Zach Fucale (Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
The Canadians have the speed and skill to dazzle a home-country audience. But the firepower could go both waysWhile Canada’s hopes of winning gold on home ice in Toronto don’t entirely hinge on the healing powers of Connor McDavid, it is a factor. And if the most scrutinized right hand in the nation is working at full capacity when the world juniors kick off in Montreal, Canadians can rightfully raise expectations to the highest setting. Last year, Hockey Canada kept the training wheels on McDavid in Malmo. He was under-used and miscast as a winger, denying him the ability to fly with the puck as he is so apt to do as a member of the Ontario League’s Erie Otters. Part of this was by design, as the team’s brass wanted him to get a taste of the big stage and not the pressure of being the guy as the hockey-mad nation attempted to win the championship after a four-year drought.
No doubt Canada would have preferred to win gold as well as shepherd McDavid through the process in preparation for this year’s tournament, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the team was crippled by a lack of scoring and discipline in the medal round, tallying just two goals total in losses to Finland in the semifinal and Russia in the bronze-medal game. Canada basically had two good days of hockey the whole tournament, beating Team USA on New Year’s Eve and breezing past Switzerland in the quarterfinal.While Canada is always in the spotlight, playing on home ice – in Montreal for the round robin and Toronto for the medals – will ratchet up the pressure, and this squad will need all its players, not just McDavid, to be at their best. OFFENSE Assuming McDavid is healthy and at the top of his game, he will be the most dangerous player in the tournament. Luckily for Canada, he won’t be alone. Sam Reinhart, the second overall pick in 2014, was returned to junior by Buffalo after a nine-game tryout. He will bring scoring punch, all-around play and experience from last year’s event. Reinhart was actually one of Canada’s best forwards in Malmo and his diverse game will be a driver for the Canucks. And while scoring abandoned Canada last year, there will be no excuse for a lack of goals with Max Domi (Arizona) and returnee Nic Petan (Winnipeg) available as well. Those players alone would make for a great offensive core, but the Canadians have a wealth of other options at their disposal and it really comes down to how coach Benoit Groulx wants to play the game. Prospects who attended the team’s summer camp alluded to Canada wanting to stick to the “Canadian Way” of physical, three-zone hockey. They want a little swagger, thinking perhaps the team had become too buttoned-down in recent years. In terms of bottom-sixers, Canada will also have its share of shutdown options and bangers, the most prominent of which is Toronto first-rounder Frederik Gauthier. Whatever way this team plays, it’s obvious the Canucks should use the elite talent it has and if that means giving McDavid a ton of minutes, so be it. DEFENSE The best aspect of Canada’s defense is how mobile the unit will be, without sacrificing other skill sets. Darnell Nurse (Edmonton) is physical and mean, but he can also really move and contribute on the scoresheet. The same goes for 6-foot-7 Rimouski defender Samuel Morin (Philadelphia). Madison Bowey (Washington) can play in all situations and has size to go along with his mobility. And Josh Morrissey (Winnipeg) is an elite skater who can draw off his experiences from last year to help the newbies on the back end. If anything, Morrissey can offer cautionary tales, as the defenders in Malmo did not live up to their billing as a whole (though the future Jets rearguard would not be the first to be blamed on the unit). If there is one minor concern, it’s that Canada has a dearth of right-hand shots, especially since Aaron Ekblad will be too busy in the NHL to take part. GOALTENDING Nervousness about team goaltending has been a self-fulfilling prophecy the past few years. In a tournament where Canada sometimes stole gold in the past thanks to their goalies, the national squad has now become trigger-happy when it comes to pulling the starter and the teenager who has started the tournament hasn’t necessarily ended it. Last year, Detroit prospect Jake Paterson was the anointed No. 1, but Montreal pick Zach Fucale took over midway through the round-robin. Fucale is the incumbent, but before the team was even picked there was noise about whether he was the right kid for the job. Fucale’s junior career has been fantastic so far, winning a Memorial Cup and a Quebec League title with the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013 and becoming the youngest QMJHL goalie to win 100 games. This season has been more of a slog, with a sub-.900 save percentage on a Mooseheads team no longer blessed with players such as Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. But Fucale also showed off on the big stage at the CHL-Russia Super Series with a blistering 40-save win over the visitors, so maybe the fears are unwarranted. Be that as it may, Team Canada has some great options for backup/potential usurper in Winnipeg selection Eric Comrie of Tri-City. Needless to say, this is a position that will be the most debated up to and possibly during the tournament. This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.