Andrei Makarov (left) makes a save with Brett Ritchie bearing down on him on Monday (The Canadian Press)
Perhaps Canada's improvement throughout the world junior championship should be pinned down to learning from the errors of the past, which is fitting since hockey is a game of mistakes.
Any attempt at analysis of how Steve Spott and Team Canada have set up as the favourite ahead of the WJC medal round in Ufa, Russia must be qualified by pointing out the pratfall of confusing brains with luck. That often seems to be a Canadian media blind spot at the midpoint of the WJC. The red-and-white guys wins four or five games and suddenly the coach appears to be some sort of sage who could solve all our problems if he only had more than 24 hours in a day. The NHL lockout gifted Spott with a treasure-trove of mature teenage talent. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele and defenceman Dougie Hamilton were respective drafted taken first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth overall by the NHL in 2011. Neither of Spott's two immediate predecessors whose supposed well-oiled machines didn't take the checkered flag, Don Hay and 2011 Team Canada coach Dave Cameron, had that kind of 19-year-old nucleus.
That has to be pointed out, but far be it to imply that this is push-button coaching. It seems like Spott's rationale for various decisions differed subtly from Cameron's and Hay's, which is why a loaded Team Canada has soothed a lot of doubts about it. Anything can happen in the best-of-one medal round, but they are far ahead of the pack as the favourite to win gold. It owes to not repeating the choices that, in particular, did not work out in the past. What might we project on to Spott, the Team Canada skipper whose team is two wins away from the country's first WJC gold since 2009 in Ottawa
Not overthinking it with goalies — Canada has to have four goalies at its selection camp for scrimmage purposes. A three-day camp is not always going to firmly indicate who could be The Man three weeks later. Spott went with Malcolm Subban and the Belleville Bulls star's overall body of work, rather than analyze a small sample size from the exhibition games. Playing the most statistically outstanding stopper was hardly an act of courage. It was just coldly rational.
— Ruling the junior hockey world means living in it (or in a word, discipline) — Did you ever think you would see a day when Team Canada would outshoot Russia 48-22, have a territorial advantage on big ice and not go over the physical cliff by taking only two minor penalties?
It has taken a few games to adapt to the standard of officiating overseas and to the wider IIHF surface, but Canada appears to have done it. That is admirable to the purist who did not need TSN's James Duthie to explain that Canada's first three games were 4:30 a.m ET/1:30 a.m. PT puck drops because host Russia wanted the evening starts. Duthie was just being diligent, but it was absurd to think someone needed an explanation the host country wants to play in prime time, especially since Team USA did the same in Buffalo just two seasons ago.
The WJC is a world championship, although the cozy relationship between the IIHF, Hockey Canada and TSN undermines its chance of growing into an international event. That means winning overseas is a higher calling for Team Canada. It quiets the carpers such as Damien Cox snark off about the tournament being a Jr. Canada Cup when it's played in North America.
Speed + skill > structure — After Canada went 2-for-3 on the power play vs. Russia following an 0-for-7 effort vs. the Americans, point man Ryan Murphy made a revealing comment that being "less about structure" led to their success. One only had to hearken back to 12 months ago. It often felt like the sole purpose of the power play under Hay's coaching staff was to set up then-,Brandon Wheat Kings star and Ottawa Senators prospect Mark Stone, who had fast hands but was not as fleet of foot, which meant he was eventually contained.
With the talent it can throw out in 5-on-4 situations, Canada should be more about making skilled plays at high pace. It's similar to the notion of Pace Factor in basketball or the principles of Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly's 'play fast' approach in NCAA football: make simple plays rapidly until it overloads opponents' circuits. That is what leads to getting enough Grade-A chances to eventually have a few end up in the net, rather than just taking a lot of low-percentage shots. You know, like Team USA ended up doing on Sunday.
(Related to this: Ryan Lambert doesn't really think Team USA should have beaten Canada, does he?)
Tailor the defence to the conditions — This might be the least physical group of seven on the blueline Canada has ever taken to a world junior, but that's how it has to be. The likes of Scott Harrington and even 6-foot-5 Dougie Hamilton are more about reads and active sticks than playing rough-and-tumble. They shut down Russia, which had just four third-period shots, while playing sound positionally. Canadian observers, present company included, might long for the days of Dion Phaneuf delivering chiclet-rattling checks, but that is too high-risk with IIHF officiating. It is what it is, but on Monday, Canada shut down Russia and its defence corps spent zero minutes in the penalty box.
This is more of a general point than a critique of the last two teams in particular.
Do not sweat the small stuff with a 'special kid' — Three weeks ago, there was reason to think Hockey Canada would look for a reason to cut 17-year-old left wing Jonathan Drouin, who was stellar in the round-robin. Drouin had a defensive mistake (if memory serves) in the Red-White game at the selection camp that could have been the reason. But that was ignored because Spott saw that the Quebecer could be one of his best attackers by the middle of the tournament. Big-picture potential trumped the picayune.
Call this post-hoc, but what if 17-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had been given that consideration in 2011? In any event, now Drouin and RNH are linemates.
It goes without saying the gold medal is hardly in the bag. Sweden, Russia and the U.S. all have potential game-stealing goalies. On the whole, though, the way Canada has got along is not raising as many red flags as it did at each of the last two championships.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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