It’s finally here! No, not Christmas! I’m talking about the World Junior Championships – the best annual hockey competition on the planet. The World Juniors offers a time for people at all levels to invest in hope. The hope that their country’s youngsters lead their nation to hockey supremacy. The hope from players that they’ll live their lifelong dream of sending their country mates into a frenzy after winning the WJC title. The hope from NHL organizations that, eventually, these young budding stars will lead their franchises into Stanley Cup contention. It’s a tournament, a short one at that, where every shift matters and that drives up the passion and importance of every single game, every single shift, every single puck touch and of course every single goal. That passion creates an atmosphere that is unmatched in most sports and it’s the sole reason why it’s my personal favourite hockey event of the year.
With that said, let’s take a look at key players participating at the 2016 World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
Outside of the Michael Dal Colle and Jakob Chychrun cuts, the process of selecting Team Canada’s entry into the 2016 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland was rather quiet. Normally there always seems to be an uproar about “Player X” being released from camp.
Michael Dal Colle, New York Islanders 5th overall selection in 2014, was cut. Not surprising since the big scoring winger hasn’t found his groove after leading his Oshawa Generals to the Mastercard Memorial Cup Championship last season. Look for Dal Colle to be traded to an OHL contender once the Holiday trade freeze is lifted. It will be interesting to see if he gets rejuvenated once he lands on his new team because a change of scenery should do him good.
Jakob Chychrun (2016 NHL Draft) was released from Hockey Canada’s camp prior to the team heading overseas. It was expected that the dual-citizen (USA/Canada) was going to push for a spot on the team but that just didn’t work into Hockey Canada’s plans. Surprising? Yes, for me it was most surprising that they didn’t give the young defender a longer look and allow him to play in some meaningful games in Europe. However, Canada’s blue line is as deep as it’s ever been and it was going to be challenging for Chychrun to push out some veteran talent in the long run anyways. Jakob is a talented high end defender who’s taken huge steps this season in his defensive game and with his professionalism and maturity, he’ll bounce back just fine.
Spencer Watson, a late Los Angeles Kings selection in 2014, was one of the more surprising cuts because he was arguably the most impressive performer from the Canada-Russia Series that took place prior to selection camp. His in-your-face attack and scoring ability would’ve provided good depth scoring potential. He’s the type of player who always seems to be around the puck and opportunistic in the offensive zone.
Nick Merkley (Arizona Coyotes) is likely quite disappointed after not making Team Canada’s final roster and it’s to be expected. Similar to Spencer Watson, Merkley’s game is filled with a good balance of skill and energy but he was likely pushed out by the fact that there were some slightly better options available who could also play that style.
Now, moving onto who actually made the Canada’s roster and what they’ll bring to the team.
Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning) will be Canada’s go-to offensive forward as the oldest player on the team and one of the returnees from last season. He’s missed time in pre-tournament action due to injury but he’ll be good to go come Boxing Day when Canada untraditionally lines up against the Americans in their first round-robin game. He’s quick, he’s smart and his ability to control the offensive pace will be relied upon greatly.
Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes) is one of many Coyotes prospects who’ll be featured in prominent roles at the World Junior tournament. He’s proved that he’s as dangerous without Connor McDavid as he was with him and he’s established himself as one of the most dangerous prospects playing outside of the OHL. His skating has improved substantially over the past few years and it’s expected that with his high end vision, soft hands and ability to control the offence, that he will be a key player on Canada’s powerplay.
Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs) will be another key cog for Team Canada and because the team is going to need to rely on its younger entries, his success will dictate how successful the team becomes. He’s putting together an outstanding OHL campaign leading the league in points-per-game (2.32 pt/gm) and showing good confidence. He’s a player who makes linemates better around him and with him slated to play alongside close friend Dylan Strome, that duo is bound to do some damage.
John Quenneville (New Jersey Devils) will be one of the elders on this young team and with his two-way presence, it’s expected that he will play some big defensive minutes. He owns decent skill but won’t be a guy to carry the offence per se but his complementary style will likely see him land on the wings of two other skill forwards. He’s got good size and he can score and was lately taking reps with Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner at recent practice trying to find a linemate for the skilled duo.
Jake Virtanen (Vancouver Canucks) returns to join his peers after the Canucks felt his experience playing for Team Canada would be beneficial to his long-term development. One of only a few Canadians with NHL experience, Virtanen’s game is all about speed and grit. He’s physical and can fire the puck so expect to see him earn some reps alongside some of Canada’s top playmakers (Marner/Strome/Barzal) and draw important minutes on the powerplay.
Brendan Perlini (Arizona Coyotes) is another speedy winger with scoring potential. The 6-foot-3 sniper runs hot and cold so for him to justify his inclusion on Team Canada, he’s going to have to prove that he can find the back of the net or else, he could be replaced by another one of Canada’s many options. For now, it appears Perlini will lineup on the left side of Mathew Barzal and Jake Virtanen so he’s receiving opportunity to show his skills.
Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) is a treat to watch in possession and will adopt one of Canada’s top playmaker roles. He’ll likely get pushed to second powerplay duty to start the tournament but he’s a candidate who could really surge up the depth charts and become one of Canada’s most lethal producers. Following this World Juniors tournament, it won’t be surprising for people to question how the Boston Bruins passed on drafting this offensive talent THREE times last June.
Lawson Crouse (Florida Panthers) is one of four returnees for Canada and he’s temporarily silenced many of his (annoying) critics with strong offensive numbers – albeit, while providing his usual stifling defensive presence. Look for Crouse to be rejuvenated as he draws onto a line with best friend and former minor hockey linemate Travis Konecny. Crouse is a prime candidate to wear a letter for Canada.
Travis Konecny (Philadelphia Flyers) inclusion on Team Canada speaks to how strong his development has been over the past two years. Pegged as a pure sniper in his OHL draft season, Travis Konecny has adapted his game and can now be considered one of the Ontario league’s top distributors, sitting second in league assists with 38 in 29 games. He’s a tenacious forechecker, proven big-game scorer and his versatility will be welcomed on a deep Canadian team. Unfortunately, it appears he’s on the outside looking in for powerplay duty but if he can get some extra man minutes, he’s primed for big things. Look for Konecny to score some big goals. He was Canada’s top player in their pre-tournament game versus the Czech Republic.
Mitchell Stephens (Tampa Bay Lightning) was one of the sneaky good selections at the 2015 NHL Draft and in due time, he’ll be looked at as one of the “steals” of that age group. Stephens is just returning from injury and that fact that he still cracked this roster speaks to what he brings to the table. He’s a spirited two-way pivot capable of playing top minutes in all situations. He’ll be featured on the top penalty kill units and won’t give the opponents an inch to operate. Don’t underestimate Stephen’s ability to fire the puck and score some important goals.
Rourke Chartier (San Jose Sharks) has been limited to only 10 games with the Kelowna Rockets this season and his upward battle to make this squad paid off with strong performances in pre-tournament play. After teammate Nick Merkley was a late cut, Chartier will be the lone representative from Kelowna. After breaking twine 48 times last season in the WHL, Chartier should draw time on Canada’s second powerplay and act as a trigger man.
Anthony Beauvillier (Florida Panthers) has been trending upwards for over a year as this undersized skilled two-way pivot just keeps getting better and better. The type of forward who “just gets it” and one that owns that “it factor”, Beauvillier will be an important team player for Canada as they look to create energy. He’s clipping along in the Q with 41 points in only 21 games, good enough for second in points-per-game (1.95).
Julien Gauthier (2016 NHL Draft) is the lone draft eligible skater on Team Canada and he’s a dandy. Gauthier is a big, powerful forward capable of creating with his size and touch on the puck. He’s a projected Top 10 selection for the 2016 draft and with a strong showing in Helsinki, easily could rise into Top 5 consideration. He’s a player that scouts will be dialed in on and it’s expected that he plays important offensive minutes – including powerplay time.
Thomas Chabot (Ottawa Senators) earned his spot on Team Canada outplaying several other top defenders after entering the camp as an underdog. The Senators first round selection is a safe puck moving defender who moves well and thinks the game quickly – both assets that will likely see him earn some time on Canada’s second powerplay unit. His 7 goals and 20 points in only 23 games with Saint John are impressive figures, ranking him 7th in league points-per-game (0.91) by blue liners.
Joe Hicketts (Detroit Red Wings) wasn’t even draft but was shrewdly plucked as a free agent signee by the Detroit Red Wings and the rest was history. Hicketts was a vital member to Canada’s gold medal winning team last year and he’ll be expected to bring that same success (and more) this season as the lone returnee on the blue line. A clever and smart distributor with a good point shot, the offence will run through him as the setup man. It appears that he will be paired with Chabot on one of the two powerplay units and at regular strength, playing his off-side on the right.
Hayden Fleury (Carolina Hurricanes) will be a minute-munching option for coach Dave Lowry as the team relies on Fleury’s calculated defensive approach. He owns good puck handling ability and hits his outlets well but in this tournament, it’s expected that the Canes prospect will provide the stabilizing presence while others (Dermott, Hicketts, sanheim and Chabot) take care of producing from the back end.
Travis Sanheim (Philadelphia Flyers) is a budding star in the Flyers prospect system as fans have been going “goo-goo” over him since he was drafted in the first round in 2014. After posting 65 impressive points as a sophomore with the Calgary Hitmen, Sanheim is at it again in his third campaign leading the Western league with 1.29 points-per-game as a defender. The rangy defender boasts a big shot and deceptively good hands and will be featured alongside Travis Dermott on Canada’s starting top powerplay unit. There’s potential for Sanheim to elevate his already lofty expectations.
Brandon Hickey (Calgary Flames) is the lone collegiate representative and first NCAA player to crack Team Canada since Jaden Schwartz in 2012. The Boston University defender is one of several left-handed rearguards who will switch and play his off-side because of Canada’s shortage of right-handed shots Adopts a defense-first mentality showing a good commitment to his responsibilities but his mobile, smooth transition game allows him to assist in generating offence as well.
Travis Dermott (Toronto Maple Leafs) will draw eyes from the Maple Leafs front office and then another million or so eyes from it’s large invested fan base as everyone wants to get-to-know Mr. Dermott. Playing in Erie, Dermott has had a largely successful role taking on the top defender role and performing well. He’s a calm, cool and collected defender who plays the game with a calculated approach. Mobile and poised in possession, Dermott owns the ability to deceptively create lanes and operates extremely well as the quarterback on the powerplay – a role that Hockey Canada will ultimately provide him with on the international stage.
Roland McKeown (Carolina Hurricanes) is the lone right-handed shooting defender on Team Canada and much like Fleury and Hickey, it is expected that McKeown provides a hard-to-play-against style of defending, while chipping in offensively as he can. He’s a strong defender who blends physicality and smart defensive reads well. Capable of moving the puck with smart passes or engaging into the rush with his skating ability, McKeown is probably one of Canada’s most versatile defenders.
Chabot – Hicketts
Fleury – Sanheim
Dermott – Hickey
MacKenzie Blackwood (New Jersey Devils) was set to become Canada’s favourite to take the crease as the team’s starting puck stopper before a vicious slash ended up with an Ontario league suspension. With Blackwood slated to miss the first two games due to suspension, Hockey Canada was forced to name Samuel Montembeault as the team’s third goaltender. With Mason McDonald set to start round robin play as Canada’s front man, MacKenzie will need to return midway through to attempt taking back the crease – a mission that is expected to happen. He’s a big competitive goaltender capable of stealing games and his presence in the crease will be a great asset.
Mason McDonald (Calgary Flames) has been a highly touted goaltender for several years now and he will need to hold the fort against a strong American team to start the competition. He’s a battler between the pipes with good size and mobility, and despite underwhelming Quebec league numbers, Hockey Canada seems confident in his ability to lead the way as the team’s starter (if need be).
Samuel Montembeault (Florida Panthers) is expected to act as Canada’s insurance third string netminder and barring a complete meltdown of McDonald in the opening few games, he may be in tough to get into the crease in Helsinki. Montembeault flashes an extremely quick glove hand and his physical athleticism is extremely impressive. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Montembeault climb the depth charts in this short tournament if given the opportunity because he is an unfathomable goaltender in the crease showing sharp mental focus and emitting a calming presence – valuable attributes on the grand stage of the World Juniors.
The Stars to Watch:
Potential Breakout Players:
Canada's World Junior Outlook
While Canada always enters the World Junior Championships as a perennial contender, it’s much more likely that Canada struggles versus their Group A competition. Starting without their top goaltender against an always-strong American squad, Canada will need to weather the storm early as they look to contain an offensive USA team while developing chemistry. In their second game, Denmark will give the Canadians a chance to gel and should be the “easiest” of its four round robin games but nothing is for certain in a short tournament. The Swiss always play the Canadians tough and that’s who they will need to defeat on December 29th in a must-win game. Losing against Denmark and/or Switzerland could create a disastrous event. Capping off round robin play, Canada will take on an experienced and extremely dangerous Sweden team that is loaded with returning talent, many with professional experience under their belt.
It won’t be an easy tournament for Canada with them in the toughest grouping but as always, they’ll have to step up when the quarterfinal matchups are determined.
Canada finishes 2nd in Group A
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