While disappointment at the club level is a reality for many of those named to Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team pre-competition camp in Winnipeg, the opportunity to wear a Team Canada jersey at the 2016 IIHF U18 Championship should soothe some of the ache.
The experience for the chosen ones to compete in Grand Forks, North Dakota should serve as just another important developmental step along their respective road maps to careers in professional hockey.
Last year, following a 7-2 loss to Team USA in the semi-final round, Canada earned the bronze medal with a 5-2 decision over the host team from Switzerland. Team USA went on to win the gold medal with a 2-1 overtime victory over Finland, and will have its sights set on defending their championship on home ice.
Traditionally, the Canadian entry at the U18 World Championship is not as strong as the group that participates in the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament held in the preceding August. With many of the country’s top juniors immersed in playoff hockey back home at this time of year, the talent pools available prior to each U18 event differ. That said, there are always a handful of players that bring a measure of success, experience and pedigree to the mix.
Look for Evan Fitzgerald of the Sherbrooke Phoenix to carry the load, unless one of the youngsters produces an out of this world performance at some point during the proceedings. Fitzgerald, who checks in at 6’3” and 222 pounds, plays every bit as big as his frame. He appeared in 54 regular season games for the Phoenix, who were bounced from the QMJHL playoffs in five games by the Shawinigan Cataractes.
Ranked among the top North American goaltenders for the 2016 NHL Draft by NHL Central Scouting, Fitzgerald produced a splendid performance at the 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver, where he started for Team Cherry and shutout Team Orr with 17 saves in just over 30 minutes of action. His performance came on the very day he celebrated his 18th birthday, while also surviving a nasty bout of the stomach flu.
Stuart Skinner of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, who is not eligible until the 2017 NHL Draft, gives Canada another big goaltender to utilize. At 6’4” and 209 pounds, the Edmonton area native was an integral part of the Hurricanes resurgence in the WHL this past season. Young Michael DiPietro of the Windsor Spitfires, who appeared in 29 OHL regular season games, is another 2017-eligible being given a look.
Two of the top-ranked North American defensemen for the 2016 NHL Draft were to have anchored the blueline for Canada, but the injury bug has reared its ugly head.
Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting is a big, mature and burly defender, and already a respected leader. He will make the trip to Grand Forks, but Jake Bean of the Calgary Hitmen is heading home with a broken foot. Bean has offensive flair and heady puck movement that will certainly be missed. Logan Stanley of the Spitfires is in good form, the biggest defender on the roster at 6’6 and 210 pounds. All three played in the 2016 CHL Top Prospects Game and, barring any significant last-minute additions to the team, the two OHL defenders will likely handle the bulk of the workload.
Also being given a look is Dante Fabbro of the BCHL’s Penticton Vees, who were surprisingly ousted from the RBC Cup chase in the second round of the playoffs by an upstart Westside Warriors team. Fabbro is a proficient puck mover, but struggled at times when he was physically targeted during the BCHL postseason. If the pace is quick and the play more wide open at the U18, Fabbro’s puck skills may bring another important dimension to the team’s offensive push.
Nicolas Hague (Mississauga Steelheads), Matt Phillips (Owen Sound Attack) and David Quenneville (Medicine Hat Tigers) round out the blueline brigade.
There will be no shortage of speed and skill among the forward group, headlined by Michael McLeod of the Mississauga Steelheads. McLeod is coming in after a feverish seven-game battle against the Barrie Colts in the first round of the OHL playoffs. If his tank is near full, his puck skills and ability to play with urgency should create headaches for opposition defenders.
Pascal Laberge of the Victoriaville Tigres, who celebrated his 18th birthday on April 9th, is another weapon offensively. Coming off a pair of injuries to his arm, Laberge turned in a nifty 68-point performance in 56 games this past season. Jordan Kyrou of the Sarnia Sting was also productive this season with 51 points in 65 games.
McLeod, Laberge and Kyrou were all solid at the 2016 CHL Top Prospects Game, providing the current coaching staff with some skill and versatility.
Add Will Bitten of the Flint Firebirds and the group should not be left wanting for scoring depth. Bitten, the team captain in Flint during a most tumultuous season, has risen above the off-ice controversy to keep himself in 2016 NHL Draft conversations. He survived a bizarre travel schedule to attend the Top Prospects Game in Vancouver where he impressed with his composure and eloquence.
Highly-touted forward Tyson Jost of the Penticton Vees is also with the U18 group, again due to Penticton’s early exit from postseason play. Jost surpassed the 100-point mark in the BCHL this season, in only 48 games. He has become a sturdy, gritty winger, who can do damage in the attacking zone without a need for significant space. Jost, projected as a first round selection at the 2016 NHL Draft, is headed to the NCAA next season to play for the newly-crowned National Champion, the University of North Dakota.
Among the youngsters up front that took part in the pre-tournament camp are Gabe Vilardi of the Windsor Spitfires and the Steelheads’ Owen Tippett. The pair was dominant at the World U17 Hockey Challenge late last year as they led Canada White to a gold medal. In six games, Tippett collected eight points, one more than Vilardi. Also prominent at the event were Maxime Comtois of the Victoriaville Tigres and Antoine Morand of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, who led Canada Red in scoring at the U17 with seven and six points respectively. Collectively, their international experience will be of value in Grand Forks as they all continue to author Hockey Canada program resumes. Vilardi and Morand were the final cuts from Canada roster, however, and will not be taking part in the U18.
Three WHL forwards, Beck Malenstyn (Calgary Hitmen), Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Spokane Chiefs) and Michael Rasmussen (Tri-City Americans) are also experienced against international competition. Depth up front will not be a problem for Canada in Grand Forks.
Cameron Morrison, 17, from the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL will move in to fill Bean’s roster spot.
Ice Chips…Canada will begin Pool B play on April 15th against Denmark and follow with games against the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Finland. The gold medal and bronze medal games are set for April 24th…The primary venue, Ralph Engelstad Arena, is the site where Canada won the 2005 WJC in perhaps its most convincing fashion ever, outscoring the competition 41-7 in six games…There is WHL flavour behind the bench as Medicine Hat Tigers Shaun Clouston is the head coach. He will be joined by assistants Serge Lajoie (University of Alberta Golden Bears-CIS) and Jarrod Skalde (Guelph Storm-OHL)…Eight players (Bean, Bitten, Fabbro, Malenstyn, Jost, Kyrou, McLeod and Quenneville) were members of the gold medal-winning team at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament…This is the second tough break of Bean’s career, as he suffered a broken wrist during his rookie season in the WHL…Eight others (Tippett, Vilardi, Phillips, Comtois, DiPietro, Morand, Anderson-Doland and Rasmussen) played in the 2015 World U17 Hockey Challenge…Canada played two pre-competition games in Winnipeg at the MTS Centre, home of the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL. They defeated the Czech Republic, 7-1, before dropping a 4-3 decision to Sweden…Canada last won the gold medal at the 2013 U18 World Championship where, led by Connor McDavid, they defeated Team USA by a 3-2 count in the final.
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