Mitch Marner (photo courtesy Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)
It may sound anathema in a team sport when you have depth, but recent history has proven that big talents - and big names win the winter showdown.
PLYMOUTH, MICH. - It was a desultory loss for Canada, dropping their second-last contest of the summer world junior camp tournament 5-1 to Sweden. And to be fair, only some of Canada's best players were in the game. Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Tyson Jost made up the marquee top line, but big performers such as Lawson Crouse, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Travis Konecny sat out.
But if Canada is going to win the real thing this winter, it's players such as Strome and Marner who must lead the way.
Because as good as some teams are as collectives, it's the elite talents that have altered outcomes in the recent world junior tournaments. As one Hockey Canada coach noted to me, Patrik Laine was one of those difference-makers for Finland's gold squad last year. Canada didn't have that player.
But go back to Canada's most recent gold, won on home ice in Toronto in 2015, and think about the players who won that classic battle with Russia: Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Connor McDavid and Sam Reinhart.
Of course, Canada may not have every option available. Arizona's buyout of center Antoine Vermette sure seems like a table-setting for Strome, whom the Coyotes nearly kept up last autumn. Crouse wants a shot at the Florida Panthers and Marner will surely get at least a few games with the Maple Leafs, but I feel like the latter two will still be available come world junior time. And they'll bring experience as returnees.
“We have nine guys possibly coming back from last year," said coach Dominique Ducharme. "Any of them who can come back will play a key role. They know what to expect and on top of that, it's the way they play.”
Marner was the best Canadian player against Sweden (Chicago pick Graham Knott was pretty good, too), using his hockey IQ to break up passes and create offense, while also showing an edginess to his game that he also employed at the 2016 world juniors. That tournament, of course, was a disappointment for Canada and the Toronto prospect is well aware of how this year's edition must improve.
“That's what it takes at the world juniors; you gotta be ready to play your best game every game," Marner said. "Last year, our team thought we were going to roll teams over. But a lot of the nations have gotten a lot better and they're always challenging for the gold medal as well.”
The fact the tournament returns to Canada provides extra motivation at both the player and executive level. The disarray of Finland definitely won't happen on Montreal ice and the big group of returnees (even if Strome is unavailable) will provide stability. And I can guarantee Hockey Canada will do their best to sell NHL teams on loaning out their young stars, just as Ottawa did with Curtis Lazar in 2015.
As for the performance in Plymouth so far - two losses - Ducharme wasn't concerned. Execution comes with timing, he noted, and his players haven't been in game situations for months. The team still wants to win against the Americans on Saturday, of course, and competing hard is part of what will be a growing process until the actual world juniors begin.
“We have a long way to go until December,” Marner said.