As the NHL lockout marches through its 14th week and the talks surrounding a new collective bargaining agreement move from the negotiating table to the courtroom, perhaps no one has breathed a larger sigh of relief than the brass at Hockey Canada.
Though the loss of NHL hockey and the continuous tangle of proposals along with threats of lawsuits and union decertification have been frustrating for everyone involved, Hockey Canada finds themselves in the fortunate position of having all available players at their disposable for the 2013 World Junior Championship.
When it comes to the World Juniors and Canada, the expectation is simple: nothing short of a gold medal will do. But it has been three years since Team Canada has returned with the championship.
With the lockout in effect, this year's Canadian World Junior team is bolstered with a number of players who under normal circumstances would be playing in the NHL. That expectation for gold is still as strong as ever and the hope is that with these reinforcements, Canada will leave Ufa, Russia with their first gold medal since 2009.
Perhaps no player symbolizes that renewed sense of hope as much as team captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. At 19 year of age, this is Nugent-Hopkins' first experience with the World Juniors. In his draft year two years ago, he found himself on the outside looking in, even though he went on to be selected first overall in the 2011 NHL Draft. Last season, Nugent-Hopkins was one of the top rookies in the NHL, playing 62 games with the Edmonton Oilers and scoring 18 goals and 52 points. He then played at the 2012 World Hockey Championship as a member of Canada's National Men's Team, tying for the team goal scoring lead with four markers. This season, due to the lockout, he has been spending time with the Oilers' farm team in Oklahoma City, and in 19 AHL games with the Barons, he has tallied eight goals and has 20 points.
Despite his young age, Nugent-Hopkins is undoubtedly a legitimate NHL talent and his addition to Team Canada cannot be understated. The combination of his skill level and his experience makes him the team's most dangerous player and the 'C' on his sweater further confirms the expectation that he will be counted on to lead Team Canada in Ufa.
But Nugent-Hopkins won't be alone when it comes to carrying the load offensively. Joining him up front is another forward who has already experienced NHL action in his young career. Under different circumstances, Mark Scheifele would be playing for the Winnipeg Jets right now, but that is not be and instead he returns to Team Canada for a second shot at the World Juniors. A point-per-game player at last year's tournament, Scheifele also played seven games with the Jets last season before being returned to junior. Playing back in the OHL this year with the Barrie Colts, Scheifele is among the league's top scorers with 48 points in 29 games.
Ryan Strome, Jonathan Huberdeau and Boone Jenner are also returning to the World Junior team for a second year and again, they would have more than likely been playing in the NHL right now had that avenue been available.
Strome, a New York Islanders prospect, has been setting the OHL on fire this year and presently leads the league in scoring with 22 goals and 62 points in 32 games. Huberdeau may not be as productive in the QMJHL with 45 points in 30 games, but he was also expected to be playing a regular role with the Florida Panthers as opposed to playing a fourth year with the Saint John Sea Dogs. Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Boone Jenner has perhaps made the most of his return to junior hockey. In 32 games this year, he's already set a career high in goals with 27 markers on the year.
Jenner's 27 goals tie him with Dallas Stars prospect Brett Ritchie for the OHL lead and Ritchie will join Jenner and his Niagara teammate, Strome, on Team Canada. They'll also be joined by Charles Hudon, a Montreal Canadiens prospect out of the QMJHL and Ty Rattie, a St. Louis Blues prospect from the WHL. Meanwhile, Anthony Camara, an OHL forward who is a Boston Bruins draft pick and Phillip Danault, a first round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011 currently playing in the QMJHL will be counted on to provide a physical, shut-down element to Canada's forward corps.
Perhaps most interesting are Canada's remaining three forwards. J.C. Lipon is an undrafted 19-year-old playing for the Kamloops Blazers. Currently second in the WHL in scoring with 57 points in 34 games, Lipon is a textbook definition of a late-bloomer and has already established a career high for goals with 22 in his fourth season in the league. The opportunity that the World Junior stage offers will ensure that Lipon won't fly under the radar for much longer.
For Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, attracting attention to their skills is hardly an issue. The draft eligible duo play together for the Halifax Mooseheads, one of the top teams in the CHL. MacKinnon is a favorite to be drafted first overall at next year's draft and Drouin has quickly risen up the ranks and is now hot on MacKinnon's heels. This is the first time that two draft eligible forwards are playing for Hockey Canada at the World Juniors since John Tavares and