As Canada attempts to break a world junior gold medal drought in Malmo, the nation's attention will quickly shift to goaltending and Montreal Canadiens prospect Zach Fucale.
Zach Fucale wasn’t tested very much in Canada’s only exhibition game before the team headed to Europe. In fact, other than a quick flurry that saw Ryerson’s Andrew Buck get two prime cracks at the Halifax Mooseheads netminder, Fucale (and Jake Paterson, who took over for the final 30 minutes of play) had a boring day at the office on Saturday. So what kind of preparation was that for the world juniors?
“All situations can happen over there,” Fucale said. “You’ve gotta be ready for anything.”
Indeed, when the Canucks take on Germany and to a lesser extent Slovakia, the Canadian netminder of record may get a little bored. But if Canada is going to break its gold medal drought of four years, Fucale and Paterson must be on point. That’s because a quarterfinal matchup (the bye to the semifinal is now gone) could draw Finland, while the semi opponent will undoubtedly be a fellow power country such as the U.S., Sweden or Russia. That’s when the pressure gets amped up and that switch in mindset can be tough for a goalie. Luckily for Fucale, he’s played in both situations.
When the Herd was young and he was a rookie, Fucale faced nearly 30 shots a night in the post-season. During the Memorial Cup year that followed (and aided by the presence of dynamic forwards such as Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin at peak performance), his workload in the playoffs dropped by nearly 5.5 shots a night. And the Montreal Canadiens second-rounder was great both times.
Sean Burke, who knows a thing or two about goaltending from his NHL days, is no doubt on board with Fucale’s experiences. As part of Hockey Canada’s new management team, Burke is part of the brain trust now responsible for the under-20s and one of his first duties in the summer was answering questions about the perception Canada has become light on net talent.
“I don’t think there’s a crisis,” Burke said. “The gap has been closed. When I was playing in the Olympics back in 1988, or if you go back to ’87, ’86 – the one advantage Canada had was that you could play a team that was more talented, but our goaltending was usually stronger. That all changed.”
Recent letdowns have made scapegoats of youngsters such as Malcolm Subban and Mark Visentin, though Burke tried to put things in perspective.
“If you have one bad game it can make a difference,” he said. “And in the past few years the goaltending has been great, but unfortunately a bad game here or there has been the difference. We have to continue to develop our goalies.”
What Burke would like to see is young netminders getting more work. The controversial CHL ban on European goalies will help that a bit, but some of the best teen stoppers are American, so getting the Canadian kids minutes isn’t always a slam dunk.
“Junior hockey has become a big business and it’s not just about development – everybody wants to win,” Burke said. “The biggest part of developing a goalie is that you have to play them. If you look back over years and years at a lot of goalies that became successful in the NHL, they weren’t real successful in junior, but they played a lot. They played when they were tired, they played on not very good teams, they played in a lot of different situations.”
Luckily for Canada, Fucale has been a three-year starter in Halifax. And to his credit, he seems undaunted by the challenge in front of him in Malmo. Having Mooseheads teammate Drouin around has helped, since the Tampa Bay first-rounder was there in Ufa last year.
“Everyone’s been saying it’s a great experience and you have to enjoy it and soak it all in,” Fucale said. “We just have to work hard and play as a team.”
But as true as that may be, the individual wearing the pads and blocker may have to carry that team at some point.