All is not lost: Canada in strong position to rebound at WJC in 2017

Canada's Joe Hicketts (2) reacts after they lost to Finland in a quarterfinal game at the IIHF World Junior ice hockey championship, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Helsinki, Finland. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Canada's Joe Hicketts (2) reacts after they lost to Finland in a quarterfinal game at the IIHF World Junior ice hockey championship, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Helsinki, Finland. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the Canadians’ showing at the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship ranked somewhere between disappointing and terrible.

They won just one of five games in regulation, needed a shootout to beat Switzerland, and, thanks to losses to the United States, Sweden and Finland, failed to reach the semifinals for the first time since 1998.

They will have no tournament all-stars. The last time that happened was 18 years ago, too. The goaltending and penalty killing weren’t good enough either, as Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney pointed out Sunday in Helsinki.

All in all, it was a collective failure.

Following consecutive fourth-place finishes in 2013 and 2014 – both at tourneys overseas – Team Canada has now been unable to grab a medal from three of the last four world juniors. Canadian hockey fans are up in arms.

So, while the blood is boiling, let’s all take a deep breath. Count to 10. Exhale. Repeat. This wasn’t Team Canada’s year, but there’s every reason to believe it will be when the tournament returns to Toronto and Montreal almost 12 months from now.

The 2016 team has been compared to the squad that finished fourth in Malmo, Sweden, two years ago. Although that team in Malmo advanced further, it lost to the Czech Republic and needed a win over the Americans on New Year’s Eve to win a weak pool. That allowed the Canadians to play, and beat, Switzerland in the quarterfinals. But they were dominated by Finland and fell to Russia to end their tournament.

That year Canada sent its second-youngest team ever with 10 players eligible to return the following year. The positive was that some of those players were Canada’s best. There was Jonathan Drouin, who despite a couple bad penalties, was Canada’s second-leading scorer. Aaron Ekblad was arguably Canada’s best defenceman as a 17-year-old. Curtis Lazar and Sam Reinhart were probably Canada’s best two all-around forwards. And Connor McDavid, then 16, was sixth in team scoring even though he played out of position on the wing and had his ice time limited.

Drouin and Ekblad were in the NHL last season and didn’t play in the 2015 tourney, but Lazar (loaned by the Ottawa Senators), Reinhart and McDavid all wore letters and were three of the best players in the event as Canada ended its gold medal drought.

That’s where this year’s team is bound to draw better comparisons to the 2014 one. Nine players are eligible to return from Helsinki. Again, like two years ago, they are some of Canada’s best.

Dylan Strome was Canada’s top forward. Mathew Barzal morphed from the 13th forward into an offensive threat. Mitch Marner stepped up in an elimination game. Thomas Chabot emerged into one of Canada’s top rearguards. Travis Konecny and Mitchell Stephens are likely able to take a step up from being useful bottom-six forwards. Lawson Crouse could play in his third world junior tournament. Julien Gauthier and Anthony Beauvillier have more to give.

Besides Jake Virtanen, whose struggles were well documented after being loaned by the Vancouver Canucks, there were five world junior-eligible Canadians playing in the NHL this season. Ekblad, McDavid and Sam Bennett were never going to come to Helsinki, while the inclusions of Jared McCann or Robby Fabbri would have certainly helped Canada’s chances. (On a separate note, how good would the Americans look with Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin and Noah Hanifin?)

But even of if a couple of those nine players – Strome or Marner, perhaps – are competing in the NHL next year, Canada will still be in a far greater position to succeed. There’s more highly-skilled help likely on the way, too, such as defenceman Jakob Chychrun, cut from this year’s team at its selection camp, and potential 2017 NHL draft top pick Nolan Patrick, a late birthday who starred at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka tournament.

The world juniors are hard to win. There had been five different winners over the last five years coming into this year’s tournament. It’s improbable that any country will claim gold for five consecutive years, as Canada last did from 2005 to 2009.

This clearly wasn’t the Canadians’ year. They never looked like a championship-calibre team. Next year should be completely different. If it’s not, then we can give greater consideration to pushing the panic button.

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