World junior heartbreak (Photo credit should read Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)
It's one thing to lose all three games in a tournament that doesn't really crown a winner, but with Canada's under-18s not even getting a chance to medal at an event it has won 18 of the past 20 years, the international scene is definitely changing.
On Wednesday, Canada was eliminated from medal contention at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in Slovakia. Russia and Sweden will move on from the pool, and hey; those are both great national programs. But Canada has won the under-18 event (which also has games in the Czech Republic) 18 of the past 20 years. Yes, only twice have they lost the gold medal game in that span.
Now, call it a one-off if you will, but ignore the trends at your own peril: Canada's junior dominance continues to slide.
The Ivan Hlinka news happens to coincide with Canada's poor results at the recent Team USA National Junior Evaluation Camp tournament, which featured world junior tryout squads from the two North American countries plus Sweden and Finland. Everyone went 2-1 except Canada, which went 0-3.
And sure, Canada evaluated a lot of players in those three games and a true murder squad didn't really surface. Pierre Luc-Dubois and Travis Konecny, for example, didn't play in the 5-1 finale loss against Team USA – but on the other hand, neither did Colin White or Matthew Tkachuk for the Americans.
For Arizona first-rounder Jakob Chychrun, the NJEC tourney was more of a tune-up than anything.
"I thought it went really well," he said. "We weren't focused on the result. We wanted to bond and take time to learn the system."
Also, as coach Dominique Ducharme pointed out after the Sweden loss, it's August. Gold medals are not won or lost in August evaluation camp. But Ivan Hlinka medals are and Canada won't get one this year.
The Canucks blew late leads against Slovakia and Russia, resulting in a loss to the Russians and an overtime win (worth less in the standings) over Slovakia. Finland didn't have a great tourney either, but they were missing their top two forwards, Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen, plus two defensemen, Miro Heiskanen and Henri Jokiharju. All four 2017 draft prospects were with the under-20s in Michigan.
Canada, on the other hand, pretty much had all hands on deck – Maxime Comtois (who was awesome), Owen Tippett and Michael Rasmussen were all there. Would Antoine Morand, who was cut, have made a difference? Perhaps. But these kids shouldn't have coughed up a lead to Slovakia, point blank.
That's the crux of Canada's problem right now at the junior level. The men have no problem suffocating teams with speed at the Olympics or the worlds, but at the junior level the talent gap isn't so big anymore. Canada didn't play well at the world juniors in Helsinki, but the hammer didn't come down officially until the quarterfinal loss to the host nation.
“You need to be on every game and if you miss your opportunity at that moment, you’re going to miss out on winning the tournament," Konecny said. "It’s a one-shot deal and you don’t get any second chances. Against Finland, the bounces were going our way for a bit and then against us, and Finland came out on top.”
Bouncing back to the Hlinka, it is cool to see the co-hosts from the Czech Republic getting a chance to medal. For nearly a decade now, the Czechs and Slovakians have struggled to stay in the conversation when it comes to junior hockey, but Slovakia grabbed bronze at the world juniors in Toronto and now the Czechs have a chance for some glory.
Which is what Canada needs to be on guard about. The kids can't coast at all anymore and that can be a hard lesson to learn in a short tournament. Teams such as Finland aren't going to have letdowns because for years, it was really hard for them to navigate the Canada/Russia/Sweden minefield.
And come to think of it, Sweden hasn't won a medal in the past two world juniors; could malaise being settling in there, as well? It appears as though we are seeing a serious flattening of the junior landscape.
Even last year's world under-18 championship, a tournament dominated by the United States (which sends the NTDP plus a few mercenaries – at the Ivan Hlinka it's a mix of high schoolers, USHLers and CHLers), saw the Americans lose their golden grip, settling for bronze. Finland took gold over Sweden. Prior to that, Team USA had won six of the past seven tournaments and only a Connor McDavid appearance for Canada broke that run in the middle.
Canada is defending home ice at the world juniors this winter, but has only one gold in the past seven tournaments. Will this be a return to glory, or a continue of the slide from the top?
There can only be so many one-off stumbles before it becomes a fall.