LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — There was a time when the world looked at Canada as a step ahead of the pack when it came to the world junior championship.
The last time Canada won gold was in 2009. At the 2013 tournament in Ufa, Russia, the Canadians were sent home without a medal of any kind for the first time since 1998.
And the world has taken notice.
"You don't have to be God to beat them," said Finnish goaltender Juuse Saros of Team Canada. "It gives hope that guys will beat them."
Canada's greatest shortcoming at the tournament of late has been in net, where the nation has failed to find the kind of lights-out, big game goaltending – a la Carey Price, Justin Pogge, or even Dustin Tokarski who struggled in the round robin, but won gold in 2009 – to finish first.
Former NHL goaltender Sean Burke was recently hired as a part of Hockey Canada's management group for the under-17, 18 and 20 programs. He said the world is quickly catching up to Canada.
"The gap has closed," said Burke. "Especially in the past 10 years when you think about the amount of European goalies and American goalies. There are a lot of good player out there and there's not a wide difference any more between the countries with the goaltending."
There has been much hand-wringing in the wake of Canada's fourth-place finish, to the point where some believe there is a problem with the development system. At the world junior summer evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., all of the Canadian goalies participating have already had to defend their positions on almost a daily basis.
"That's probably going to have to be a question we all field for a little longer," said the veteran of 17 NHL seasons. "But I think Canada has excellent goaltending – I think it's one of our strengths.
"In the type of tournament it is, with that format, you can have an average game at the wrong time and end up losing – and you know where the focus is going to go."
Saginaw Spirit star Jake Paterson was the third-string netminder last year during the tournament in Ufa and saw the focus put on Team Canada first-hand.
"There have been a lot of questions going around about the goaltending in Canada," said Paterson, a third-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2012. "I don't think it's too much of a concern … I think we're still developing goaltenders in Canada the same way we have for many years."
Earlier this summer, the Canadian Hockey League, which provides the bulk of talent for the world junior squad decided to ban the drafting of import goaltenders starting next year. The ban would not apply to American goalies, many of whom are on CHL rosters. The hope is that extra few slots open for those Canadian players – last year there were some 11 import goalies across the CHL -- will help produce better development.
"I don't think Canada has a problem at all," said goalie Eric Comrie, who plays for the Western Hockey League's Tri-City Americans. "I think Canada has some of the strongest goaltending of any country in the world.
"I just feel like in the Western Hockey League, there's only 22 teams and there are only two goaltenders per team, so that's only 44 spots. It's very limited and (the CHL) wants to give as many spots to Canadian goalies if they can."
But not everyone agrees.
"It's less competition," said Saros, who was named as the top goaltender at last year's U18 tournament. "Canada thinks they'll get better Canadian goalies, but there's not that much competition when there's no guys coming from Europe."
But as Burke notes, stopping European goalies from playing in CHL won't prevent other nations from continuing to develop good netminders.
"You always want to compete against who you think is the best," said Burke. "At the end of the day there will continue to be really strong European goaltenders and no matter what, when you get to the top level you have to find a way to compete against the top players."
Burke believes the issue for developing elite goaltenders – or any player for that matter – begins long before they reach the junior leagues.
"There are still a lot of talented kids out there," said Burke. "More than anything we have to get a better handle on a younger age. Starting at younger age and figuring out what's the best way for our players to develop and I think we have a good idea about that."
Prior to this summer's CHL import draft – the last chance for CHL teams to select goalies – Saros made it clear to GMs he was staying at home since he had a good shot of playing for the top-tier HPK in his hometown of Hameenlinna. There he'd continue to get specialized goaltending training – the kind he's been receiving since he was a kid.
Unlike Canada, Finland uses a regional development where goaltending coaches will travel around the country to help young players develop their skills free of charge. Saros said he started playing in net when he was 10 and had specialized coaching for his position from the very start.
"It's a big thing," said Saros. "In my town, when you first begin (hockey) there is a goalie coach and it's a very important thing for young guys."
In Sweden, a country that has been developing some of the NHL's best goalies of late, practice time is valued far more than game play. There is more time and energy spent focusing on and perfecting fundamentals and technique rather than getting starts.
"It's very important to practice the small things," said Swedish netminder Marcus Hogberg. "It's all the details which are important to my game.
"In the last 10 years we have developed many goalies and the key to that is the goalie coach."
Hogberg started playing when he was seven and knew he wanted to be a goalie from the start. He said he never contemplated coming to North America to play junior, since all of the best Swedish goalies – like NHL star Henrik Lundqvist – have developed at home.
"He's a good guy to look up to," said Hogberg of the New York Rangers goalie. "He works extremely hard and I have been watching him for like 10 years."
Burke said Canada is now looking at the success other countries have had with their models and seeing if some of those programs can be adapted – particularly for younger players.
"You're always looking to find better ways to give kids an opportunity to develop."
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