Team Canada 2007 WJC preview

By Phil Laugher

There were more questions than answers as Team Canada began its selection camp on Sunday, in preparation for an attempt to win the nation’s third consecutive gold medal in the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championships in late December and early January in Leksand and Mora, Sweden. With 11 returning players likely guaranteed spots, at least 10 roster spots, including such key positions as goaltending and top-six forwards, were still up in the air.

Leadership in both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice will not be an issue, as up front, Team Canada returns six key contributors from last year’s team, including gritty, heart-and-soul players in Peterborough’s Steve Downie (PHI) and Saginaw’s Tom Pyatt (NYR), and North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews (CHI), not to mention the two-way offensive fluidity from University of Michigan sophomore Andrew Cogliano (EDM), Boston College’s Daniel Bertram, and Pyatt’s teammate Ryan O’Marra (NYI).

On the blue line, Canada’s roster features two returning players who have already seen time playing in the NHL this season in former junior teammates Kristopher Letang (PIT) and Luc Bourdon (VAN), as well as shifty offensive defenseman Kris Russell (CBJ) and towering blueliners Ryan Parent (NSH) and Marc Staal (NYR). The mix of speed, skill, and grit, as well as a tradition of winning, will allow this group of veterans to provide leadership to the new blood coming onto this year’s incarnation.

Goaltending

The biggest question mark on Canada’s roster this year will be between the pipes. However, given the wealth of options that have performed well over the course of the season, as well as the fact that some of the goaltenders invited to camp have already seen time playing in Canada’s Programme of Excellence on the international stage, any concerns about goaltending issues are likely unfounded. Featuring three first-round draft picks, as well as a highly underrated third-round selection from the past two drafts, the goaltending group brings plenty of talent, to go along with their results.

Out of the three Canadian junior leagues, Team Canada’s selection camp features two of the top-ranking netminders in each respective league; the WHL represented by 18-year-old Everett Silvertips netminder Leland Irving (CGY) (who has posted a sparkling 20-3 record, along with six shutouts and a miniscule 1.55 goals against average while backstopping the top team in the country) and Lewiston third-year goaltender Jonathan Bernier (LA) representing the QMJHL (who leads the league with a stellar 2.44 goals against average for his division-leading MAINEiacs). Both Irving and Bernier are veterans of the Canadian national program, having both played integral roles on Canada’s gold medal-winning under-18 team last year.

Another goaltender in camp who has played in the under-18 championships (in 2005) is Tri-City Americans netminder Carey Price (MTL), who helped backstop Canada to a silver medal. This season, Price has looked very strong on a retooling Americans team, posting a 12-7 record and a goals against average and save percentage of 2.75 and .904 respectively.

Though he may lack his competition’s international experience, London Knights netminder Steve Mason (CBJ) has emerged this past season as a relative steal when the Blue Jackets chose him in the third round of last year’s NHL Entry Draft. Mason has admirably backstopped the Knights to the top of the OHL’s standings in a year where they did not expect to be achieving such lofty heights so soon. Posting a save percentage near the top of the league’s standings, and a very strong 20-6 record, the workhorse has shown that he can play strong under pressure when facing plenty of rubber. However, once camp opened, Mason was sidelined with headaches, which will give him a far more difficult chance at cracking the final roster.

Given the early-season successes of all those invited to Canada’s camp, the focus and strong positional play inherent in each goaltender’s game, as well as the wealth of experience, whoever Craig Hartsburg and company choose to backstop their national junior team will likely be a wise choice.

Defense

The defensive picture on Canada’s roster is much clearer than between the pipes, with five quality veterans returning from last year’s gold medal squad. With only two roster spots available, and seven defensemen fighting it out for those two spots, it will not only be a matter of who plays best in camp, but also the direction in which Canada’s coaching staff chooses to go in regards to whether they want an offensively skilled blueliner, or a shut-down stay-at-homer in the No. 6 spot.

With last year’s pairings of Bourdon and Letang, and Staal and Parent likely to remain together, one of the spots will go to finding a defensive foil to the combination that features offensive dynamo Russell. This will likely lend credence to the theory that a rock-solid defensive defenseman would be the best choice for the sixth spot. If that is the case, then one of the front-runners will likely be Calgary Hitmen defenseman Karl Alzner (2007 eligible), who boasts great size and mobility, and while he has posted some solid offensive numbers thus far this season, he is also very responsible in his own end, knowing when to jump into the play, and when it is best to play back and cover his own end. Playing alongside Russell, chances are Alzner would be in his own end more of the time.

Also in the discussion in regards to defensive-minded options on the point are highly-touted fellow 2007-eligible Kamloops Blazers defenseman Keaton Ellerby, who lacks Alzner’s offensive upside, but brings the toughness that is lacking from Alzner’s game, and Vancouver Giants defenseman Brendan Mikkelson (ANA), whose defensive game was at one point in his junior hockey a bit of a detriment, but has improved steadily over the past couple of seasons, so that it is now a strength. Also, despite his lack of scoring, he has solid puck-moving ability from the point.

As far as offensive options who are also very solid in their own end, the player who may have the leg up at present is Vancouver Giants defenseman Cody Franson (NAS). Boasting strong offensive numbers, massive size with some physicality, and an excellent ability to make quick accurate passes, the right-handed shooting Franson would be a valuable asset to the Canadian power play alongside Letang and Russell, and he would not be out of place at all fitting in on any of the pairings should the opportunity (or need) arise.

Another key power play option is Saginaw defenseman Patrick McNeill (WAS), who has picked up 30 points, of which 13 have been goals, thus far this season. McNeill, the leading scoring defenseman in the OHL last season, brings perhaps the greatest offensive creativity of all defensemen in camp, as well as excellent skating ability, however, his less-than-stellar defensive play may be a detriment should he be pressed into service in one of the top couple of pairings. Still, McNeill’s quickness and offensive awareness on the big ice could be of great help.

Also, Brandon’s Dustin Kohn (NYI) is a talented offensive defenseman who anchors the Wheat Kings power play. An elite puck-moving defenseman who plays big minutes against the opposition’s top forward lines, Kohn, too, would be a solid addition to the Canadian blue line.

The wild card in camp is 2008 eligible Guelph Storm defenseman Drew Doughty, who brings great offensive awareness and solid defensive play to the table. Any concerns about his thin international experience should be exacerbated by his familiarity with his Parent, who has been the defensive presence in the pairing with Doughty partner in Guelph. If Doughty were to make the team, it would be intriguing to see whether or not Hartsburg would choose to pair up his Storm teammate, forsaking last year’s successes in the Staal/Parent combination in favor of a longer-term familiarity that Doughty and Parent have.

Regardless of the defensive pairings chosen by the Canadian coaching staff, defense will undoubtedly be a strength on this year’s squad. With rock-solid blue line returnees like Parent, Staal and Bourdon keeping the back end under control, and Letang and Russell displaying offensive prowess, controlling the power play and leading the rush, the veterans will rival the defensive units of any of the top teams. What they may lack in regards to the top-end talent that the American squad may have, they more than make up for in quality depth. Add to the fact that there is an influx of quality young talent with both offensive and defensive responsibility, any concerns about the relatively inexperienced goaltending units should be alleviated.

Forward

There are plenty more roster spot availabilities among the forward units, as compared with the blue line. With only six returning forwards from last year’s squad that means that there will be seven openings. However, with 16 very strong competitors willing to go tooth and nail to secure one of those spots, expect the competition among the forwards to be just as intense as throughout the rest of the roster. With Cogliano, Toews, O’Marra, and Bertram likely to receive plenty of ice on a scoring line (Downie and Pyatt, too, could very easily slot onto the top two lines, but their grittiness and excellent two-way play may be better suited for the third line this year), the chances of purely offensive players cracking the line-up, and seeing regular time, may be slim. It will be the strong two-way players who will have a leg up on the competition, at least initially in camp.

With the coaching staff emphasizing chemistry and character for this year’s squad, the chances of some of the grinding options making the team on either a checking line or an energy line role, may be far higher than in past years, where the emphasis has been largely on pure skill. For the bulk of the players who are on the cusp of making the team for the first time, grit is the order of the day. Players such as Medicine Hat’s Darren Helm (DET), Kingston banging winger Chris Stewart (COL), and Plymouth forward James Neal (DAL) all bring an excellent mix of offensive skill, defensive awareness, and a tireless work ethic, and would be perfect fits on either the third or fourth lines. All are hard skating players with an ability to play in all positions, who are known as game changers for their in-your-face brand of physical play, complementing their solid on-ice vision.

In a similar vein are Vancouver winger Kendall McArdle (FLA) and Kootenay forward Ben Maxwell, who also bring great offensive awareness to the table, as well as a willingness to mix it up physically. McArdle has at times struggled this season, particularly since getting traded to Vancouver (which has plenty to do with getting acclimated to a new set of systems), and may run into occasional discipline problems, but he loves to hit and has at times shown a great nose for the net. For Maxwell, another veteran of the national under-18 system, the concern may be that there are too many offensive weapons, so that the speedy, tenacious centerman will have to rely greatly on his developing grittiness and burgeoning two-way play in order to latch on with the national junior team. Expected to make the club next year, Maxwell will have to have an excellent camp this season to crack the deep squad.

Prince George’s Devin Setoguchi could also be in consideration for such a role, in spite of the fact that he has underachieved thus far this season. This relative inconsistent play has been largely as a result of his year getting off on the wrong foot as a result of an injury, as well as the volatile nature of hockey in Prince George this season. Setoguchi brings an up-tempo style of play to the table, with grit and physicality, complemented by an excellent offensive game. He is the type of player who could see fourth-line ice, but could also be in for some power-play time, thanks to his adept finishing ability.

A player like Val d’Or’s Brad Marchand also brings some level of grit to the table, to complement an excellent offensive game. A dynamic playmaker with great hands, Marchand is no stranger to the national spotlight, being an important contributor to the Moncton Wildcats at the Memorial Cup last season, so he knows how to deal with playing under pressure. He also has international experience, having played for Team Atlantic in the World under-17 hockey championships. Two things may be against Marchand’s chances of making the team — the first being his lack of size. At a generous 5’9, he may be too small to play the banging role that would be needed on an energy line. Also, his foot speed is not the greatest, which could be detrimental, especially on the international ice surface.

As far as forwards who could be used in a strictly checking role, two names come immediately to mind from the camp invitee list. The first is Lewiston forward Marc-Andre Cliche, who has been playing that role with the MAINEiacs. Very strong in the face-off circle, with great two-way play and an ability to play in all situations, Cliche would be an excellent, if relatively unheralded addition to the Canadian checking line. Add to the fact that there is coaching staff familiarity, with Cliche’s junior coach, Clement Jodoin, also serving as Canada’s assistant coach, Cliche may have a leg up on the competition.

Another option, strictly for defensive purposes, would be Mississauga forward Cody Bass (OTT), who brings a great shutdown game to the table. While his offensive numbers are lacking this season, that is due largely to the lack of a supporting cast around him with the Ice Dogs, as well as off-ice distractions in regards to the team’s future. A veteran of the Canadian under-17 and under-18 squads, Bass’s international experience, coupled with his tireless work ethic and hard skating, hard checking ability make him an attractive option on the third line.

With the potential of one or two of the returning players being moved onto a checking line this year, there could very well be a couple of spots available to forwards who typify the offense-first style of play. The only problem in choosing amongst the offensive players eligible for the team will be which of the talented players to choose; it certainly will not be from a lack of options. Two of the top three leading scorers from the QMJHL — Mathieu Perreault (WSH) from Acadie- Bathurst and Claude Giroux (PHI) from Gatineau; three of the top six scorers from the OHL — 2009-eligible John Tavares from Oshawa, 2007-eligible Sam Gagner from London, and Bryan Little (ATL) from Barrie (not including the aforementioned Downie); and the second leading scorer from the WHL in Brandon’s Codey Burki (COL). This stellar list does not include the young man who has been talked about as a potential first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft in Quebec’s Angelo Esposito.

Giroux and Perreault have posted absolutely massive numbers this season, and boast great speed and creativity with the puck, as well as solid drive to the net. Their skating and shiftiness may be strong, and they may be adept playmakers, but their lack of size may be of concern to the Canadian staff. With numerous options available at hand, Giroux and Perreault will have to show that they can bring a certain game-breaking intangible to the table in order to warrant a spot on the final roster.

Little may be the best suited of the seven for a spot on the top two lines, bringing incredible offensive awareness, and excellent ability in the face-off circle to the table. The stocky Barrie forward has also shown a willingness to get his nose dirty, and would be a perfect pivot on the second line, or at very least in the second power play unit. Burki, too, brings high levels of energy and a great finishing ability to the table, though he has shown occasional bouts of inconsistency over the course of the past couple of seasons. He will have to have a strong, complete camp, to show the coaching staff that he can put together a solid string of games, and will not disappear mid-tournament. The 19-year-old forward has had to step up this season with the Wheat Kings, after the graduation of several top players, and this burgeoning leadership role will be invaluable in his push for a roster spot.

If Canada chooses to keep an eye to the future, at least one of Gagner, Esposito and Tavares – none of which have been drafted into the NHL as of yet – will likely garner a roster spot. All three bring excellent offensive awareness and game-breaking skill sets to the table, while not neglecting wholly their own end. Gagner has had a breakout season thus far this year with the Knights, scoring at a frantic pace that could put his end-of-season totals near 150 points, even with his junior camp absence. A great finisher with a quick, accurate shot, Gagner’s nose for the net will be highly sought after. In Esposito, Canada is presented with yet another dynamic offensive presence, who has stepped up admirably after the departure of Nashville prospect Alexander Radulov. Though he had a slow start, Esposito has been on a tear as of late, and is blossoming into form. His perimeter play has been a question mark in the past, as has his grit, but there is no questioning his offensive talent, and with the right linemates, he could be an exciting member of the Canadian team.

As far as the 16-year-old Tavares goes, he may have perhaps the greatest upside among the forward group. He is a game-breaker with excellent finishing ability, has great size and doesn’t mind using it, and has been a man amongst boys, despite being only 16, for the past year and a half in the OHL. The only real concern about his game is his only average foot speed, but with his drive to the net, that aspect of his game should not be much of a problem. If Team Canada decides to go with a bit of a youth movement with the rest of their forward lines, Tavares will likely be the first name penciled in, following in the footsteps of other 16-year-olds that have donned the maple leaf, such as Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros.

Aside from the 44 players invited from camp, there is a very slight, outside chance that a player could be returned from the NHL to partake in the tournament. While this has been an increasingly rare occurrence in recent years, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (SJ), and forwards Guillaume Latendresse (MTL) and Jordan Staal (PIT) are still eligible to play for Canada. One should not hold one’s breath in expectation of any of these three being on the team though. Vlasic has been an integral part of the Sharks blue line in his rookie season, playing over 21 minutes per game, Latendresse has put together a solid string of games after a slow start (and his ice time has doubled as a result), and Staal, too, has become a regular fixture in the Penguins line-up. Chances of any of the three returning are small, with Staal perhaps the most likely, and Canada’s roster should not suffer in the least as a result of their failure to be released for the tournament.

Given the quality returning players, and the wealth of new arrivals to choose from for this year’s World Junior roster, the chances of the Canadian team going deep into the tournament yet again, as they chase a third straight gold medal, is high – with or without any NHL additions.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.