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World junior championship: Conservatism and focus on safe plays costs Canada again

Crestfallen Team Canada players stand on the blueline following Saturday's semfinal loss to Finland (Frank Gunn, …

With Frédérik Gauthier on the ice for Team Canada in all games save the cakewalk opener against Germany, the Canadians were out-chanced 9-4 by the opposition.

Gauthier is used to facing opposition of this calibre. Gauthier was a first round pick in the NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has talent, was nearly a point-a-game in the QMJHL with the Rimouski Océanic a year ago, and had a +22 plus/minus. It's interesting to see the contrast to this season when he's a year older and perhaps given a bit more responsibility. He's just a +1 on a team that has a +20 goal differential.

The team that drafted him, the Leafs, has a player in a similar role named Jay McClement. Despite McClement's reputation as a two-way player, who would put up 20-point seasons at the NHL-level in addition to being a reliable checker and penalty killer, McClement has been used exclusively in a defensive role this season. He is on pace for just 10 points, and when he's on the ice, the Leafs give up just 30.4 shots per 60 minutes, compared to 36.0 when he's not out there.

The problem, however, is that hockey is a game of ratios, and not raw numbers. I forget who said it, but I'd read a long time ago a basketball quotation from a high-profile player or coach who suggested that "when you out-score your check, that's good defence." With McClement on the ice, the Leafs take just 18.8 shots per 60 minutes, compared to 28.1 when he's not on the ice.

A checking line, or what exists when the Océanic send out Gauthier, or when Brent Sutter put Gauthier on the ice with Kerby Rychel and Josh Anderson, is a concession you give to the other team. Some of the top offensive players in the world, or at any level in hockey, are susceptible to momentary defensive lapses. The way to beat them isn't to limit their opportunities, it's to out-score them.Canada has run into trouble with all-too conservative play at the World junior hockey championship in recent years, and it was again the story in 2014. Some of the criticism in the wake of Canada's 5-1 loss to Finland in the semifinal will fall on the players for a lack of execution. The reality is the problems for Canada mount year-after-year as they spend more time trying to craft a roster that looks more like a pro roster as the world steadily gets more skilled and begins developing better players. Despite a roster that boasted some of the best junior-aged players in the world like Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Mantha, Connor McDavid and Nic Petan, the Canadians struggled to score goals. Players like Bo Horvat, Scott Laughton, Sam Reinhart and Taylor Leier have no trouble filling the net when they play on home soil, but they did this past week. How come?

Here's a good theory, that can be borne out through data and observation:

The theory that teams need "checking lines" or "role players" is generally born out of necessity. Championship teams at all levels of hockey tend to have one or two key players that don't fill the net as much, but that's mostly because of the way talent is divvied up between teams. Draft systems in the junior ranks and NHL ranks means that you can't compile a team of all-stars.

In 1984, the Edmonton Oilers had eight 20-goal scorers and 11 40-point scorers. Compare that to the Calgary Flames, who finished second to the Oilers that year in the Smythe Division, and their five 20-goal scorers and eight 40-point players. It's not that Wayne Gretzky was scoring for the Oilers and the rest of the team was purely in protective mode, but what made the Oilers such a great team was the absurd depth of their scoring (and Gretzky) that their defensive miscues could simply be outscored, and the rare time that Gretzky didn't score, somebody else would.

For years, Canada benefited from the fact that teams simply weren't caught up to the Canadians in talent, but the gap between nations continues to shrink. In 2009, the last time Canada won a gold medal at the world junior, it defeated the Czech Republic 8-1, Kazakhstan 15-1, the United States 7-4 and Sweden 5-1. Five years later, it struggled to tie in regulation against the Czech Republic, barely beat Slovakia, had to hang on against the Americans and were dominated by Finland.

The worst part about the loss to Finland is not the fact they scored a single goal, but that they failed to make possibly the best junior-aged goalie in the world, Juuse Saros, sweat. Saros faced just 24 shots in the game and Canada managed just 11 scoring chances. Only seven of those 11 chances resulted in a shot on net. An international loss to Finland usually means that goaltending was a factor, but it wasn't at all against Finland. Canada just got flat dominated. They failed to make plays in the neutral zone, and when they were behind and playing in a panicked desperation mode, didn't seem to know how to respond.

Here's how the scoring chances broke down for Team Canada against Finland. Note how the Finns responded to Drouin-Leier-Mantha (Leier played most of the game on the top line in place of Charles Hudon). Rather than shy away from them in the defensive zone, they attempted to out-skate them, and a result, Finland out-chanced Mantha, one of the tournament's dominant offensive players:

Player Chances For Chances Against Chances +/-
10 - Charles Hudon 0 0 0
27 - Jonathan Drouin 2 2 0
28 - Anthony Mantha 3 4 -1
11 - Bo Horvat 2 1 1
21 - Scott Laughton 2 1 1
23 - Sam Reinhart 2 1 1
17 - Connor McDavid 2 3 -1
19 - Nic Petan 2 1 1
26 - Curtis Lazar 4 1 3
16 - Kerby Rychel 1 2 -1
22 - Frederick Gauthier 0 2 -2
25 - Josh Anderson 1 2 -1
14 - Taylor Leier 0 4 -4
5 - Aaron Ekblad 1 4 -3
15 - Derrick Pouliot 1 4 -3
8 - Griffin Reinhart 2 3 -1
24 - Mat Dumba 2 3 -1
2 - Adam Pelech 4 1 3
7 - Josh Morrissey 4 1 3
3 - Chris Bigras ? ? ?

Here's how the scoring chances broke down by period. Canada's lack of power-play chances, and number of chances conceded against while up a man was the real difference in this game. Note that in the second period alone, the Finns had six scoring chances while up 5-on-4:

EV
CAN
EV
FIN
PP
CAN
PP
FIN
SH
CAN
SH
FIN
Tot
CAN
Tot
FIN
1 2 3 0 0 0 0 2 3
2 4 5 0 6 0 0 4 11
3 2 0 2 1 1 2 5 3
Totals 8 8 2 7 1 2 11 17

Canada did press a little bit in the third period, but they missed the net on three of their chances, from Lazar, Petan and Derrick Pouliot, before an Aaron Ekblad shot hit Saros' pads and jumped onto the stick of Henrik Haapala for a breakaway and eventual penalty shot which sealed the deal. Canada missed a few chances in the game, as seen in the breakdown:

Canada Finland
Goals 1 4
Saves 6 13
Missed 4 0
Total 11 17

Saros was barely tested. Again, there will be questions about Canada's goaltending, but that's not the root of the problem here.The problem is that there's a focus on "playing not to lose" and preaching a conservative brand of hockey that stifles your players' offensive abilities. The worst part about it is that the opponent doesn't have to bother. In reality, Canada should be dominating the Finns like they did the Czechs in scoring chances, but they really did limit themselves through the neutral zone. There's a focus on making the "safe" play, that old "chip pucks in, chip pucks out" mentality that concedes possession of the puck to the other team in the interest of making fewer mistakes.

One tournament is a blip, especially for a short tournament such as world junior but Canada has been shut out for multiple years at the tournament. We are beyond the point we can blame the goaltenders, the players, or the execution. There's a fundamental flaw in the process here, and Hockey Canada's coaching and management staff have to begin to understand that if your fourth-line centreman makes a mistake that results in a goal against, it's okay as long as he makes two plays that result in goals for.

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