World junior championship: Coaching, not kids or goaltending, failed Canada in Ufa
"I want to be a team that can skate" Team Canada head coach Steve Spott said after the world junior roster was named back in mid-December. "We'll outskate them," conferred head scout Kevin Prendergast.
"That's what we'll do."
It seems fairly simplistic, but hockey is a fast sport played on ice. Being able to skate, both forwards and backwards, is an important aspect of the game. By reading those two quotes, it sounded like Canada was willing to let its players be offensive.
If there was a defining play, however, of Canada's bronze medal loss to Russia at the world junior championship last Saturday, it had nothing to do with the legs of Canadian teenagers being tired and unable to skate or lacking ability. It was strategy. Midway through the third period of a 4-4 tie, Nathan MacKinnon was out taking a face-off in his defensive end, which he won. The Canadians moved the puck out to centre and linemate Phillip Danault, flanking MacKinnon, dumped the puck into the Russian end.
But MacKinnon held up at the blue line and Danault was the only Canadian going in to the zone to retrieve the puck. The Russians got possession and the dump-in was just as effective as a punt in football. The Russians didn't recover the puck and immediately score, but they did waste an opportunity where MacKinnon, noted to be the fastest skater Team Canada had in its camp, could have done so much more.
Spott instead played conservative. The Canadian world junior team, every year, heads to the 10-team tournament with the most speed, the best talent and the highest expectations. Sometimes, that talent is not effectively deployed, or a coach will pick favourites, or ice-time will be granted to a grind line that does naught but take penalties.
A combination of all three was the major culprit in Canada's fourth-place finish. In a small tournament, you can chalk up the occasional loss to a small sample. Certainly, the last year of play is not as relevant as the previous 15 when determining each country's respective level of success or ability at this tournament. Even though sports games can be a televised, weighted coin flip on occasion, it doesn't help when the boss of the organization stacks the odds against the team.
From Sports Illustrated's Allan Muir, of all places:
Then there was his unwillingness to pair Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, arguably the most dangerous duo in the CHL when skating together for the Halifax Mooseheads. It made sense earlier in the tournament when he needed to get a feel for how the underagers would deal with the level of play, but was maddening later on when Canada clearly needed some kind of offensive jump. [SI]
Arguably the best scoring duo in the country didn't have a chance to shine. MacKinnon has 22 goals on the season and Drouin has 19. They play on Halifax's top unit and are very, very good.
Yet they didn't come out to play, not when Canada's offence struggled in two games against the Americans, not when Canada needed a goal in the third period against the Russians. MacKinnon, heralded as a player who could have been picked ahead of Nail Yakupov at last season's draft, was left playing a chip-and-chase game.
The offensive talent on Canada's depth lines wasn't wasted in just MacKinnon. Brett Ritchie, Anthony Camara, JC Lipon and Boone Jenner were all held without goals in the tournament, playing the role of the first player in the zone on a dump-and-chase. Any coach or player could tell you offence is better established when a team moves the puck in with speed and skill rather than with the intent of starting a forecheck. Getting the puck in deep is used on most teams as a last resort, or a zone entry option for players who don't have the talent to move the puck in.
The idea though, was to have those players play physical along the boards. They're always taught to finish their checks. Lipon and Jenner missed games to suspensions. Camara was controversially ejected from a game against Slovakia. In each instance, a Canadian player did more than was acceptable under the international hockey code or style of play. It's not that it's a style of play where physical play is frowned upon, but one where puck possession is rewarded. All four of those players, including Danault and Mark McNeill, who rounded out the bottom six, are top line players on their individual junior teams. The mis-utilization of Canada's depth cost the team a number of scoring chances when they needed them most.
But there was the misunderstanding of the IIHF rulebook. It started, in my mind, in the pre-tournament, not with a collision, but the indication that Spott did not adequately go through the simpler portions of the IIHF rulebook in an exhibition game against Sweden:
Spott absolutely ripped the officiating; pointed out they didn't even realize it was a 3-player shootout at the end
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) December 22, 2012
While Spott said he understood and respected the IIHF's different standards when it comes to physical play, it's clear from the result of misconducts and suspensions that, for all intents and purposes, cost the Canadians seven man-games, that the coaching staff was overwhelmed by the international standard of head collisions.
He's not the first coach, and Prendergast isn't the first scout, to recruit a player to the team with a penchant for taking penalties, but it's a practice that's making it more difficult on the rest of the squad as the world catches up in hockey.
Lastly, there was the strategic defensive system. Justin Bourne at the Backhand Shelf had a great breakdown of the team's first goal allowed in the semifinal game against the United States, where every player lost control of his assignment and ended up collapsing in front of Malcolm Subban. These weren't fourth line players and third pairing defencemen caught out against top talent on the Americans. Dougie Hamilton and Scott Harrington, two exceptionally valuable and aware defencemen in the OHL, are both on the wrong side of the ice.
This wasn't the only goal a Canadian goaltender was screened on in this tournament. Canadian defencemen seemed to roam free in the end zone, but retreated to the front of the net when the puck made it back out to the point. The team selection wasn't the issue, in fact, Canada's depth on defence was absurd coming into the tournament. Even without Ryan Murray, the team brought excellent two-way defencemen who rarely get in trouble. Tyler Wotherspoon and Griffin Reinhart, only ever calming presences when I had the chance to watch them, were prone to giveaways and lapses.
Whatever it was, the defence didn't look like themselves, save the occasional burst into the zone by Morgan Rielly and an excellent performance on the power play in the bronze medal game by Ryan Murphy. It's highly unlikely that seven talented kids simply forgot how to play when they hit the ice in Ufa.
The mixing of partners wasn't too big of an issue. Team Canada frequently rotates its defensive pairings throughout a tournament since they're allowed to dress seven players—but the group lacked clarity and organization, resulting in being hemmed in their zone and poor starts to each of their final four games of the tournament.
One tournament isn't an indication of a country's skill in hockey. It takes a lot, particularly luck, to win in a short tournament, but the coaching systems and the deployment of skilled players didn't help. The Canadian staff intended to create a fast, skilled team that was a physical threat, but they played on the wrong side of centre ice far too often to properly execute a game plan. In the future, Canada would likely be better served by not attempting to overcoach or impose a traditional style of game on creative, skilled players. There's something to be said for simply taking the best players available to the tournament and letting them play like they can, the coach's existence purely to take the heat if the coin lands the wrong way.