The Canadians always have a target on their backs at the World Junior Championships. None more than this year. The defending champions are also the hosts. The last time this tournament was on home ice, Team Canada had to watch the Americans celebrate in front of them.
While the team will be completely different than that 2015 edition, no one will be wanting a repeat of that.
Before we dive into projecting the Canadian roster that will look to defend despite bringing back a small group from a year ago, take a few moments to look over the projected lineups for America, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic.
When putting this lineup together, there were many questions. One of two returning skaters, Alex Formenton, hobbled off the ice with mere seconds remaining in a pre-tournament game. It looked like a knee injury and it didn’t look good. It’s too soon to know if he’ll be out for the duration, but it’s a big question mark at this point. I kept him in the lineup but it’s a situation to watch.
Additionally, the Kings have loaned Gabe Vilardi to Team Canada. However, the highly offensive pivot has played very little the prior two seasons and almost none in the last six months due to injury. If he’s healthy, his skill level says he should be a go-to player on this team. But are his legs (and back) up to snuff? It’s a big question. I believe it would take a pretty poor camp for him to be cut. Usually, when an NHL team loans a player out (even in a weird situation like this) the national team brass have watched enough to invite and assume they’ll be on the squad.
Another thing to watch out for is the recent five-game suspension that Owen Tippett received for flipping a foam puck into the stands in an OHL game (don’t ask me why that led to a suspension.). Usually, CHL suspensions are honoured by the IIHF but Bob McKenzie reported that Tippett will not have to sit out four tournament contests. Obviously, that would make a big impact on his chances to crack this lineup if the suspension did hold.
First line: Alexis Lafrenière – Cody Glass – Nick Suzuki
Yes, I do have 17-year-old, 2020 draft-eligible, Alexis Lafrenière on the top line. For my money, he is the most dynamic left-wing on this squad and would be very valuable in that role. I’ll hedge my bet by saying this line won’t necessarily begin the tournament as a unit but could come together as things progress. Suzuki will fill the net and be able to free-wheel more on the wing, while Glass represents the all-around pivot this team will lean on. He’ll have two deadly finishers beside him to use his high-end vision and skill.
Second line: Max Comtois – Barrett Hayton – Gabe Vilardi
The second line has a little bit of everything. I can see Comtois playing on either of the top two lines, but in this scenario, he will be handling the heavy work alongside Hayton and Vilardi. Comtois will be a physical force all over the ice. He’ll score more than a few goals from inside the blue paint. Hayton will provide everything from PP to PK work and drive play during even-strength. Vilardi gets some freedom by playing the wing and distributing the puck. It won’t be the quickest line, but it could do a lot of damage.
Third line: Alex Formenton – Jaret Anderson-Dolan – Brett Leason
This is a heavy line. If available, and that’s a big if, Formenton brings incredible speed and tenacity. He’ll see minutes in all situations. Anderson-Dolan is a lunch pail pivot with quick hands, great vision, and a motor that doesn’t quit. Leason provides size, strength, and skill. He can also step in and take draws on his strong side – always a bonus. This is a matchup line that can hammer teams going the other way.
If Formenton isn’t a go, this would create a terrific opportunity for Blue Jackets’ first rounder, Liam Foudy. Foudy brings the same type of speed and style as Formenton.
Fourth line: Morgan Frost –Joseph Veleno – Owen Tippett
Head coach, Tim Hunter, was very clear. He wants his team to play at a breakneck pace. This line will bring that and more. Veleno is one of the fastest straight-line U20 players out there. Frost is quick and shifty. Tippett is a burner by every metric and is also a volume shooter and a deadly finisher. These three players are posting incredibly high numbers in the CHL right now. This is a line with a great deal of skill.
13th forward: Jack Studnicka
If Formenton is healthy, then I see Jack Studnicka grinding out this spot. He’s played well in the summer showcase, during his regular season in Oshawa and early in camp. He can play all three forward positions and could well in a bottom-six role if an injury arises and a player needs to move up. Usually, for this spot, I’d like to put a player who could jump into a top line role if an injury arose, but there isn’t really that player sitting here unless Raphael Lavoie has a big-time camp.
First pair: Ty Smith – Evan Bouchard
These two should represent the most dominant top pairing at the tournament. Smith is a dynamic skater who can wheel up and out of his own end. Creating offense out of nothing. Bouchard is a shooting machine who can engage both physically and offensively. If Canada runs a 3-2 top power play, these will be the defenders.
Second pair: Pierre-Olivier Joseph – Noah Dobson
Coyotes’ 2017 first rounder, Joseph will pair up with Islanders 2018 first rounder, Dobson to be the team’s shutdown pairing. They can create offense (as all these players can), but their primary task will be shutting down the opposition’s top scorers. Both are splendid skaters.
Third pair: Josh Brook – Ian Mitchell
More speed coming. Brook and Mitchell can both fly and move the puck well. Getting pucks moving in the right direction is as important as the wheels on the forwards who receive those passes. Brook likely projects as a power play option as well. He’s a natural right-side player but is smart enough to work on the left.
Seventh defenseman: Jacob Bernard-Docker
For the seventh defender, I went with Senators’ prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker. If the club elects to go with four right shot defenders in the lineup, then they’ll want a lefty here. Jared McIsaac would bring more penalty killing and physicality in this role, but frankly, he hasn’t been great. JBD narrowly beats out Nicolas Beaudin for his better two-way ability.
Michael Dipietro – Ian Scott – Matthew Villalta
Michael DiPietro was supposed to be the third netminder last year. That was supposed to prepare him to be the starter this year. Instead, he was the last cut from camp and went back to Windsor. The 19-year-old has a Memorial Cup and OHL Goaltender of the Year in his back pocket and has been clicking again in the OHL this year. He gives up something in height but his rebound control is fantastic for a junior-aged netminder. He’ll have Ian Scott breathing down his neck. The 6’4 Leafs’ prospect has been lights out in Prince Albert this season. Villalta earned his invite but is the clear number three.
Alexis Lafreniere – Cody Glass – Nick Suzuki
Max Comtois – Barrett Hayton – Gabe Vilardi
Alex Formenton* – Jaret Anderson-Dolan – Brett Leason
Morgan Frost – Joseph Veleno – Owen Tippett
Ty Smith – Evan Bouchard
Pierre-Olivier Joseph – Noah Dobson
Josh Brook – Ian Mitchell
This team has all the weapons needed to repeat. They’re missing out on Robert Thomas and Michael Rasmussen who are contributing to their NHL teams, but Canada still has a bevy of options to choose from. They’re playing in the weaker pool, so earning themselves a trip to the medal round should be all but assured.
Happy World Juniors!
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