When Morgan Rielly was in atom, his father sat him down to convince him to move to defence.
"He told me that if I played D, I'd have a whole lot more ice time."
What ended up happening was that a whole bunch of fathers had the same chats with their children. At the height of the dead puck era, when 1994-born hockey players were being influenced by the realities of the National Hockey League, Canadian hockey players started playing defence. As players battle for spots on Team Canada's World Junior roster, the most important position battle is going to take place on defence, where there will be far more guys in the mix.
"It's a cycle. Some years you get a lot of centres, some years a lot of forwards, and at this particular age group, it was the D," said Don Nachbaur, the Spokane Chiefs coach who coached the Western Hockey League all-stars in Games Five and Six of the Subway Super Series. The tournament is the last chance players have to showcase themselves on the national stage prior to the final camp in December.
Eight of the top 10 selections from the 2012 NHL entry draft were defencemen, five of whom suited up over the course of the WHL's two-game set against the Russian selects. Ryan Murray shut down Nail Yakupov effectively in the first game, but for the second contest, with Murray headed back to Everett, the more offensive-leaning rearguards had tougher times. The skills of Mathew Dumba, Morgan Rielly, Derrick Pouliot and Griffin Reinhart were more apparent at the north end of the ice rather than the south end.
And for the WHL, it's where the offence was coming from. The forwards were either hesitant or not talented enough to work quickly down low, and so many of the powerplay chances for Team WHL were coming from the point or from defencemen pinching in, or leading a rush at five-on-five. Nachbaur admitted after Wednesday's game that finished 0-0 in regulation he was going to use a defenceman in the shootout for his next shot.
While Rielly credits Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kristopher Letang as a big influence on his game, Pouliot, who plays for the Portland Winterhawks, happened to be drafted by the Penguins at No. 8 overall. Unlike Rielly, his game wasn't influenced growing up, but his offensive instincts are honed and obvious. Pouliot has five goals and 20 points in 20 games this season, after scoring 11 and 59 in 72 last season.
"The 94 age group has a lot of strong d-men," said Pouliot. "There's a lot of good guys we're competing with for a spot on Team Canada."
"[The offence] is a big part of my game. It's something that sets me apart."
Unfortunately, neither Pouliot nor Rielly were willing to talk about which side of the ice they prefer to play on, or whether they're more comfortable in one zone or the other. There's just something about a microphone that halts the communication of hockey theories. After Canada fell down 4-1 in the second game of the WHL/Russia set, Nachbaur began rotating his lines and, importantly, his defensive pairings.
After Rielly played with Winterhawks stalwart Tyler Wotherspoon for the majority of the first two periods, he ended up seeing time with Pouliot on five-on-five situations, when before it had been on the powerplay. From there, he played on the right side, but flipped over to play with Dumba and Keegan Lowe in the third period. Rielly was the better of the two on the night, and Pouliot after starting with Dumba, saw time with Reinhart as the game went along.
Why the discrepancy?
"Up front we had ten right handed forwards and most of them were centreman," said Nachbaur. "Same on the back end. The back end had a lot of left shots that were playing on the off side and we had no choice as coaches, that's what we were given."
Rielly shoots left, as does Pouliot, as does Reinhart, as does Murray, as does Wotherspoon. The natural advantage for picking sides would go to righties Dumba and Ryan Murphy out of the Kitchener Rangers. Murphy has been cut twice by Hockey Canada (once for the Ivan Hlinka, once for the World Juniors) and sat out last year due to concussion. Like Pouliot and Rielly, he's a strong skater who likes to play at the north end of the rink. Then there's another righty in Dougie Hamilton.
"It's the ones you expect to stand out. Morgan Rielly was great, Derrick Pouliot struggled a bit [Thursday] but he's a good offensive player," said head scout Kevin Prendergast. "On that ice surface over in Europe with the big ice, you got to have a mix. You can't have all offensive guys, you need guys who can stay at home, shutdown-type defencemen. The games are all close over there. You can't fly the zone a lot to try and score all those goals, a lot of those games are one-goal games, so we need guys who are reliable in their own end."
Certain guys, Rielly and Murphy in particular, are good at working in the tight spaces, but Prendergast doesn't see that as being a natural disadvantage on the big ice surface.
"It helps them. They have a lot more room to roam. What happens over in Europe is a lot of those teams will back off to give them more room. We're going to practice in Calgary on the big ice surface, it will give us a pretty good indication of where we are."
The World Juniors haven't been contested on international-sized ice since 2008 in Pardubice, Czech Republic.
The most talented defencemen Canada have trended offensively. If the brass is serious about balancing left and right sticks, you have to think Murphy and Dumba make this team. If the team is also serious about balancing offensive and defensive defencemen, that may mean Scott Harrington or Wotherspoon earn a job over the "big three" of Rielly, Pouliot and Reinhart. Peterborough's Slater Koekkoek is also a left shot, as is Xavier Ouellet, players who impressed cross-country. Then you factor in Cody Ceci and Canada's best defenceman in Ryan Murray and you get a sense of just how many players are competing for the same job.
But the trend is offensive. Finding the right balance of players will be tricky.
Team Canada note: I asked Prendergast whether Malcolm Subban was the front-runner for the starting goalie job on Team Canada, as has been my theory since the summer. He said that "probably going in, it's his job to lose since he was our No. 1 guy in the summertime". He did stress however that Canada should have four elite goalies in camp. If I'm a betting man, they would be Subban, Edmonton's Laurent Brossoit, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada's Étienne Marcoux, and Owen Sound Attack's Jordan Binnington.