The team representing Canada at the 2016 World Junior Championship (WJC) will arrive as the defending champions. The current group will also be pegged as a pre-tournament favorite. However, the group looks to be in tough to repeat as gold medalists.
Festivities begin on Dec. 26th in Helsinki, Finland, which hosts the event for the sixth time. The 2016 edition also marks the 40th time the IIHF has held its World U20 Championship. Overall, Canada has earned a podium finish 29 times, including 16 gold, eight silver and five bronze medals.
The Canadians open their preliminary round schedule against the United States, the country that claimed gold in 2004 when the WJC was last played in Finland. Canada has had success in Finland as well, collecting the gold medal on two occasions, in 1985 and 1990. Canada will also play Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden in the preliminary round.
Suffice to say, a skilled team with plenty of speed will don Team Canada colors, but the group will be relatively young, and collectively rather shy on WJC experience. There is upside in that Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence has enabled the majority of the players on the roster to compete internationally in World U17 and U18 championships, in addition to the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament held each August.
The significance of returning players cannot be understated, yet Canada will boast only four players from last year’s edition. The key returnees are Brayden Point (TBL), Joe Hicketts (DET) and Lawson Crouse (FLA), all of whom play in the CHL. Jake Virtanen is on loan from the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL.
In putting the team together, the coaching staff also had to consider the readiness of a few players. Ahead of the selection camp, Point, Rourke Chartier (SJS), Mitchell Stephens (TBL) and Travis Sanheim (PHI) all missed enough time due to injuries to at least raise some concerns. Jake Walman (STL), who plays in the NCAA, was injured just before the camp and did not attend.
In its three pre-tournament games, Canada went undefeated. A convincing 7-1 victory over Belarus was predictable, yet the Czech Republic played Canada tough before yielding 1-0. Against Sweden, Canada led 5-1 after 40-minutes, and hung on to survive with a 7-6 decision after losing the third period by a 5-2 count.
The days of bringing four netminders to the annual selection camp appear to be over as Hockey Canada initially penciled in Mason McDonald (CGY) and Mackenzie Blackwood (NJD) to share duties in goal this year, barring injury or other circumstance.
Of course, that “other circumstance” arose when Blackwood was suspended by the OHL for eight games, which renders him unavailable for the first two games of the WJC preliminary round.
McDonald, now 19, toils in the QMJHL for the Charlottetown Islanders, a team that currently languishes among the league’s bottom third in the standings. His ability to control depth in the net should be enhanced by an international rule that sees play stopped if an opponent enters the goal crease. McDonald has improved his rebound control and presents a daunting 6’4”, 200-pound frame that forces shooters to be near perfect.
During Canada’s pre-tournament games, McDonald played every minute and surrendered eight goals, six of which came against Sweden in a bizarre affair that saw the Swedes play much of the final period on the power play.
Blackwood has been a workhorse for the OHL’s Barrie Colts this season, appearing in 24 games for a team that sits among the top third in the league standings. Blackwood was solid in a statement game of sorts in November, backstopping Team OHL to a 3-0 victory in Game 3 of the annual CHL Canada Russia Series (formerly the Subway Super Series). At 6’4” and 215 pounds, he is another imposing figure between the pipes.
A third goaltender was added by Team Canada shortly after the OHL suspended Blackwood. Samuel Montembeault (FLA) came in and actually blanked the CIS All-Stars 5-0 in Canada’s second exhibition game on home soil during the selection camp. He will backup McDonald for the first two games of the tournament before Blackwood returns.
The group on the backend brings tremendous offensive skill to this WJC. How they are able to utilize these tools remains to be seen, but one would have to wonder about the adaptability of scoring defensemen being placed in defensive-minded roles. Offense from the backend can be an extremely valuable commodity.
With Hicketts the only returnee, Canada is at least guaranteed a rearguard with WJC experience. He possesses elite skills and is a player who has proven to be effective at both ends of the ice. Hicketts continues to demonstrate both an amazing aptitude for the game and non-stop competitiveness. He checks in at 5’8” and 175 pounds, yet he is surprisingly capable and motivated physically. But perhaps his most valuable attribute for the coming weeks will be of the offensive variety. With bigger ice and varied passing lanes, Hicketts’ puck moving skills could spring many of his speedy forwards.
A host of newbies will be counted upon to deliver high-end performances on the international-sized ice surfaces. Sanheim, who plays for the Calgary Hitmen, and Haydn Fleury of the Red Deer Rebels, were released after the selection camp last season. This time around, both are expected to play pivotal roles.
Sanheim, who is often paired in Calgary with Jake Bean (2016), perhaps the top draft-eligible prospect in the WHL this season, can bring it offensively. He is a reliable partner as well, given Bean’s penchant for offensive bursts. Among juniors, Sanheim is about as complete a rearguard as they come. Fleury has matured in the WHL and has become a much more consistent defenseman. He can rag the puck with confidence and is capable of buying himself time to make the right decisions when head-manning the puck.
McKeown, the leading scorer among defensemen in the OHL, is the only right-handed shooter among the group. Dermott, second in scoring among defensemen behind McKeown, has established himself as a player that will use his smarts to pick his spots offensively. Chabot is regarded as a top-notch skater with very good speed.
Hickey is the only member of the team plying his trade in the NCAA, at Boston University, where he has gotten accustomed to playing against older and more physically mature opponents. He is among the most articulate players on the roster and incidentally, his WHL rights were acquired recently by the Red Deer Rebels, the host team for the 2016 Memorial Cup. The city of Red Deer happens to be located about one hour south of Hickey’s hometown of Leduc, AB.
There is no mistaking that this is a talent-laden roster of forwards, but there is tremendous value in possessing a core group with real WJC experience. And this edition now includes three returning forwards, as the addition of Jake Virtanen addresses one of Team Canada’s potential weaknesses: experience.
Virtanen, along with Brayden Point and Lawson Crouse earned their gold medals last year amid the intense media scrutiny that occurs when the tournament is played in Canada. Finland will most certainly embrace the WJC, but media mayhem should be less of an issue in Helsinki compared to Toronto and Montreal a year ago.
During a podcast with Hockey’s Future at the 2014 Top Prospects Game in Calgary, Virtanen confirmed he has dual citizenship and shared the Finnish pronunciation of his last name. While in Helsinki for the 2016 WJC, the Yale Academy grad and former Calgary Hitmen product will be looked upon to bring a physical presence to the tournament. He is a powerful skater with a quick release and a heavy shot. Virtanen also provides the coaching staff with the option of playing a right-handed winger on the off-wing. Beyond the WJC, where Virtanen will play an important leadership role, he might be destined for a return to the WHL.
Point has been fabulous this season in Moose Jaw, leading the WHL in scoring for much of the campaign until being slowed by a shoulder injury suffered shortly after his appearance for Team WHL in the CHL Canada Russia Series games. He missed 15 games, but if he is 100 percent healthy, he should only improve as the tournament progresses.
Crouse is huge. At 6’4” and 211 pounds, he can assuredly make himself at home in front of opposition goaltenders. For a player of his size, he moves very well and should be effective on the international-sized ice surface. Crouse is capable of providing offensive punch.
For elite offensive skills, look no further than Mitch Marner (TOR) and Dylan Strome (ARI), who were paired together through much of the selection camp. The challenge for the coaching staff appears to be finding the best fit on left wing with the two OHL stars. Marner has been lighting it up in the OHL this season, residing among the league scoring leaders with 58 points in 25 games. Strome is fifth in OHL scoring with 53 points in 25 games.
The top six will be formidable, but perhaps the roster provides more of a top nine. Rourke Chartier, who was among the final cuts for last year’s World Juniors, earned a spot this year with a strong performance in the pre-tournament games. His versatility creates a number of options for the coaching staff. He has seen time with a pair of the QMJHL’s offensively gifted forwards, Anthony Beauvillier (NYI) and Julien Gauthier (2016). If nothing else, this is a trio that provides valuable scoring depth.
The remainder of the forward group can also produce in the attacking zone. Any combination of Stephens, Travis Konecny (PHI), Brendan Perlini (ARI), Mathew Barzal (NYI) and John Quenneville (NJD) effectively results in a fourth scoring line for Team Canada.
Look for the term “scoring by committee” to get plenty of play when this group of forwards is discussed during the WJC. If “run and gun” is a plausible mantra for Team Canada, it would appear the roster is well-equipped to compete and dominate at Helsinki.