2013 U18 WJC Preview: Canada hopes to improve on last year’s bronze finish

By Chapin Landvogt

Connor McDavid - Erie Otters

Photo: Team Canada’s U18 squad will feature the usual complement of offensive talent, perhaps none more talented than OHL Rookie of the Year Connor McDavid (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Canadian national team coach Don Hay is heading to Sochi as a man with a great deal of experience ranging from the NHL (Calgary and Phoenix) right on down to over 20 years of experience in Canadian juniors, having won the Memorial Cup on three separate occasions. Now it’ll be his duty to quickly turn an extremely talented group of young men into a championship caliber team.

As in almost every year, the Canadian side will feature more players ranked in the top 90 for the upcoming NHL Draft than any other country. Still, this has led to surprisingly little medal-related success in recent years. Last year’s team pulled out a bronze medal, 5-4 OT victory over Finland, despite having given up a 4-1 lead to allow the game to go to overtime in the first place. This year’s squad will be returning just a few players, namely top defensemen Darnell Nurse and Josh Morrissey as well as captain Sam Reinhart. All three are expected to be among the tournament’s top players.

Coach Hay’s team also contains a traditional Canadian mix of promising draft-eligible scorers and players to fill various line-specific roles. Point-getters such as Reinhart (85 points for Kootenay), Morgan Klimchuk (76 for Regina), Frederik Gauthier (60 for Rimouski), Brayden Point (57 for Moose Jaw) and Jason Dickinson (47 for Guelph) will be expected to carry much of the offensive load. Big boys such as Nick Ritchie (6’2”, 218), Gauthier (6’4”, 215), Alexis Pepin (6’2”, 196), Dillon Heatherington (6’4”, 196) and Samuel Morin (6’6”, 203) will be called upon to create space, cause havoc and keep opponents honest.

Canada will also be icing several 16-year-olds who are seen as top prospects in the years to come, including offensive defenseman Joe Hicketts and forwards Sam Bennett, Pepin and most importantly, super talent Connor McDavid. The goaltending duties will rest on the shoulders of Philippe Desrosiers and Spencer Martin. With a 3.07 goals-against average, a .900 save percentage and 22-8-5 record, it is expected that Desrosiers will be the likely starter going in, but this squad appears to have goalies that are as good as any teams. Ironically, they are currently ranked fifth (Martin) and sixth respectively among North American goaltenders for this summer’s draft.

This preliminary round will allow Canada to avoid the US and Russia before the playoffs, but will require the team to face a Swedish club that has been quite a bit more successful internationally in recent years. In addition, both Germany and Switzerland have each proven to be unnecessarily tedious opponents for Team Canada and the team simply must find the motivation to face them both at full speed for 60 minutes. Moreover, the team will have to quickly become more than just the sum of its parts, as the names on paper haven’t always performed better than the no-names that other teams have thrown on the ice at this level. As always, every country is shooting for the Canadians and they seemingly always find the motivation to give their best in being a thorn in the side of the red, white and black. Finishing first in the group would go a long way in avoiding any unnecessary playoff round mishaps.

Strengths: Size and skill, toughness and smoothness. As pointed out above, the whole entourage of desired team elements is available. The team is chock full of players who enjoyed considerable development and personal success this past season in the CHL. In Nurse, Morrissey, Gauthier and Dickinson, the team features four players who could all realistically be first round draft picks this summer. The goaltending would have to be seen to be as good as any team in this tournament.

Weaknesses: Psychologically, these players have to form a team in a manner better than has been the case in recent years. They must find consistency, something those who have gone before them the past few years haven’t. In addition, one often has the impression that on any given day, Canadian players can either look tired (perhaps due to the long season followed by hectic travel and schooling arrangements), arrogant or somewhat disinterested – all traits one wouldn’t necessarily expect going in. On paper, this Canadian team, like so many before it, should be the gold medal favorite, but recent history says it is anything but. This is an obstacle they’ll have to overcome internally before getting the job done on the ice.

Key player: Although a number of players on this year’s squad should be looked to as leaders, the actual captain is the one who most immediately pops out. Sam Reinhart is returning for his second straight U18 WJC and will be looked upon to be Mr. Everything. He put up six points in seven contests last spring and just finished this past WHL season scoring 35 goals and 85 points for the Kootenay Ice. The son of long time offensive defenseman Paul Reinhart, Sam also has two brothers of prominence in Max, who made his debut with the Calgary Flames this season, and Griffin, who was drafted fourth overall last summer by the New York Islanders. Safe to say that hockey acumen runs in this family. Interestingly, Sam is first eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft as he won’t turn 18 until November of this year.

Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Much like Sweden, there’s really not a player on this team that scouts won’t be watching. After having seen these players all winter long in Canada, the NHL community is always curious to see how they’ll respond when push comes to shove against their peers at the international level, especially in light of the relative few medals the Canadian side has garnered the past five years. No doubt, however, that Nurse, Morrissey and Gauthier, who will turn 18 during the tournament, are going to be so under the microscope in Sochi that they’ll want to make sure that they bring their sunscreen. An outstanding or poor performance could see their draft stock take a significant sway in one direction or another. NHL teams tend to get mighty picky when it comes to making a decision on a top 15 draft pick and the U18 is the last tourney they’ll be seen in before the draft.

Unexpected gem: Although he may not be unexpected per se, everyone is some kind of excited to see what Connor McDavid will do on the international level. Having gained exceptional talent status to allow him to play CHL hockey at an earlier age than sanctioned, he just completed a rookie year in the OHL that saw him put up 25 goals and 66 points for the Erie Otters. One of the most exciting young talents in junior hockey, he’ll now bring his show to Russia. And, while younger players of extreme notoriety often have to assume a layman's role for Canada’s junior teams (i.e. Nathan MacKinnon at the most recent WJC), one shouldn’t be surprised if he’s given a role on one of the top two scoring lines.

Next: Germany