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Under-18 team's struggle cause for concern

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Mark your calender for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August.

That under-18 tournament in Europe, where Canada will have its pick of 1993-born players, will be a better litmus test for the country's long-term prospects in international junior hockey.

The springtime U18 tournament in Belarus, where the Canucks will play in the relegation round after a 5-4 loss to Sweden on Sunday, doesn't provide enough of an indication. Make no mistake, it is embarrassing Canada was outscored 10-0 over a five-period stretch against the U.S. and Sweden. (They scored four window-dressing goals in the third period against the Swedes.)

However, that wave of 1992-born players which came up short over the past weeks won the Ivan Hlinka last summer, giving Canada back-to-back golds and four and of the last five (same as the world junior on the latter count). That group which included Plymouth Whalers phenom Tyler Seguin, top-end OHL forwards such as Kitchener's Jeff Skinner (who's becoming the story of the OHL playoffs), Mississauga's Gregg Sutch, and Moncton Wildcats defenceman Brandon Gormley, among others who were unavailable to go to Belarus due to the CHL playoffs.

The onus for the 2011 world junior is on the 1991-born players. You can bet the media will build in the excuse that likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane and possibly Taylor Hall will be playing in the NHL next December. Honestly, Canada really has no alibi, although it will be sending an inexperienced team to Buffalo, with Brandon's Brayden Schenn likely to be the only returning forward.

The fact remains Canada has taken astep back in the two major tournaments so far this calendar year, with a silver at the world junior and no better than seventh at the U18 (after finishing fourth last spring and winning it in 2008).

It's not enough to push the panic button, but it bears monitoring.