Montreal Canadiens prospects experienced both team highs and team lows of international competition at the recently completed World Junior Hockey Championships. But regardless of how their national squads fared, the Habs-to-be all played key roles and acquitted themselves well.
“We’re very ecstatic,” said Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens director of player recruitment and development. “All four of our guys were arguably the top players on their respective clubs.”
First and foremost, Habs’ goaltending prospect Carey Price (1st round, 2005) was a standout all tournament for Canada. Whether it was his two shutouts – including an opening-night performance that put any question of who was Canada’s starter to rest – or a hardware haul so impressive that he probably had to pay extra luggage charges, Price’s profile rocketed to a new level with his performance.
Price was a key performer in Canada’s march to World Junior gold. In doing so he was named top goaltender by both the media and the tournament executives, and took home the coveted tournament most valuable player award — all this for a player whom some pundits earlier opined shouldn’t even have been on the club’s final roster. Timmins explained that the very things that make Price an elite netminder are the things that may cause people to misconstrue his personality.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding with Carey. He’s a laid-back personality – similar in many ways to [Cristobal] Huet,” he explained. “He’s an even-keeled person that doesn’t get too emotional. A lot of that gets mistaken for a lack of passion by those who don’t know him well.
“But it’s that even keel, that steady personality that reflects in his performance. He won’t get too high or too low, and he keeps his composure in any situation. His personality is one that’s calm, cool, and collected and he deals with everyone on the same level. It bodes well for his future.”
The Williams Lake, B.C. native turned away 25 of 27 shots in the final contest against Russia, leading the club to gold. Of course, this was just a continuation of his stellar play all tournament long. In the six games Canada played, Price was between the pipes for all 370 minutes. He turned aside 172 of 179 shots for a stellar 1.14 GAA and .961 save percentage.
It’s been a long trip from the obscure shadows of tiny Williams Lake — a region so remote and small that his father had to fly him in their small plane to other communities to play – to the international stage, and the accompanying white-hot glare of the spotlight that comes from being the Canadian national team goaltender. And while some may have considered Price’s tournament a breakthrough, Timmins said he and the club were not surprised by the 19-year-old’s performance.
“We’ve have already seen that level of play at the NHL level when he’s been here for training camps or exhibition games,” he explained. “That’s why we drafted him. He believe he’s going to be a top-end goaltender in Montreal one day.”
And while the final game was the climax of the event, Timmins pointed to Team Canada’s penultimate game when looking for Price’s best moment. “I thought that the U.S. team gave Canada a real battle and I give them full marks for their performance,” he said. “And when Canada killed a 4-3 power play in overtime of that game, I felt that was the highlight.
“They always say your goaltender is your best penalty killer and Carey truly showed that on that occasion.”
Interestingly enough, one of the two pucks that slipped by Price in the final game was fired by fellow Habs’ draft pick Pavel Valentenko (5th round, 2006). The young Russian blueliner was a force in his six games, accounting for two goals, one assist, and a plus-three rating. He held is own in the tournament finale, finishing at even. While his work didn’t go unnoticed – he was named Russia’s player of the game for the finale – he was lucky that another action earlier in the game did.
“The referees missed it but when [Steve] Downie (PHI) was punching the Russian player, Valentenko jumped off the bench and went after Downie,” Timmins explained, laughing. “He went out there in defense of his teammate.”
In fact, that was just indicative of the overall North-American-style game that the hulking blueliner displayed throughout the tournament. Most impressively, for a player known more for his defensive prowess, Valentenko played a key offensive role firing 13 shots on goal during the tournament, including three in the final game.
“Valentenko has a hell of a shot and he was an asset on their power play,” Timmins said. “He also plays in all critical situations: PP, PK, 5-on-3, end-of-game… He’s a great prospect, now we’ve just got to get him over here. He rose to the occasion in this tournament and I like what I saw out of him.”
And as well as Valentenko played for Russia in the WJC, Timmins said that their sleeper pick can play even better. “We know the kid can play better because we’ve seen him play that way over in Russia.”
Conversely, two prospects performed admirably for woeful squads. Last season Sergei Kostistyn (7th round, 2005) was the major force that pushed Belarus into the A group, as he was named the B-flight’s tournament MVP last season. This year, despite another strong performance for the club, he wasn’t able to help them avoid regulation back from whence they came.
Despite a performance that saw him involved in over 70 percent of the team’s scoring with one goal and four assists in the team’s six games, Kostitsyn’s Belarusian squad joined Germany as relegated squads.
Kostitsyn was particularly impressive in Belarus’ first game – surprise victory over heavily favored Finland. In that first game he had a goal and an assist and things looked up for the overmatched Belarusian squad. Unfortunately, that euphoria was short-lived as the team lost its next five games.
“Belarus just didn’t have much of a team and he had nobody to play with — nobody to think the game on the same level that he does,” Timmins explained. “I felt really bad for him.”
Of course, Kostitsyn wasn’t completely blameless for the club’s shoddy showing. “I think he just got frustrated and he brought his level down to that of his teammates,” Timmins added.
Timmins explained that he didn’t think the experience wasn’t a total waste of time, however. “You’re playing at the international level, playing against the best players of your age group,” he said. “You’re always going to have that to take away. Plus he got to go back and play with some of his friends, so there were some positives.”
A third team was on the brink of relegation – but no thanks to a fine performance by another Habs’ prospect. Belarus, Germany, and Slovakia were all on the bubble to be eliminated with only three points in the tournament, but Slovakia was able to stay in the A-flight thanks to having the best goal differential. Helping that cause was forward Juraj Mikus (4th round, 2005).
Mikus rebounded from a less-than-memorable 2006 tournament by accounting for five goals and an assist in the club’s six games. He was particularly lethal on special teams, scoring three power play goals and adding a short-handed marker.
“In the last tournament, Mikus basically sat on the bench because his coach went only with the guys who were playing in North America,” Timmins explained. “This year he was the tied for the tournament scoring lead [with four other players] despite not having a strong team around him.”
This was Mikus’ first World Junior tournament since coming overseas to play in the QMJHL. Timmins said that he was quite impressed with the level of development that he saw out of his young Slovakian winger.
“I thought he improved greatly in his play without the puck and his commitment to the defensive end,” he said. “He really came along with that.”
Mikus was named the team’s best player in two games and, despite playing for a club that finished with only one win to its credit, he was able to post a respectable –1 rating.
In the end, the Habs prospects’ haul netted one gold, one silver, one dash of hope for next year, and a sprinkle of disappointment thanks to the relegation rules. But with strong performances throughout the tournament, the quality of the organization’s prospect pool was demonstrated.
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