team, is determined and competitive, an honest and capable leader who will return to the WHL’s Victoria Royals.

Marner is an elite offensive talent, set to return to the OHL where he will continue his scoring assault as a member of the London Knights. Barzal is a member of the Seattle Thunderbirds who was pegged at the beginning of the tournament as the 13th forward. He emerged as perhaps Canada’s most effective, versatile and consistent forward.

The magnitude of the WJC on the Canadian landscape is simply huge, a presence on the annual hockey calendar that cannot be ignored. Hence, the likelihood that many observers easily forget we are in fact watching teenagers. Occasionally, while on this world stage, the antics of these players remind us of exactly that.

Jake Virtanen was added to the Canadian roster, ostensibly for leadership qualities given his participation a year ago on the gold medal winners at the 2015 WJC. Unfortunately, he was ineffective offensively through much of the tournament and under pressure during the nail-biting quarterfinal contest against Finland, his three minor penalties were all arguably unnecessary. Despite the sub-par performance, Virtanen remains a uniquely talented and skilled power forward with potential to become a very reliable member of the Vancouver Canucks.

Returnees Brayden Point (TBL) and Lawson Crouse (FLA) collected five points each in five games. Point showed signs of rust, as he was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered on November 17 and he hadn’t played a meaningful game until Canada’s second pre-tournament tilt in Finland. Crouse tallied an important goal in the quarterfinal loss, but like much of the team, he likely left supporters wanting more.

The defensemen all possess offensive skills, and most are having very productive seasons with their respective club teams. However, the group was responsible for a number of glaring errors in Finland and all told, accounted for 10 scoring points at the WJC. With a rating of +4, Roland McKeown (CAR) led the team by a wide margin.

Ice Chips: Canada did not have a player named to the tournament All-Star team and it was shutout of the individual awards…Marner and Dylan Strome (ARI) led Canada in scoring, finishing the event with identical scoring stats – four goals and two assists in five games. Nineteen other players finished ahead of Marner and Strome in the scoring race…Hicketts and Thomas Chabot (OTT) were the top scorers among Canadian defensemen with three points each…Finland led the tournament with 12 power play goals…A total of 62 players in the tournament are members of junior teams in the CHL…It is safe to say that many of the draft eligible players in the 2016 WJC outperformed most of the drafted and signed players on the Canadian roster. Forward Julien Gauthier was the only player on Team Canada not yet drafted or signed by an NHL team. He is eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft…Sweden returned 12 players to the WJC from the previous event. Many of those players are actually playing professional hockey this season. Sweden finished fourth, dropping the bronze medal game to the USA by a score of 8-3. All of the Canadians, except Virtanen, are playing junior or college hockey…A total of nine players are eligible to return for Canada next year, when the event will be held jointly by the cities of Toronto and Montreal.

Belarus | Canada | Czech Republic | Denmark | Finland | Russia | Slovakia | Sweden | Switzerland | USA

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51