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Top youngsters belong in NHL, not WJC

Surely Team Canada would be better off with Sean Couturier in the lineup, but he's a solid contributor for the Flyers. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

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Surely Team Canada would be better off with Sean Couturier in the lineup, but he's a solid contributor for the Flyers. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Every year during the World Junior Championship, we hear the usual bleating about how Canada doesn’t have access to its best junior players because they’re playing in the NHL. And in the years when Canada fails to win the event, the bellyaching about it seems to reach ridiculous proportions.

And that will undoubtedly be the case this year, considering there are six junior-eligible players performing on NHL rosters instead of taking part in the tournament. There are undoubtedly scores of fans out there salivating at the kind of an impact a first line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins between Jeff Skinner and Tyler Seguin would have on Canada’s fortunes.
 
But there’s a very good reason why those three players – along with Sean Couturier, Ryan Johansen and Erik Gudbranson – are not playing in the tournament. It’s because they have no business being there. They don’t belong there. They are not juniors. They are bona fide NHL players. They are living the NHL lifestyle every day, making NHL money and proving their mettle (when they’re not out with concussions) every night in the best league in the world.
 
Who cares that they’re under 20 years old? Just because their birth certificates say they were born after Dec. 31, 1991 doesn’t mean they’re junior hockey players. By making the cut for an NHL lineup and playing with and against the best players on the planet, they’ve proved they’re well above this level of competition. So what would be the point of having them play in a tournament where they clearly don’t belong?
 
I say this knowing full well there are a number of European players in the tournament who are playing this season in the KHL and in men’s elite leagues in their home countries. Evgeny Kuznetsov of Russia has established himself as one of the top players in the KHL this season and Mikael Granlund was at one point leading the entire Finnish Elite League in scoring. Both will be playing for their countries in the WJC because European teams take a different attitude toward international competition than those in the NHL. But would either Kuznetsov or Granlund have been good enough to play in the NHL this season? Almost certainly not. They’re close, but they’re playing at a level of competition that suits them. And although both are quality leagues, their caliber is nowhere near what the NHL offers.
 
The fact is, Canada gets so many breaks in this tournament most years that it should have to deal with the absence of a couple of junior stars. First of all, the tournament has been in Canadian or U.S.-Canada border cities a ridiculous number of times in recent years. Ask anyone who played in this tournament in the 1980s, when they had to try to win a gold medal in northern Sweden or the former Soviet Union when the format was round-robin standings and there were few soft touches, how difficult the tournament was to win compared to playing in front of 18,000 fans in comfortable surroundings with the security of having to make only a quarterfinal game to stay alive.
 
But even if the playing field were evened out by holding the tournament outside of Canada and Canadian border cities more often, Canada still holds an enormous advantage. It has by far the most players in the world, the most indoor and outdoor rinks, the most volunteers and a governing body that gives it more financial support than any other (with the possible exception of USA).
 
So for Canada to have to do without a handful of its under-20 stars is hardly a hardship. Besides, USA is without defenseman Justin Faulk (Carolina), Sweden is missing its two best players in Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado) and Adam Larsson (New Jersey) and the Swiss will have to live without the talents of Nino Niederreiter (Islanders).
 
Canada will win or lose this tournament with the 23 true junior players it has in its lineup. And that’s as it should be. To keep bringing up players who aren’t there is not fair to the ones who are and a lame excuse for justifying any less-than-perfect results.

NO HARD FEELINGS FOR FERRARO

When Ray Ferraro steps between the benches to replace Pierre McGuire - who’s now with NBC full-time - as the lead analyst for TSN, it will be his first experience with the World Junior Championship. This fact is kind of odd, considering Ferraro was a junior hockey superstar when he was eligible to play in the tournament in 1984.
 
Ferraro, who continues to develop into an excellent analyst and storyteller, was a scoring machine for the Brandon Wheat Kings when Canada was putting together its team for the 1984 world juniors in Sweden. But what made Ferraro’s exclusion even more perplexing was that coach Brian Kilrea didn’t even invite Ferraro to the final camp.
 
“I had 50 goals when they picked the team,” Ferraro said
 
Now, when Ferraro says he had 50 goals, he doesn’t mean that entire season. He means he had 50 goals when they picked the team…in December.
 
“I had an even better second half,” he said. “I had 58 in the second half.”
 
Ferraro has never bothered to find out why he wasn’t chosen, but can take solace in the fact that just one player from that team, Kirk Muller, was more productive in the NHL than Ferraro was. As for the Canadian team, it finished in fourth place with a 4-2-1 record and lost the chance for a bronze medal with a 6-4 loss to Czechoslovakia on the final day of the tournament.
 
“I’ve marginally forgiven Hockey Canada for that,” Ferraro said.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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