GROUP A: Canada
2013 finish: Fourth place, fell 6-5 to Russia in the bronze medal game
2013 round-robin record: 4-0-0-0, 21 GF/ 8 GA
Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, and team scouts to break down their national teams.
Hockey Canada’s patience is running out at the world junior championship. They have gone four consecutive years without capturing gold following winning the prized medal five years in a row. Partially because of this lack of success, they shook up their tryout process this year by only handing out 25 invites, which is roughly 15 less than recent years. In doing so, they hope this will lead to the team generating chemistry quicker.
“This way they have more time to build chemistry and it gives (head coach) Brent (Sutter) more time to put lines together,” says Hockey Canada U20 head scout Ryan Jankowski. “And this way they can focus more on preparing for the tournament than just making the team. We are very confident in the players we picked, too. We brought players that thrive in all situations of the game so we know we can put together a complete team.”
Canada may not have as much offensive talent as last year when they had Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau and Ryan Strome, but they do have a quality mix of players up front. They have elite scorers led by 2014 draft sensation Sam Reinhart, 16-year-old superstar Connor McDavid and Tampa Bay Lightning first-round pick Jonathan Drouin while having a handful of top-notch two-way players such as Vancouver Canucks first-round pick Bo Horvat, Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick Scott Laughton and Ottawa Senators first-round pick Curtis Lazar.
“We brought in players to make a complete team,” says Jankowski. “We need guys that can take the puck and rush it, but we also need guys that can kill penalties and play shutdown roles. I think we brought in a good mix to fill our needs.”
McDavid is ultimately Canada’s offensive wildcard. He clearly has the talent to play in the top six or on the third line, but he also could fit in on the fourth line, as Colorado Avalanche sniper Nathan MacKinnon did last year under Steve Spott, or even as the 13th forward. So far in exhibition action, he has been playing on the wing with Reinhart and Horvat.
“There’s a lot of ways Brent can use McDavid,” says Jankowski. “It is up to him, but he could use him as a scoring third-line centre or possibly the 13th forward like Canada did with John Tavares when he was his age. He’s played very well at the U18 and in the OHL, so he’s showed he’s someone with a lot of upside that can be used in different situations.”
Like Drouin in the offense, New York Islanders prospect Griffin Reinhart is the only returning player on the back end. The 6-foot-4, 202-pounder’s main role, following his three-game suspension, will be in the defensive end as a shutdown specialist. But since Canada doesn’t necessarily have an offensive defenceman as talented as they have had in past players with the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly (2013) and Nashville Predators’ Ryan Ellis (2011, 2010), he may have some pressure on his shoulders to chip in offensively, too.
“I think there are a lot of offensive defencemen this year who can play both ends of the rink,” says Reinhart, who plays on the Edmonton Oil Kings’ blueline. “You saw that in the game on Saturday [against the CIS Toronto Selects], everyone did a good job of jumping up. For me, I know I take lot of pride in my defensive role and I'm going to try to be a shutdown defenceman, but I'm always working on my offensive game. If I can jump up, I will.”
The Minnesota Wild’s decision to loan Matt Dumba to Canada boosted their back end significantly. The former Red Deer Rebel, who was cut by Team Canada the past two tryouts, brings NHL experience, offensive skill and an edge to the blueline.
“His NHL experience is extremely valuable to us,” says Jankowski. “He’s played at the highest level and knows the pressure that comes with that. He’s a player that can be very valuable to us because he can take the puck and go and be hard to play against in our own end. There aren’t many players that bring as much enthusiasm to the rink like he does.”
Canada only brought two goalies with them to Sweden: Montreal Canadiens second-round pick Zachary Fucale and Detroit Red Wings prospect Jake Paterson. Regarding who will be the starter down the stretch, it is ultimately a toss-up at this point, so it seems safe to assume Sutter will go with the hot hand.
“I think taking two goalies gives them more time to prepare for the tournament,” says Jankowski. “They have more time to focus on the tournament and don’t have to worry about making the team – that should benefit their play in the long run of the tournament. And when we were evaluating the goalies, we felt very confident in Fucale and Paterson, so it made sense to do it this way.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Sam Reinhart (Kootenay Ice, WHL): The Vancouver native is touted as the 2014 NHL draft’s top prospect. The combination of his smarts, poise and skill makes him a top candidate to play on Canada’s first line. In addition, he has shinned on the international stage at last year’s Hlinka Memorial as the team captain, scoring three goals and eight points in five contests.
Defenceman Aaron Ekblad (Barrie Colts, OHL): The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Ekblad is right behind Reinhart and leading all defenders by a country mile on most draft rankings. He’s mainly known for his play in the defensive zone, but he also possesses offensive upside as he has potted 10 goals and 25 points in 29 games this year.
Forward Connor McDavid (Erie Otters, OHL): There hasn’t been a young centre hyped as much as McDavid since Tavares. So far, the 6-foot, 185-pound McDavid has lived up to the unfair expectations put on his shoulders. He has notched 12 goals and 50 points in 31 games as a second-year player with the Otters at just 16-years-old. All signs point to the Richmond Hill, Ont., native going up to the stage first at the 2015 NHL draft.
Defenceman Josh Morrissey (Prince Albert Raiders, WHL): There is a strong case to suggest the first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets is Canada’s top offensive blueliner. The Calgary native, who has scored 13 goals and 35 points in 28 games, has the legs, offensive vision and shot to run the power play.
Forward Anthony Mantha (Val d’Or Foreurs, QMJHL): Even though power forwards similar to Mantha haven’t necessarily had much success in international tournaments on big ice surfaces, the Red Wings prospect’s uncanny skill and impressive stats, 35 goals and 73 points in 32 games, can’t be ignored. He could make one of the biggest impacts in Canada’s offense.
Forward Nicolas Petan (Portland Winterhawks, WHL): The Jets’ second-round pick has been a scoring machine in the WHL. He has netted 20 goals and 66 points in 32 games this year following tying teammate Brendan Leipsic for the league lead in points last season with 120. He has the skill to centre one of Canada’s top-two lines or play a valuable secondary-scoring role.
Forward Bo Horvat (London Knights, OHL): The 6-foot, 203-pound Horvat is one the best two-way centres in the CHL. He can score at a consistent rate, 16 goals and 44 points in 28 games this year, is positionally sound, a wizard in the faceoff circle and a strong skater. He was named the MVP of the 2013 OHL playoffs last year following leading the Knights to the Saskatoon-based MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Forward Scott Laughton (Oshawa Generals, OHL): The 19-year-old centre is Canada's team captain. He will not only be heavily relied on to lead in the dressing room, but he will be also counted on to play big roles in the offensive and defensive zones as he has with Generals this year, scoring 24 goals and 50 points in 29 games along the way.
Forward Jonathan Drouin (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL): As the only returning forward, the pressure is on Drouin to produce. If history repeats itself, that shouldn't be a problem as the 5-foot-11, 185-pound winger, who recently recovered from a mild brain injury, has excelled on big stages such as last year's world junior tourney and the 2013 Memorial Cup.
MUST WIN GAME: Gold medal game (Jan. 5, 7 p.m.)
Silver, bronze, fourth or last – they all look the same to Canadian hockey fans. The expectations are to win gold with everything else considered not good enough. Therefore, every game has a must-win mentality, but especially the playoff matches.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen