December 13, 2013
Between the trio of them, Josh Anderson, Félix Girard and Taylor Leier make one challenging junior hockey Jeopardy! question.
One was never drafted out of minor hockey, twice. One passed on attending the NHL draft in 2012 and one was bypassed by 30 NHL teams that year. Yet the common thread that ties together the three Team Canada hopefuls, aside from having never been in Cliff Clavin's kitchen, is that it takes all kinds to construct a winning lineup for the world U20 championship. In Anderson, Girard and Leier, each arguably the most unlikely forward from each CHL league who's on the 25-man selection camp roster, Team Canada has a trio whose intangibles have made them indispensable to winning teams in junior.
Whether that fits into the final puzzle might become clearer following Saturday afternoon's exhibition game against a team of Canadian Interuniversity Sport players. Each has something to offer.
Anderson's route is the unlikeliest. The Burlington, Ont., native was passed over by all 20 teams during the league's 2010 priority selection draft, due in part to the fact he was 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds. But he pressed on, hanging in with the Burlington Eagles minor hockey program. The London Knights, among other OHL teams, spotted him. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that Anderson's mother Michelle Anderson is a cousin of NHL greats Frank and Peter Mahovlich, who were big players in their era, he got a growth spurt.
"Going into my second midget year I knew it wasn't over," Josh Anderson recalls. "I still had a chance. There's someone always watching. The Hunters [London GM Mark and coach Dale] came out and watched me play and everything's gone well since then. I grew about four inches and put on 50 pounds during that season alone."
Even diehard Knights fans might not grasp that Anderson, who was still filling out during his draft year, could have been signed by any team as a 17-year-old free agent in 2011.
"Everyone assumes I was drafted to the Knights, but I was signed as a free agent," adds Anderson, now 6-3 and 212 pounds. "It took a lot of hard work and dedication. that's what I've been talking about when I talk to younger kids."
The Knights have brought Anderson along carefully. He has 16 goals and 29 points over 31 games this season. The Columbus Blue Jackets fourth-rounder, along with 18-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder Frédérik Gauthier, was one of two forwards not assigned to a line during Friday's practice at the MasterCard Centre. That might not be indicative of anything. Anderson played his way into his consideration during the Subway Super Series — some might snark that he was one of the few Ontario leaguers who improved his Hockey Canada stock — at that event. He will just have to do so again.
"[Head scout] Ryan Jankowski saw how I played that big power forward's game," Anderson. " I just have to continue that role."
Coincidentally, Girard was chosen in the same exact slot of last June's NHL draft as Anderson, No. 95 overall. The Nashville Predators snapped him up after all 30 teams passed on him in 2012, his first year of eligibility.
Hindsight being 20/20, the fact Girard played for bad Baie-Comeau teams during his 16- and 17-year-old years consigned him to prospect obscurity. The Drakkar finished second-last in the Q with only 12 wins and 34 points in his first season. Following the year, GM Steve Ahern swung a franchise-defining trade when he sent the playing rights to Nathan MacKinnon, the current Colorado Avalanche rookie, to the Halifax Mooseheads.
Girard late bloomer
The Drakkar had a marginal improvement from 17th to 13th overall in the Q in Girard's second season and swept fourth-seeded Victoriaville in the first round. (The Tigres were so discombobulated by the end of the series that they tried intimidating the Drakkar by assembling in a 'Flying V' formation for pregame stretches, which went as well as one might expect.)
That segued into another coup in B-C, landing Éric Veilleux as coach when he was coming off leading Shawinigan to the 2012 Memorial Cup. The team went to the Q final and Girard's ability to give his team some elbow grease became much more noticeable.
Girard credits Veilleux for bringing out his best qualities and getting him on Team Canada's radar.
"He's a very, very good coach and he's big part of our success," said the 5-foot-10, 181-pound Girard, who skated with NHL first-rounders Scott Laughton and Kerby Rychel on Friday. "He changed me as player, when you are young, antsy, you always want to win but you need to know how. Éric came in, he had won the Memorial Cup, he had won wherever he's been."
The Cap-Rouge, Que., native would strictly be a role player. Girard has four goals and 20 points over 28 games for the Drakkar, who are vying for first overall in the QMJHL. He's long been used to that, since minor hockey.
"I wasn't the most skilled guy, but I could always bring the energy, win faceoffs, have the little skills. It's always been part of my game and it's paying off."
It might be a stretch to consider Leier a lesser-known player. He is captain of the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks, who are coming off a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup runner-up finish. But many armchair GMs, had they been told four of the Portlands would be on the roster, might have included his roommate, Predators pick Brendan Leipsic. The latter shared the WHL scoring title last season, but through the first half this year Leier has 43 points to Leipsic's 42.
Leier, also a fourth-rounder, to the Philadelphia Flyers, has wheels and excellent defensive awareness. Coach Brent Sutter spoke on Friday about needing a versatile player as his 13th forward. Leier's best-case scenario is that he'll play a regular shift, but he's filled every role possible across his three seasons in Portland.
"I've always prided myself on playing my two-way game and being able to score," the 19-year-old says. "Ever since I came into the WHL I've played a two-way game. My offensive numbers have come along because of that.
"When I was 17 and a rookie with Portland, [Brad] Ross, [Ty] Rattie, [Sven] Baertschi, [Marcel] Noebels, those were all veterans who were drafted and there was no room in the top six," adds Leier, rhyming four former Winterhawks who are all now playing in the pros. "I played the third line with [Taylor] Peters and [Oliver] Gabriel and they were veterans who were always matched against the other teams' top lines so we were often playing [starting new shifts] in the D zone. Last year I started putting up numbers and that's really helping out a lot."
A Saskatoon native, Leier passed on attending the 2012 NHL draft so he could compete for Canada in the world ball hockey championship in Prague. Many players go, seeing the event as their confirmation, just desserts for staking everything on a hockey career. Leier didn't see it as a tough call, which fits with his down-to-earth personality.
"I talked my agent, 'how high do you think I'll go if I get drafted?' He said, 'in my opinion, if you're not going to go in the top two rounds or top 80 picks, you shouldn't go.' I wanted to go play ball hockey really bad. I didn't go until No. 117, so it wasn't a big deal.
"The ball hockey turned out to be way more competitive than I thought it was going to be. It was so much fun. The other countries were crazy, their fans. We got to go to Prague, see all the old castles, the medieval architecture. It was amazing."
As noted, it takes all kinds to get on the top of the world U20 podium, although that has proven daunting for Canada over the last four years. Being one of the final 22 isn't a projection of being a long-term NHLer though. It speaks well for Leier that he made that distinction clear on Friday while thinking of his buddy Leipsic.
"It was too bad," Leier says. "He deserves it as much the guys who are here and I'm positive he's going to play in the NHL."
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.