GROUP B: Canada
Last year’s finish: Bronze
Last year’s round-robin record: 4-0-0-0
Team Canada received their world junior presents early, firstly, when the National Hockey League decided to continue with the lockout, and secondly when the Edmonton Oilers released star centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the team. As a result, the team has a number of players – Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele and Ryan Strome – who could have, at very least, started in the NHL and might not have been available to play for Canada.
In all, there are six returning players from last year’s bronze medal winning side, plus Nugent-Hopkins – who has already represented Canada at the men’s world championship.
“For me to have access to those guys, it’s second to none,” said head coach Steve Spott. “We’ve seen in the second year of this tournament the development of the guys like (former Canadian players) Jared Cowen and Brayden Schenn, they’ve been different in their second year of this tournament. To have seven guys with that experience really is wonderful.”
Nugent-Hopkins will centre the team’s top line along with Huberdeau, the third-overall pick of the Florida Panthers, and Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Scheifele, who has been moved over to play right-wing.
The Edmonton Oilers star, who had been playing in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons, was named captain of the squad looking to best last year’s bronze medal performance. It’s been three years without a gold medal and that might be fine for any other country, but not for Canada. The pressure deserved or not, is definitely on.
“I think we’ve got 23 guys here who are all leaders,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “The more pressure, the more our team is going to thrive.
In addition to their star-studded top line, Canada has a lot of youth, speed and grit. Halifax Moosheads stars Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon both cracked the lineup as 17 year olds with Drouin penciled in as a top-six forward with a pair of Niagara IceDogs stars – Strome and Brett Ritchie.
Even Canada’s blueline is fast and smooth-skating with the addition of Ryan Murphy, a first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Xavier Ouellet, a second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings.
“There’s a lot of speed,” said Spott. “I think there’s a combination of skill; we have a lot of grit in our lineup, but I wanted to have speed, so that was paramount to me.”
London Knights defenceman Scott Harrington will once against be the shutdown-man on the blueline, a role he played very well on last year’s team. In addition the blueline boasts Leafs first-round pick Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors and returning veteran Dougie Hamilton a Boston Bruins pick.
An unfortunate back injury to Charles Hudon, one of Canada’s best players in their first exhibition game against Finland proved costly, as is done for the tournament. Prince Albert Raiders forward Mark McNeill, one of the last cuts in the Calgary camp was named as his replacement.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Goaltender Malcolm Subban (Belleville Bulls, OHL)
This year Team Canada has the obvious stars, but here are a few extra to keep your eyes on for different reasons.
Coming into camp, Malcolm Subban had a lock on the starting job, though that isn't so cut and dried now. Subban has not looked particularly sharp – in Calgary at camp or in their first game against the Finns in pre-tournament play. Belleville plays on an Olympic surface, so Subban should be used to the large ice. If he doesn’t show the same kind of proficiency he did against the Russians in the summer or in the Super Series, he might be find himself backing up Owen Sound Attack netminder Jordan Binnington.
Forward Jonathan Drouin (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL)
It’s hard to believe Drouin is only 17 years old. The Mooseheads star has shown enough ability – great hands paired with amazing on-ice vision -- in camp and in pre-tournament play to crack Canada’s top six. He’s also shown tremendous chemistry with Halifax linemate Nathan MacKinnon and both are ranked in the top three for the NHL draft. The QMJHL teammates, along with 19-year-old JC Lipon are the only undrafted players on the team.
Forward Ty Rattie (Portland Winterhawks, WHL)
The versatile winger has been scoring on a consistent basis and could be one of the most offensively dangerous players in the Western Hockey League. He was a late cut from the 2012 team which competed in Calgary, just outside his hometown of Airdrie, Alta. The second-round pick of the St. Louis Blues has good speed and the ability to break a game open. Team Canada is so deep this year, that a guy like Rattie could easily slip under the radar.
MUST WIN GAME: What better way to ring in the New Year than with the classic Canada-Russia matchup. This year Russia is on home soil after beating Canada in last year’s semifinal en route to a silver finish. Team Russia will have Nail Yakupov facing off against future teammate and fellow first-overall pick Nugent-Hopkins. This game should set the tone for the playoff portion of the tournament.
Said Spott: “There’s such a fine line, it’s no longer a divine right to win gold medals. We have to compete every night and unfortunately for us in our country we have a unique situation with some of the players that have been made available – we recognize that – but ultimately we still have to compete and our details and habits have to be better than everybody else’s we don’t underestimate any opponent.”