Boon of teen NHLers could be bust for Team Canada at world juniors

Daniel Nugent-Bowman
Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Watching Toronto Maple Leafs right-winger Mitch Marner dart around the ice on Wednesday night, creating havoc nearly every shift around the Ottawa Senators net, Lou Lamoriello’s assessment seemed apt.

Lamoriello, the Leafs GM, declared Marner is no longer trying out for the team earlier this week. Instead, in Lamoriello’s mind, Marner’s offensive and defensive prowess meant his spot on the club is firmly secure.

While that’s great news for Marner – and perhaps not surprising considering his historic 2015-16 season with the London Knights – it’s much less so for Hockey Canada as it pertains to the World Junior Championship. And the news gets much worse when the totality of the situation is taken under consideration.

Marner, 19, is one of 13 players with CHL eligibility to crack opening NHL rosters (excluding Connor McDavid, who for some reason isn’t still playing for the Erie Otters). Nine of the 13 are Canadians.

So it doesn’t look like Canada will come anywhere close to having the nine potential returnees on its roster when the world juniors begin on Boxing Day in Toronto. That was supposed to be the one silver lining after disastrous 2016 tournament, which saw the Canadians lose three times and bow out in the quarter-final to the host Finns.

In addition to Marner, versatile forward Travis Konecny has been told by Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall he shouldn’t expect to go back to the OHL’s Sarnia Sting anytime this season.

Forwards Mathew Barzal (Seattle) and Anthony Beauvillier (Shawinigan) both made the New York Islanders out of training camp. Same goes for Thomas Chabot (Saint John) with the Ottawa Senators, arguably Canada’s most competent defenceman in Finland.

Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse, two thirds of Canada’s top line for parts of the tourney, are with the Arizona Coyotes instead of in OHL Erie or Kingston. Jakob Chychrun, the player the Coyotes incurred Pavel Datsyuk’s dormant contract to move up in the 2016 draft and select 16th overall, was reportedly one of the Arizona’s better defenceman early in camp.

Chychrun was cut from Canada’s world junior camp last December. Winger Blake Speers wasn’t even invited nor was he called to attend the summer showcase in August. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds captain last season remains with the New Jersey Devils.

As it stands right now, right-winger Julien Gauthier (Val-d’Or/Carolina) and centre Mitchell Stephens (Saginaw/Tampa Bay) are the only two players of the nine potential returnees playing junior hockey.

Of course, Canada isn’t the only country impacted by CHL players making their marks in the NHL.

Like Konecny, Russian defenceman Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings has been informed by Hextall the plan is for him to remain with the Flyers.

American Matthew Tkachuk (London Knights), Russian Mikhail Sergachev (Windsor Spitfires) and Pavel Zacha (Sarnia Sting) of the Czech Republic will all be given an early trial with Calgary, Montreal and New Jersey, respectively.

However, there’s no denying Canada is the hardest-hit nation here – again, notwithstanding the absence of sure-fire NHLers from other countries like Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.

Having the Columbus Blue Jackets send No. 3 pick Pierre-Luc Dubois back to the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles on Wednesday provides some optimism for Canada. He was the youngest player at the evaluation camp last December and figures to be a key part of the roster in barely more than two months.

The next few weeks will clear up a lot. Once a player appears in his 10th game, the first-year of his entry-level contract is burned and severely decreases the odds of him being returned to his CHL club. While that doesn’t preclude him from being loaned to Canada’s World Junior team, it doesn’t help.

In the three world junior tournaments since the last NHL lockout only Mathew Dumba (2014), Curtis Lazar, Anthony Duclair (2015) and Jake Virtanen (2016) were permitted by their respective pro teams to play for Canada.

So Hockey Canada may get a couple players if they’re sent back to their CHL teams. They may get one loaned from an NHL team. But they aren’t likely to get much more than that.

As for Marner, if Lamoriello’s words or his play Wednesday are any indication, it’s apparent the chances of him playing in Toronto this December wearing a red Maple Leaf instead of a blue one are somewhere between slim and nil.