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Team Canada looking for a second straight golden performance

Since coming sixth at the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships, Canada has responded by winning silver in 2017 and gold at last years event in Buffalo. 2016 was a disaster, but the program has quickly gotten back to their winning ways and I expect that to continue at this year’s event in Vancouver.

Since 1990, the World Juniors have been held on North American soil fourteen times. Canada has medalled in every single one of those tournaments, winning gold eight times.

With the tournament once again in Canada, it’s gold medal or bust for Team Canada and they have a team roster good enough to back up those expectations.

This is also the first time an Oilers prospect has managed to crack the Canadian roster since Darnell Nurse made the 2015 team, which went on to win a gold medal. Connor McDavid was on that team as well, but he was still a few months away from becoming an Oiler.

Plenty of intrigue around this years tournament, so let’s get you familiar with the squad that will be looking to become the seventh Canadian World Junior team to win a gold medal on home ice.

THE FORWARDS

Canadian fans show their colours at the Canada-Czech Republic IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship game in Malmo, Sweden on Saturday December 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Frank Gunn ORG XMIT: FNG502

Head Coach Tim Hunter has been running a top line that features Ducks prospect Maxime Comtois, Golden Knights first rounder Cody Glass, and Panthers prospect Owen Tippett. They’ve looked very impressive through the pre-tournament games and I expect them to maintain that level of effectiveness when the tournament kicks off for real on Boxing Day.

I believe fans will fall in love with Comtois over the next few weeks. He plays like a wrecking ball and can create energy with his physical play, which should really benefit this team considering they’ll be playing in front of rowdy Canadian crowds all tournament. He’s also this teams only returning player so I don’t expect him to be phased by the pressures of the tournament.

The second line is expected to include some combination of Nick Suzuki, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, and 17-year-old Alexis Lafreniere, who made the team after LA Kings prospect Gabe Vilardi was ruled out with an injury.

There’s no denying that this teams top six has some serious skill. The bottom six does feature some defensively responsible players, but there’s some offence there as well

Joe Veleno was leading the QMJHL in scoring before he left to selection camp. Barrett Hayton, selected fifth overall by the Arizona Coyotes last summer, had 33 points in 20 games at the OHL level this season. Prince Albert Raiders forward Brett Leason might end up being this teams 13th forward and he was leading the entire CHL in scoring at the beginning of the month. Morgan Frost almost had 60 points before selection camp began and I have high hopes for the Sault St. Marie Greyhound in this tournament, even though he won’t be playing 20 minutes a night.

This forward group is skilled and deep. Their ability to play physical shouldn’t be ignored either considering this years tournament will be played on North American sized rinks. I believe the forwards will be the strength of this hockey team, which should make them a very exciting team to watch.

THE DEFENSE

With no defensemen returning from last years team, it will be interesting to see who will step up and take the reins as this teams number one d-man.

My money is on Oilers prospect Evan Bouchard. He eats big minutes with the London Knights, he has some NHL experience, and he can be used in any situation. I think this tournament could be a chance for him to prove that there’s more to his game than just the #BouchBomb. He’s expected to be paired with Markus Phillips, who one OHL scout described to me as a “poor man’s Drew Doughty”. He meant that as a compliment as well. Phillips is a great fit for Bouchard.

Josh Brooke and Noah Dobson are also expected to play together and should give Canada a really strong mobile pairing. Something I like about this group of defenseman is that everyone can move the puck really well. In a fast, skill-based tournament like the World Juniors, it’s important that your defenseman can get the puck out of your end efficiently. Canada has that.

Their defensive core is rounded out by New Jersey Devils first rounder Ty Smith, Calahoo, AB product Ian Mitchell, and Halifax Moosehead Jared McIsaac.

THE GOALTENDERS

It’s clear that the folks at Hockey Canada are big fans of Mikey DiPietro. After he was cut from the World Junior team last year, they decided to send him to the Men’s World Hockey Championships in the spring where he got to spend time with the likes of Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, and Ryan O’Reilly. It’s clear they wanted to get him used to the environment of a big tournament.

He didn’t look great in his pre-tournament start against the Swiss, but I still think he will be this team’s number one goalie. He has fantastic numbers in the OHL and should give Canada a good chance to win every game.

Ian Scott is the other goalie on the roster and he’s no slouch. In 26 games with the Prince Albert Raiders, he posted a 1.61 GAA and a 0.943 SV%. If DiPietro falters at all, Scott will be more than capable of stepping in and handling the pressures of being this teams number one. He impressed a lot of people with his performance in the teams second pre-tournament game.

THE SPECIAL TEAMS

Photo: HockeyCanada.ca

Having good special teams units is instrumental to any teams success at this tournament. TSN had a great stat the other day pointing out that the last four gold medal winners all had the best powerplay percentage in the tournament.

Canada should have a very strong powerplay and it will be quarterbacked by Evan Bouchard. Owen Tippett has a rocket of a shot and I expect both he and Bouchard to be the ones firing a lot of pucks on net. Jack Studnicka and Barrett Hayton could be the ones tasked with doing a lot of the dirty work.

Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Maxime Comtois, Morgan Frost and Noah Dobson should all have very prominent roles on the special teams units as well. Don’t be surprised if super prospect Alexis Lafreniere finds a way onto one of Canada’s special teams units as well. He just has a knack for scoring big goals and I think he could be really effective with the man advantage.

THE OPPOSITION

Canada will be in ‘Group A’ this year along with Denmark, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Russia. Although this tournament can be unpredictable at times, I don’t think the first three countries will give Canada much trouble.

As for the schedule, I think it’s rather favourable for Canada. They kick things off on Boxing Day against Denmark. They’ll play Switzerland and Czech Republic on December 27th and 29th, respectively before going up against Russia on New Year’s Eve. I like that their toughest test is their final round robin game. Gives Tim Hunter plenty of time to iron out any wrinkles in this teams game.

This tournament is wide open.

The Russians will be a powerhouse, as they often are. Watch for Alexander Alexeyev. He plays his junior hockey with Russia and he is a fantastic defenseman. Rangers first-rounder Vitali Kravtsov is electric and will be a fun player to watch as well.

The Czech Republic has Martin Necas (CAR) and Filip Zadina (DET) and those two players alone could propel them to a medal. They were expected to have Oilers 2017 fourth-rounder Ostap Safin, but he has left their camp with an injury and will not play at this year’s event.

While Sweden only has one medal in their last four tournaments, they haven’t lost a round robin game in 11 tournaments. That’s remarkable. Timothy Liljegren, who would have been their #1 defenseman won’t play due to a high ankle sprain but they still have Adam Boqvist, Rasmus Sandin, and Isaac Lundestrom who was loaned to the team by the Anaheim Ducks last week.

The Americans will be led by future first overall pick Jack Hughes, who I expect will have a massive impact on this team, and his brother Quintin Hughes, who was selected 8th overall by the Vancouver Canucks this past summer. Oilers prospect Phil Kemp will be on this team, but I’m not sure how much of an impact he’ll have. They’ll be gold medal contenders.

Then there’s Finland, who got a huge boost with a pair of players being returned to them by their NHL teams. Eeli Tolvanen has ripped up the KHL in previous years and I expect he will dominate this tournament from an offensive perspective. Henri Jokiharju was one of the best stories going around at the beginning of the NHL season and I expect him to be one of the best players at this year’s event. They also have Aleksi Heponiemi, who seemingly scored at will in the WHL as an 18-year-old last year posting 118 points in 54 games. He was also at the tournament last year.

MY PREDICTION

GOLD – I’m expecting a golden performance from Canada on home ice, as they have done recently. They’re deep up front, have a defence that can move the puck well, and are equipped with two solid goalies. That’s a recipe for success.

SILVER – I think Finland has too much high-end talent to ignore. They’re my pick for a runner-up.

BRONZE – I like what Team USA is bringing to this event. They’re my pick for third place. But honestly, it’s a crap-shoot at best trying to predict this year’s event.

MVP – Maxime Comtois. Fans will fall in love with him and I expect him to have an impact in every single game Canada plays. His experience in this tournament should really shine through in the medal round when I think we’ll see his best games. (Honourable mentions: Eeli Tolvanen, Cody Glass, and Quinton Hughes).

  • Dark Knight Returns

    So sad that recent history suggests that Bouchard’s career will never be what could have been if he had been drafted by a good organization.
    Not even with the best player in a generation the Oilers have amounted anything.
    Hope Bouchard savours winning, once he is in e-town, it is over. Front office can’t build a winning team if their lives depend on it.

    • Bouchard will make the big show and be a staple on the Oilers D core along with Nurse, Bear and Jones for years, eventually moving pucks up to McD, Nuge and Drai. Hopefully ding a few Bouch Bombs off Pedersen and Gaudreau.

  • Steven Bergeron

    Kemp scored last night vs the czech’s. As for Bouchard, I’m still in awe that we have a defensive prospect of his caliber in our system. It’s going to be a treat watching him QB our PP for the next decade! I’ve heard Safin has been ruled out with whatever mystery injury he’s dealing with, some type of hip injury? As for Samorukov, kid has been on a heater with Guelph prior to leaving for world junior camp!