Why Canada might/might not win the 2017 world juniors.
25 äåêàáðÿ 2016 ãîäà. Mike Zeisberger, Postmedia Network
As part of this hockey-crazed nation, we don’t collectively pound our chests with pride any more when it comes to the world juniors.
No, we’re too busy chewing our fingernails down to the nubs in a sign of coast-to-coast angst.
Since the late Pat Quinn led Canada to the title at the 2009 tournament in Ottawa, Canada has captured gold just once, that coming two years ago thanks to a dramatic 5-4 victory in the championship game at the Air Canada Centre. And while home-ice advantage proved to be a key in that particular event, playing on home soil did not result in titles in 2010 (Regina/Saskatoon) or 2012 (Calgary/Edmonton).
Keeping that in mind, how will Canada fare in the 2017 edition, which kicks off on Boxing Day in Toronto and Montreal? Here is a breakdown of why Canada might — and might not — win this upcoming version of tournament.
WHY CANADA MIGHT WIN
If you buy into the theory of momentum, Team Canada accrued plenty of it in their opening pair of pre-tournament games, which were impressive to say the least. A 5-0 victory over Finland Monday was followed by an equally dominating 5-0 decision over the Czech Republic on Wednesday, results that should help cure the butterflies churning inside the guts of those Canadian players participating in the tourney for the first time. The most pleasing aspect of those lopsided wins for coach Dominique Ducharme most assuredly was the fact that they didn’t allow a goal in 120 minutes, the type of stingy defence he hopes will carry over into the preliminary round and beyond.
“Unfinished business.” It is a phrase you keep hearing from captain Dylan Strome. Over and over again. It has become the unofficial mantra of Team Canada 2017, with Strome and the other four returnees from last year’s team — Mathew Barzal, Julien Gauthier, Mitchell Stephens and defenceman Thomas Chabot — still haunted by the disappointment of not even advancing deep enough to play for a medal at the 2016 event in Helsinki, Finland. “It wasn’t the result we wanted last year, but we’re excited to be back,” said Chabot, the blueline prospect of the Ottawa Senators who plays for the Saint John Sea Dogs. In the minds of these five, its time to make amends from the shortcomings of 12 months ago.
What does playing on home soil mean? Here’s what Connor McDavid had to say after his Canadian squad beat Russia 5-4 in the 2015 gold medal game at the Air Canada Centre, which may very well have been the most raucous we’ve ever heard and seen the Bay St. arena since it opened in 1999. “Crazy,” McDavid said at the time. “The crowd out there was unbelievable. They were with us every step of the way. Such a loud building. Just standing on the blue line and singing the national anthem with 22 of my good buddies. The crowd. It’s hard to explain.” It’s the type of snapshot in time members of Team Canada 2017 will be yearning for as the tournament once again will be held in Toronto and Montreal. This much we do know: there will be no shortage of energy and support coming from the stands.
If anyone has a deep chip on his shoulder heading into this tournament, it’s Dylan Strome. Sent back to the OHL’s Erie Otters by the Arizona Coyotes late last month, Strome found himself as the only top-five selection from the 2015 entry draft not playing in the NHL. As such, while McDavid (1st overall pick, Edmonton Oilers), Jack Eichel (2nd, Buffalo Sabres), Mitch Marner (4th, Toronto Maple Leafs) and Noah Hanifin (5th, Carolina Hurricanes) remain with their parent clubs, Strome is transforming his frustration into motivation to eclipse the nightmare that was Team Canada’s performance at last year’s tournament. The message he continues to pound into his 2017 teammates — there are no shortcuts in this event. “I want to stress to the young guys how hard this tournament is,” Strome told Postmedia. “I want them to know every game is important — otherwise you might end up with a tougher match-up in the quarters and semis than there needs to be ... It’s all there in front of us. But to be successful, we can not take anything for granted.” Obviously there will be no resting on one’s laurels in the Team Canada dressing room under Strome’s leadership — and that’s a key for Ducharme and his coaching staff. “Last year left a bitter taste,” Strome said. “Nothing I can do to change that except go out and hopefully lead Canada to a gold medal.”
WHY CANADA MIGHT NOT WIN
Pressure? What pressure? Obviously the fact that this tournament means more to Canadians than it does to hockey fans in any other country puts Team Canada directly under the glaring spotlight of an entire nation. How the players handle it will eventually determine whether it ends up being a positive or a negative, especially with the event being held in Canada. Here’s the advice 2015 gold-medal winner Nick Ritchie, now of the Anaheim Ducks, had for the 2017 edition. “There’s a lot of pressure, but if you embrace it and just play hockey, you’re good to go,” Ritchie said earlier this week. Indeed, by adopting such a glass-half-full attitude, Team Canada will have a much easier time concentrating on all the stuff that matters on the ice instead of all the stuff that doesn’t off it.
WEIGHT OF HISTORY
For whatever reason, Canada has just four medals at this event in the past seven years — the lone gold in that span coming in 2015 along with silvers in both 2010 and 2011 and a bronze in 2012. As for the 2016 tourney, the Canadians were shut out when it came to reaching the podium, a source of concern for Hockey Canada president Tom Renney and his staff. “Canada’s struggles at this event recently have been puzzling,” a long-time scout told Postmedia. “The mens team has dominated at the past two Olympics and at the World Cup in September, so it’s not like the Canadian product has sagged at all levels — just the junior one. It’s hard to figure out why.” It’s a dilemma Renney hopes can be solved over the next two-plus weeks.
CLOSING THE GAP
Canada’s recent struggles at the world juniors is a reflection that this country no longer is the dominating presence it once was at the junior level, with the rest of the field certainly having closed the gap. Consider, for example, the outstanding showing by Finland on the international stage this year, capturing gold medals at the under-20 and under-18 levels and winning silver at the men’s world championships. In the end the Canadians will enter the event as the +100 betting favourites at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. But history dictates that Canada had best beware - the competition is closing in.
MISSING IN ACTION
Sure, pretty well every team in the tourney will be missing talent, whether it be due to injury or because NHL teams have opted to keep their junior-eligible players with their parent clubs. Still, it’s hard not to think of the juggernaut Team Canada would be if had all its potential stars at its disposal. Consider the list of eligible players who WON’T be lacing up for Team Canada: McDavid (Oilers), Marner (Maple Leafs), Travis Konecny (Philadelphia Flyers), Jakob Chychrun (Arizona Coyotes), Lawson Crouse (Coyotes), Anthony Beauvillier (New York Islanders) and top 2017 prospect Nolan Patrick (upper body injury). Such a rich cache of raw skill that won’t be wearing Canada’s red-and-white for the holidays.
THOSE NET PAINS
While not solely to blame for Canada’s recent hiccups at the World Juniors, the numbers show that the lack of dominant goaltending for Canada has been an issue. Think about this for a moment: From 1982 to 2009 — a span in which Canada won 10 gold medals — a Team Canada puckstopper won the award for the best tournament goalie 10 times. That’s no coincidence, people. Fast forward to recent rocky times, a period where there were zero best goalie awards and just one gold for Canada. One sliver of optimism for Canada this time around: goalies Carter Hart and Connor Ingram posted back-to-back shutouts in pre-tournament wins over the Finland and the Czechs this week. “You just have to stay dialed in the whole time and just be totally engaged for a full 60 minutes,” Hart said. Maybe. But those two victories matter little when the games that count kick off on Boxing Day. Canada arguably hasn’t had a dominant goaltending performance since Carey Price in 2006. It’s a trend Hart and Ingram will attempt to change.
As mentioned earlier, the pressure of wearing that Canadian maple leaf on your chest can be a positive or negative, depending on how — and if — you embrace it. If Canada fumbles and bumbles its way out of the gates early, a sense of national fretting will blanket this county with every passing shift. That’s a lot of weight to put on the pressure of any teenager. “I wish I could forget it,” Strome said when asked about Team Canada’s inability to finish in the top four a year ago in Finland. “It’s not a good feeling. So many people in your country and your family and friends watch the games ... I’m still not over it.” Such are the high expectations an entire country puts on these kids, rightly or wrongly. “The true test comes when the tournament starts and we face more adversity and different situations,” coach Ducharme said. How Team Canada handles the white noise surrounding it might play as big a role as how they play on the ice.