Early preview of Canada’s 2006 WJC team

By HF Staff

There may only be one goal that looms larger in the hearts of young Canadian hockey players than making the NHL, and that is the dream of representing their country in a major international tournament. Over the past 15 years, the World Junior Hockey Championships have become a Christmas tradition in Canada, and across the world.

This Christmas season the World Junior Championships come to Vancouver, British Columbia. The Canadians are the defending world champions after what may be the greatest team in tournament history celebrated a big victory over the Russians in the final.

Almost every player from that dream team is now either too old for this year’s tournament or has already moved on to the NHL. The 2006 version does not have the same caliber of players available to it, but still possesses an impressive list to draw from.

Brent Sutter, who guided last year’s squad to victory, once again will assemble the Canadian squad. Last year Sutter did not, in some eyes, select the best pure players available, but chose who he felt were the best players to fill particular roles. Colin Fraser is a prime example of that kind of selection. Some believe that synergy is extremely important for a tournament where the team has a very limited amount of time to gel as a unit. But Sutter did not show any favoritism towards selecting those who were already team-mates last year, or playing them together.

Four Hockey’s Future writers forecast the 2006 Canadian World Junior Team below. There are players that our panel identified as “locks” for the team, and others who have a good chance to make the team. The panel’s decisions were heavily influenced by which players attended the summer development camp. Historically, few who have not attend the summer camp have been named to the team.

THE LOCKS

Goaltender

Devan Dubnyk (EDM): Lanky Edmonton Oiler prospect Dubnyk was overwhelmingly identified as the probable starter between the pipes. Dubnyk has been solid, but unspectacular, this season with a 2.66 GAA and .904 save percentage, numbers consistent with his 2004-05 season where he appeared in 65 games and played the second-most minutes in the league. Dubnyk is a very steady and consistent goaltender whose numbers suffer because of relatively weak teams that have played in front of him in Kamloops. He should be a guarantee to be one of the two goaltenders to make the team.

Defense

Cam Barker (CHI): The only player from last year’s blue line eligible to return, Cam Barker is about as much of a sure thing to make the squad as anyone. Although Barker missed most of last year’s event due to an untimely bout of mononucleosis, he will most likely be considered the “veteran” of the team, a sign of the team’s obvious lack of experience. Barker will play big minutes and will be relied upon both to be steady in his own zone and to get the offense moving forward in transition.

Luc Bourdon (VAN): The QMJHL defender was selected in the top ten at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft and has seen his stock steadily rise ever since. He had a fantastic training camp that nearly resulted in him sticking with the Canucks. Back in the Q, he has somewhat returned to the running around, trying to do everything, player which he was last year with Val d’Or, but he has shown in the past that he consistently rises to the level of competition. Bourdon may be a Q defender, but he is Sutter’s type of player.

Marc Staal (NYR): Another very good 2005-drafted defenseman, he will be relied upon to play big minutes for the Canadian team, likely in the No. 3 slot, while also being a pivotal part of the top penalty-killing unit. At 6’4, 200 lbs, Staal is a huge kid with good mobility with will help him in the international competition. The Sudbury Wolves captain has, much like his older brother Eric, had a breakout season, averaging more than a point per game at this juncture of the season, an impressive rate for a defender who scored 26 points last year.

Forwards

Gilbert Brule (CLB): He should be a lock, but there is no guarantee that he will be made available to the team. Still recovering from his sternum injury, Brule would have to be released by the Blue Jackets in order to be able to participate. If he is freed up, Brule will be counted on to spearhead the Canadians’ offensive attack.

Benoit Pouliot (MIN): The tall, rangy, center was one of the top picks at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and has started this year averaging well over a point per game already. Pouliot is more of a playmaker, although he has the ability to finish. A slick puck handler, Pouliot has all the tools to be successful on the WJC stage.

Guillaume Latendresse (MON): The power forward was the biggest surprise on draft day as he fell from a potential top ten pick to the middle of the second round. Latendresse responded to the draft day disaster positively, working hard all summer on his reportedly atrocious skating. During the WJC summer camp and the NHL preseason, Latendresse was dominant, and many fans were disappointed to see him cut. Latendresse is a goal scorer who punishes the opposition. His much-maligned skating has greatly improved and he has a history of stepping up his caliber of play in big events.

Wojtek Wolski (COL): The Polish-born winger started the year strongly with the Avalanche, but found himself demoted after the ninth game despite posting six points. He has played at a steady pace since returning to Brampton in the OHL and looks to have a role secured in the top six forwards with the WJC squad. Wolski will likely be relied upon to provide secondary scoring for the team.

Andrew Cogliano (EDM): The diminutive center received a great deal of criticism last year for electing to remain in the Ontario Junior “A” league, but has been the top scoring freshman in the NCAA early this season, a crop which includes heavily hyped 2006-eligible American Phil Kessel. With his speed, vision, and ability to pass the puck, Cogliano could be dynamite in international competition. It may be early in the year, but concerns about his ability to compete against upper-tier competition have already been put to rest.

Kyle Chipchura (MON): Described as a gritty two-way player with limited offensive upside on draft day, Chipchura went down very early last season with an Achilles’ heel injury. He bounced back and was back in the lineup to play in 28 regular season games and 14 postseason matches, however, showing his resilience. Off to a solid start thus far, hovering around a point per game, the Prince Albert Raider is likely to play a shutdown No. 3 center role with the Canadian squad.

OTHERS IN CONTENTION

Goaltender

Julien Ellis (VAN) may just beat out Carey Price (MON), the first goaltender selected in the 2005 Draft, to make the team. Price represented Canada in last year’s U18 World Championships in the spring, although he appeared to be shaky at times, and let in several bad goals. The slight Ellis was the best goaltender in the QMJHL last season and continues to be impressive this year with Shawinigan. Ellis has the proven ability to steal games for his team.

But the goaltending situation is not that clear. Pier-Olivier Pelletier performed admirably in the backup role at the 2005 U18s. Others, such as Justin Pogge (TOR), are making a case for themselves based on great starts.

Defense

Scott Jackson (STL), Ryan Parent (NSH) and Brendan Mikkelson (ANA) are good bets for the No. 4-6 spots on the Canadian defense. Assuming this is an accurate forecast, it leaves one spot open in the defensive corps. Both Jeff Schultz (WAS) and Kris Russell (CLB) are possibilities, and are as opposite as humanly possible. Schultz is a 6’6 monster with a booming, although often wildly inaccurate, shot, who isn’t as physical as scouts and coaches would always like. Russell is a tiny 5’9 with great offensive instincts who is often credited for playing much larger than his height. It’s probable that one of these two will make the team, but don’t be surprised if Sutter goes with someone else.

Two other names are Marc-Andre Gragnani (BUF) and Andy Rogers (TB). Gragnani is a smart, very hard working defenseman with solid two-way skills. He was very good at last year’s WJC, but being a Q player is unlikely to garner much attention. Rogers is another monster defenseman whose size and physicality may appeal to the team.

Forwards

Among these “nearly locks” at forward are QMJHL sniper Alex Bourret (ATL), lanky two-way center Ryan O’Marra (NYI), gritty and hard-working Evan McGrath (DET), Kris Chucko (CAL), a budding power-forward experiencing the NCAA, as well as Dave Bolland (CHI) and Dustin Boyd (CAL). These six players are the ones most likely to end up appearing on the team. There may be another spot available, depending on whether or not Brule is available to play in the tournament.

Dan Bertram (CHI), Blake Comeau (NYI), and Kenndal McArdle (FLA) may have the greatest chance at a depth spot. Others having a chance at making the team include Devin Setoguchi (SJ), Michael Blunden (CHI), Bryan Little, Steve Downie (PHI) and even Jonathan Toews, who is quickly rising up the 2006 draft charts. Other budding stars like Angelo Esposito and John Tavares will get calls for attention, but it is extremely unlikely either will get consideration.

The “locks” are players who, unless they get injured or have a horrendous camp, almost certainly have a spot on the team already. There others have the inside track but could get bumped by a cold streak at the wrong time or a poor showing at camp. With Brent Sutter at the helm of the team and in control of the selection process, expect Sutter to lean heavily towards the WHL when selecting the team, and have at least one line of designated checking players or penalty kill specialists. These players could easily come as complete surprises as they will likely be Sutter’s favorite grinders that he’s seen during the WHL season, or perhaps guys that come heavily recommended from the OHL.

The team will not be the favorite going into the tournament, being extremely inexperienced at the WJC level with one returning player. The USA has what stacks up to be a true powerhouse team. That said, the Canadians have home-ice advantage, and the Canadian team rarely fails to be competitive in any international tournament. Sutter will shape his team to ensure that they have a chance to beat any country, and the talent available makes Canada a legitimate threat.

Guy Flaming, Aaron Vickers, Kevin Forbes, and Matt MacInnis contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.