The next generation of Canadian defensemen.
That’s what they’re saying about the crop of defenders that have come out of the 2012 NHL Draft, and six of those are currently playing for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship in Russia.
Five of them were first rounders – Ryan Murray went second to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Morgan Rielly fifth to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Matt Dumba seventh to the Minnesota Wild, Cody Ceci 15th to the Ottawa Senators, and Michael Matheson 23rd to the Florida Panthers. Add to that group Ben Hutton, who was a fifth round pick, 147th overall, by the Vancouver Canucks that same year, and you have six of the seven defenseman that were on the Canadian roster at the start of the tournament – of which none has seen his 23rd birthday yet.
“Yeah, I think there are a lot of talented guys in this group who could be playing for Team Canada for a long time to come,” Dumba said, when that fact was pointed out to him.
So far this young group has done an amazing job, as Canada has surrendered just four goals through its first six games.
“We’ve had some good goaltending, which has been huge for us, but as D-men we just want to keep it simple and get the pucks to the forwards,” Rielly explained. “On this team they’re highly skilled, they’ve got lots of speed, so for us, we’re just trying to move it up. Keep it simple back here, try to help out the goalie as much as we can and obviously try to limit the goals against.”
Chemistry is the word that keeps coming up with this group, no doubt with the amount they have played together so far in their young careers. Murray, Rielly, Dumba and Ceci all played together at the 2011 IIHF U18 World Championship as 16-year-olds, a year ahead of their draft year, so they form the core. Actually, Rielly and Dumba go back further.
“I played with Rielly at the U17s and U18s,” Dumba said, referring to the U17 World Hockey Challenge in late December 2010 and early January 2011, in which Dumba the Albertan and Rielly the British Columbian suited up for Team Pacific, four months before the U18 Worlds. “And a lot of us have played together in the World Juniors before, so when you get that familiarity with guys it helps in a short tournament like this – guys coming together and team chemistry.”
In that same U17 tournament in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan-born Murray played for Team Western, Ceci for Team Ontario and Matheson for Team Quebec, with Ceci’s Ontario team winning the gold medal.
“Yeah I know some of the other D-men from the Under-18s and a few of the other Hockey Canada tournaments,” the Senators defender said. “They’re all around my age and I kinda grew up playing with or against them, so I know most of them. We’re a young team but we’re really close.”
If there are two outsiders in this group, it is Matheson and Hutton. Since that WHC, Matheson has not been chosen to another Hockey Canada team until now. And for Hutton, this is the first time ever. They are familiar with each other, though.
“I played against him in college, when he played for B.C. and I played for Maine,” Hutton noted. “He’s a great player. I wasn’t surprised (he was chosen to the team) because I knew about his talent. A couple of the other players asked me, ‘Who is he? Didn’t you play against him?’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be good’,” the Canucks rearguard joked.
It’s not surprising that some of the other players were asking questions about Matheson, who played only three regular season NHL games this season, but made enough of an impression in the playoffs with the Panthers to get the invite. And even if Hutton wasn’t surprised by Matheson’s inclusion, Matheson himself was.
“I was definitely surprised,” he admitted. “After the AHL playoffs, then we were finished in Florida and I got a text from my agent. It’s a pretty big honor to get the call to come to this tournament and represent Canada, but yeah, with the season that I had mostly in the minors, you definitely don’t expect to get a call like that.”
The other defenseman on this team to start was 26-year-old veteran Chris Tanev, Hutton’s teammate and roommate in Vancouver. That has helped Hutton adjust to this new experience.
“It’s nice that we’re all young,” Hutton continued. “I mean, Tanev’s a bit older and we look to him more as a leader back there, but on the whole we’re pretty young and we’ve got some fast skaters back there, which is good. We can all learn a little something from each other.”
On fitting into a defensive corps that mostly already knew each other, Hutton quipped, “They’ve accepted me into the group. I’m not an outcast anymore.”
As is often the case during the World Championships, teams are aware of which players from their countries become available as teams are eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. There’s always a debate over whether any potential additions are worth the possible disruption of team chemistry.
“You never know who they’re going to ask to come over, or whether they’ll come over or not,” Ceci said before any announcement was made. “We’re gonna come to the rink tomorrow for practice and find out if they added anybody. If they did, great, and if not, I like the group of guys that we have.”
As things turned out, there was a defenseman added, 25-year-old Ryan Ellis of the Nashville Predators. He was paired with Murray in his first game on Monday and had an assist in Canada’s 4–0 win over France.
“He’s a very smart player. He’s a great guy and we’re really happy to have him,” said Murray. “He makes our back end that much better. We’ve got some tough opponents coming up so it’s good to have him.”
With eight defensemen now on the roster, it meant one of the original seven would be out of the lineup, and against France that was Hutton – a healthy scratch after playing the first five games. Is there any concern that this could disrupt chemistry?
Murray doesn’t think so. “No, not at all. He’s a great addition and you saw what he did out there tonight. You’re always glad to have a guy of that caliber.”
Regardless of who is playing, four goals against in six games is mighty impressive. They know that more difficult opponents are coming, however, starting with Finland on Tuesday.
“They’re a good team. Lots of skill up front,” Rielly acknowledged. “I think we’re looking forward to the challenge as a team. We’ve gotta keep working, keep trying to get better and looking forward to that test.”
And after this World Championship? For some of the players, their primary concern will be solidifying their positions on their NHL teams, for which their accomplishments here could certainly help.
“I think it’s all about consistency,” Matheson said about what he needs to become a regular on the Panthers blueline. “I think I had a pretty good stint in the playoffs with Florida, and I’ve played well here too. I just have to keep that consistency level and then have a good summer of training so I can head into training camp in top form and make the team right out of camp.”
For others, the next challenge is the World Cup of Hockey this fall, which features a different kind of team – Team North America. So far Rielly and Murray have been named, with others from this group to possibly join.
Murray said, “I think we’re all looking forward to it. Having it in Toronto is gonna be fun and it’s a cool event. We’re looking forward to waiting to hear who’s going to be announced to that group.”
And after that? Dumba surely isn’t alone in thinking that we could be seeing some of these guys playing for Team Canada for a long time to come.
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