MALMO, SWEDEN – For the second year in a row, Canada will return from the world juniors empty-handed. Russia was once again the culprit, gaining an early lead and never looking back in a drifting, less-than-cohesive 2-1 bronze medal final.
“It was not our best game for sure,” said Edmonton Oilers pick Bogdan Yakimov through a translator. “But we tried our best and everybody is exhausted right now.”
It’s tough to fault players on either side for being less than 100 percent in the game mentally. After all, both Canada and Russia were just a day removed from having their dreams of gold smashed by Finland and Sweden, respectively. Perhaps that accounted for Russia taking three too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties, or Canada looking absolutely lost on the power play, even when down only a goal late.
Unlike the debacle against Finland, Canada was very much in this game, though the team generated nothing in the last minute with goalie Zach Fucale pulled for an extra attacker.
“I think we deserved a bit better tonight,” said Tampa Bay prospect Jonathan Drouin. “Both teams played well and it’s part of hockey – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Maybe one more bounce could have gone in, but it didn’t.”
Once again, the Canadian blueline looked disorganized, which didn’t so much bite the Canadians in the defensive zone as it had previously in the tournament, but prevented sustained pressure in the Russian end and stopped some rushes before they started.
But if there was an overall theme to the tournament, it’s that Canada doesn’t scare teams the way it used to. While teams still want to beat the Canucks, it cannot be said that the Red and White came into Malmo with more experience than anyone else. Matt Dumba, who had the tournament from hell, was the only NHLer in the lineup and he was limited to 11 games and a lot of healthy scratches with Minnesota, meaning he may have been better prepared for the tournament (for Canada’s purposes) had he stayed in junior. Scott Laughton played a bit for Philadelphia and the Flyers’ American League affiliate during the lockout season, but the cupboard is otherwise pretty bare for Canadian teens taking on men.
Contrast that with Russia, where most of the top players (Yakimov, Anton Slepyshev and Andrei Vasilevski to name a few) already skate in the KHL against men full-time. Buffalo’s Mikhail Grigorenko has 18 NHL games under his belt this year, while Nikita Zadorov even got in seven games with the Sabres (missing time due to injury before that) before going back to the Ontario League’s London Knights and appreciated his time in The Show.
“I got seven games in against the best players in the world and it was a great experience for me,” he said. “I feel more comfortable on the ice and I wanted to be a leader here. The guys watched me and I think it helped the team.”
Then look at the Finnish team that upset Canada in the semifinal. Artturi Lehkonen, Teuvo Teravainen and goalie Juuse Saros all play against men back home, while Rasmus Ristolainen played 19 NHL games for Buffalo and five more in the AHL before coming here.
Is it time for Hockey Canada and the CHL to look at major junior’s relationship with the NHL, to allow teens to play in the AHL? Would it have given Laughton, Dumba or Derrick Pouliot a leg up in Malmo? One thing is for sure: Canada cannot claim to be bigger, faster or stronger at the world juniors anymore.
“It has changed,” Drouin said. “It’s not Canada just running through the tournament like 10 years ago. Teams have been getting better, getting their own systems and players are playing more often in the tournament. And starting down 1-0 almost every game this year was not going to help us against those teams.”
Photo courtesy of Sarah Fuqua
Get scores, schedules and more on THN.com’s World Junior Championship Central page.