The expectation for Canada is always the same: nothing short of a gold medal. But in recent history, the results have fallen short.
After a pair of silver medals and a bronze over the last three World Juniors, Canada was once again tasked with bringing home the gold at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
Bolstered by additional talent that under regular circumstances would be playing in the NHL, the belief was that the Canadians would replicate their efforts from the last lockout year in 2005 and win the tournament with ease. But when the smoke cleared and the tournament came to an end, Canada found themselves in 4th place and shut out of the medals for the first time since 1998. Cue the nationwide navel-gazing.
From poor coaching to poor player selection, not enough offense and not enough attention to defense, undisciplined play and the common complaints about goaltending, if the litany of post-tournament critiques were all to be believed, one might be surprised to find out that the Canadians won a single game, let alone going undefeated in the round robin. In fact, during round robin play, Canada beat both the Americans, who returned the favor in the semi-finals, and the host Russian squad, who narrowly edged them out for the bronze medal.
If it wasn't for the end of the NHL lockout and the pending ratification of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it is easy to imagine that the national conversation on hockey would still be focused on dissecting the efforts of the team that competed in Ufa. Such is the reality of hockey in Canada.
But is there really a magic formula? A combination of coaching philosophy and player talent that results in gold championships? Certainly Canada has had stretches where it appeared they could do no wrong. In the past 20 years, they have won half of the available gold medals, focused in two five-year streaks. If there's a blueprint for success, it appears to currently be out of reach for the Canadians, just as mysteriously as it started.
In the end, this is junior hockey and anything can happen. More importantly, this was a team made of teenagers plucked from across the country, thrown together for a handful of weeks. The team that adapts the quickest is often the one that hears their anthem played after the last game. While the Canadians proved to once again be among the top countries in junior hockey, they once again failed to find that ultimate success. They will be right in the thick of things again next year when the tournament shifts to Malmo, Sweden. However, after sending a team primarily made up of 19-year-olds, it will be new faces leading that charge, but the expectation of gold will remain the same.
Here's a look at some of the standout players for the 2013 edition of Canada's National Junior Team.
Canada's top forward was also without a doubt their MVP and under normal circumstances, he would have never been pulling the maple leaf over his head. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the captain of Team Canada after playing last season for the Edmonton Oilers. The NHL lockout led to the 19-year-old plying his trade with the Oilers' AHL farm team, the Oklahoma City Barons, but make no mistake; the center is a bona fide NHL player. As such, he was expected to dominate in Ufa and he delivered. Leading not only the Canadians but the entire tournament in scoring, Nugent-Hopkins tallied four goals and 15 points in just six games. As such, he was named the tournament's top forward, despite the fact that Canada did not walk away with a medal. Of particular note was his play in both the first and the last games of the tournament. In the opener against Germany, Nugent-Hopkins had a goal and five points to pace the Canadians to a 9-3 victory. Meanwhile, in the bronze medal match against the Russians, the captain scored a goal and had four points as the team fell in overtime, 6-5.
While Nugent-Hopkins might have been the most dangerous player on the ice, his alternate captain Scott Harrington could be considered a polar opposite. A returning player this year, the best way to tell if Harrington is doing his job is if you never notice him at all. Despite flying under the radar, he was Canada's best defenseman game-in and game-out. With just two assists in six games, his stat line is hardly anything to write home about, but this is from a player who has a career high of six goals in his OHL career. A Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, Harrington was tasked with playing big minutes against the opposing teams' top lines and leading the penalty kill efforts. Despite this challenging assignment, his +5 rating was second only to Nugent-Hopkins and his leadership and experience often was a steadying force on the ice.
In a similar vein to Harrington, Mark McNeill's statistical contributions are minimal. In fact, he was held without a point in all six games for Team Canada. But he was Canada's unsung hero regardless. Sent home from the winter selection camp, McNeill, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, was set to rejoin the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL when he received a phone call. Forward Charles Hudon, originally a member of the World Junior squad, had gone down with a back injury prior to the tournament and so McNeill was brought back to replace him. The theme of stepping up to fill a role continued after McNeill met the team in Europe. With Boone Jenner suspended for three games after a dangerous hit in a pre-tournament match against Sweden, McNeill stepped into the role of shutdown center for Canada and played a crucial role on the penalty kill during the round robin. Once Jenner returned, McNeill had forced his way into a regular spot in the lineup where he would remain until the end of the tournament.
Despite sending a team studded with 19-year-old talent and a number of players who should have been playing NHL hockey instead of skating for Canada, two draft-eligible 17-year-olds also forced their way onto the roster. Although Nathan MacKinnon was the player that most were buzzing about prior to the tournament, it was his Halifax Mooseheads teammate, Jonathan Drouin, who stole the show. The left winger carved out a top-six role for himself and finished the tournament with two goals and four points in six games. In comparison, MacKinnon struggled to find a role and regular ice time and only contributed a single assist over the course of the tournament. Though MacKinnon is still considered by most to have the edge when it comes to the draft rankings, Drouin's play made significant noise and opened the eyes of many. With both players expected to be drafted early in the first round this summer, Hockey Canada hopes that at least one of them will be available to return to the World Junior team next winter.
MacKinnon and Drouin may be garnering the majority of the draft buzz, but there was actually another draft-eligible player on Team Canada. 19-year-old JC Lipon has gone through two draft days without hearing his name, but this is unlikely to happen again this summer. He was among the leading scorers in the WHL when he left to join Team Canada and although his performance in Ufa may not have been as smooth as hoped, he appears to have solidified his stock for the upcoming draft. A classic late-bloomer, Lipon played a fourth-line role for Canada and was forced to sit out a game with a suspension after a high hit in the round robin. Despite his limited minutes, his presence alone on the roster speaks volumes for his play this season and should reflect well on his future.
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy