Dominique Ducharme sat in on Canada's World Cup coaching meetings last June and it's pretty clear he listened very, very well.
The International Ice Hockey Federation does not yet track shot attempts at the World Junior Championship, essentially because that kind of work costs money. While Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and Molson’s will make out like bandits on the backs of a bunch of talented teenagers, the IIHF’s deal with the devil gives the world’s governing body only $2 million from this event.
So we’ll probably never know what the advanced stats would have told us about Canada’s 5-0 win over Slovakia Tuesday night on Day 2 of the WJC. Hockey Canada keeps track of that information, but it’s bad enough these guys have to publicly disclose the score of the game, so we probably won’t be hearing it from these guys anytime soon. But when asked about that, Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme summed up a game in which his team outshot its opponent 44-6 pretty well without the numbers at his disposal.
“We were good at puck possession for sure,” said Ducharme, uttering a sentence that was tantamount to ‘Water is wet.’ “We were good at pursuing the puck. Our ‘D’ was good at stepping up and killing plays and forcing chip-ins and dump-ins. We were good at retrieving pucks and breaking out, transition was good. We made it hard on them and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Sound and look familiar? Well, it should. Because the way this team is playing is almost a carbon copy of the way the Mike Babcock-led World Cup of Hockey team played last fall and how the Canadian Olympic team played two years prior in Sochi. Five men up, five men back, on the puck constantly, demoralizing opponents by not allowing them one inch of the ice, winning almost all the battles and having the puck on their sticks constantly. Ducharme may not have access to the level of talent Babcock has had, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t rip several pages from Babcock’s playbook.
And that’s exactly what he did. Prior to the NHL draft in June, Ducharme was given the opportunity to sit in on two days of meetings with Canada’s World Cup coaching staff and, as expected, the experience was invaluable. This team is very, very good, but it’s not star-studded. Less than half the players on the team (10) are first-round picks and only three of them are top-10 selections. But this is also a team that is three questionable goals from being perfect in this tournament. This is a team that has scored 10 goals so far from nine different players.
“The World Cup team, the Olympic team, the World Championship team, they’ve been having success and we looked at that,” Ducharme said. “We presented things to our players saying, ‘Here’s the number of penalties they were taking, average every game, this is the number of shots they were giving (up), this is the number of shots they were taking, this is examples of players’ ice time in the NHL season compared to the Olympics. Our guys understand that if (Sidney) Crosby, (Steven) Stamkos and (Claude) Giroux are doing that, we can accept it and do it. If the big guys can play less and play certain roles and leave everything at the door, then we can do that too.”
And, of course, this all has a residual effect. Once these guys become NHL stars and are playing for those teams, they’ll already have been indoctrinated into that kind of culture. So in that sense, the elite men’s teams are giving back to the World Junior and Under-18 teams in hopes that those players will carry the lessons forward to the higher ranks.
Canada has had some dominant teams in this tournament, but it has been a long time since any Canadian team dominated a game the way it did the one against Slovakia. In the first two games of the tournament, one against a world power and the other against a second-tier country, the Canadians have outshot their opponents by an 81-23 margin. The defense, at first thought to be a possible weakness, has been rock-solid and airtight. Much of Canada’s ability to snuff out its opponents has to do with overall team speed and commitment, but the defense corps has also pushed the pace and moved the puck up the ice pretty well. Or as Ducharme said: “I think our forwards deserve praise for the way we’re playing defensively and our forwards deserve praise for the way we’re playing defensively.”
As a result, the only question surrounding this team is goaltending. Carter Hart was shaky in Game 1 and the Canadians probably could have had a German Shepherd playing goal for them in Game 2 and still won. Those hoping to learn more about Connor Ingram found out that he’s from Imperial, Sask., which is halfway between Regina and Saskatoon and that the water tower is the tallest structure in town. We learned that his mother, Joni, has worn the same shirt to every one of his games for the past three years, an Imperial pullover with a scarf and a button with her son’s face on it. “We’re hoping she’s washing it, but nobody really knows,” Ingram said.
In the end, Marian Studenic, who plays for the Hamilton Bulldogs of the Ontario League, summed up how demoralized the Canadian team made the Slovaks feel. “That was really hard,” he said. “They are strong on the 50-50 battles and they have a lot of creativity. It’s very hard to play 60 minutes against this team.”