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World juniors: How to make Canada great again

Ryan Kennedy
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World juniors: How to make Canada great again

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World juniors: How to make Canada great again

Ryan Kennedy
By:

To return to the top of the world junior heap, Canada needs only to follow the template of its men's team. That's a task easier said than done with teenagers.

Canada's triumph at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto seemed less like a victory and more like a coronation – and not just because Team Europe was the opponent instead of Sweden or Russia. The host’s dominance made the outcome a foregone conclusion, much like the 2014 Olympics and the past two World Championships. Canada has developed a stifling system that effectively destroys the opponent’s psyche through speed and efficiency.

“The back pressure was probably the reason they won,” said Europe’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who also plays for the Philadelphia Flyers. “The position of the puck…you never got a rush out of it – never a 3-on-2, not a 2-on-1, because there was always somebody back-pressuring so hard and taking the spot of the defenseman. They had a lot of weapons offensively, but their defensive play was strong all over the ice.”

Canada’s national men’s team has become a juggernaut in recent years, yet at the same time its world junior program is slumping through uncharacteristic hardships. The under-20s have just one gold in the past seven years and it’s their only medal in the past four. While fretting about the WJC program in Canada is almost as rich a tradition as watching the tournament itself, it’s hard to explain such a drought when Russia has medals in six straight tourneys and Finland boasts two of the past three golds. Canada still has unparalleled depth of talent at the junior level, and it would seem like the men’s program provides a perfect template to follow. So why don’t the juniors just play like the men? 

A variety of factors go into international team success, and not all of the questions surrounding the world junior squad have answers. But there is a lot to unpack. Style-wise, Canada’s men have implemented a virtually unbeatable system. They play at a high pace, and when they don’t have the puck, they are actively pursuing it, to the point where opponents sometimes have difficulty advancing the puck out of their zone.

Canada’s depth used to be seen as a double-edged sword, since many NHL stars were “snubbed” and all decisions were questioned by the hockey world as Canada tried to put together a team that included role players. In some cases – Kris Draper at the 2006 Olympics and Rob Zamuner at the 1998 Games, for example – the questions turned out to be valid. But while Canada still had to leave marquee players such as P.K. Subban and Taylor Hall off its World Cup of Hockey squad, there is no arguing with the concept when the final result is an undefeated record and another trophy raised after the final game. There are no more role players on the men’s teams. Starting in 2010, the program’s philosophy shifted: Canada would take the best players and have some of them adapt to roles. That’s how you get Matt Duchene and Joe Thornton as “fourth-line energy guys” at the World Cup, and that’s how opponents get overwhelmed.

“Usually the most skilled players are also the quickest,” said World Cup GM Doug Armstrong, who holds the same title with the St. Louis Blues. “We try to pressure line after line. You’re turning over your lines at a high pace, so there’s no down time. Even if you don’t score, you hem in the other team and you’re putting our next line in a good position. We want to put the opposition in duress.”

This is the Mike Babcock system. The Toronto Maple Leafs coach has been at the helm for the past two Olympics and the World Cup. And while Armstrong mused that great players make great coaches, it’s worth noting that Canada’s past two gold medal wins at the World Championship involved coaches from Babcock’s tree: former Detroit Red Wings acolytes Todd McLellan and Bill Peters. “I played for Bill Peters last year and he was an outstanding coach,” said World Championship gold medallist Morgan Rielly, also of the Maple Leafs. “He got everybody dialed in, and we knew what we were doing. As players, you buy in and do whatever you can to win.”

But getting on track with the world junior coach has been hit-and-miss lately. The team rallied around Benoit Groulx’s malapropisms for gold in 2015 (“tic-tac-tao,” became the kids’ rallying cry when the coach’s attempt at the English phrase went amusingly awry), but it didn’t gel under WHL Victoria’s Dave Lowry last year. Brent Sutter was an unbeatable world junior bench boss…until he wasn’t. For his part, this year’s coach sounds like he’s on the same page as Babcock’s clan.  “We want to be playing with speed, with skill,” said Dominique Ducharme. “We want to be reliable, we want to be good on both sides. We will be taking the 22 best players that can bring that at another level. They’re all good players. Now, who can bring that to another level? Who can be dominant against the best of the world?”

That has been the mystery in recent years. To be fair, Hockey Canada has a much tougher job at the under-20 level. For the men’s team, the players are all NHL stars that the brass have seen play for years. And if someone goes down (as several did before the World Cup), there’s another obvious player to take his place. Jamie Benn can’t go? Oh well, just insert Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. No Duncan Keith? Replace him with another Olympic gold medallist in Jay Bouwmeester.

At the world junior level, it’s more difficult. The United States’ world junior squads rely heavily on kids that play for the National Team Development Program. Since the Americans capture the world under-18s almost every year with the NTDP lineup (one or two others get added from outside the program), they know how to win a short tournament and chemistry comes easy. And as one Hockey Canada coach noted, if Finland wants to gather its 40 best players for an under-20 camp, the nation’s small geography means it can do it for a weekend and not put anyone out. In Canada, the world junior team must contend with the mighty CHL schedule and a country where the best players stretch from Vancouver to Cape Breton.

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When the players do get together during the season, they are still segmented. The CHL series against Russia sees Canada’s archrival play games against the WHL, OHL and QMJHL, with no roster overlap for the home side. There is value in these games, but it is limited to individual evaluation rather than chemistry-building. Back in 2015, for example, Canada won gold with a roster featuring just one right-shooting defenseman: Washington prospect Madison Bowey. The CHL-Russia series gave the staff a chance to see which left-shot blueliners could play well on their off-side, and the result was an excellent unit. But it’s not like Darnell Nurse and Shea Theodore had a long history together before the tournament.

Perhaps the most important part of Hockey Canada’s evaluation process comes in the character department, however. The program begins flagging kids at the under-17 level, sussing out which prospects have the desired makeup for future teams. Does a player treat other people well when he’s not on the ice? Is he coachable? Most importantly, can he check his ego at the door? Because the hallmark of the men’s teams has been the ability for stars to do grunt work. Take Claude Giroux, captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and a consistent top-20 scorer in the NHL. Or as he was known at the World Cup, Canada’s 13th forward.

“I was the extra man out, and I didn’t have a problem with that,” Giroux said. “I was ready to go if they needed me and we won gold, so I’m very happy. It’s a big effort to make sure everybody is on the same page. When you’re Canadian and you’re on that team, you take any job they give you and do it the best you can.”

Ryan Jankowski is Canada’s director of player personnel. He would love to get the buy-in from his world junior team that the World Cup squad enjoyed from players like Giroux, but it can be difficult when dealing with teenagers who are still maturing as individuals, especially when they are demigods in their junior hockey towns.

“We try to work that through at the under-17 and under-18 levels,” Jankowski said, “hoping that by the time they get here, they understand what that buy-in means.”

Last year, it definitely didn’t happen. Complaints about playing time leaked into the press and many players from that sixth-place squad expressed their disappointment in how things went down in Finland. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mitchell Stephens was on that team, and he will return with a bigger role. He believes the 2016 edition underachieved, and he doesn’t intend to let that happen this time around.

“For what I take out of it, you gotta do what you gotta do to make the team,” he said. “A lot of guys are certain that they can play different roles. If you have 22 scorers, you’re not going to win. Some guys will have to be on the PK and play checking roles. It’s hard to come out of the shell you’ve built around yourself, but you have to adapt.”

Canada will be missing some big names this year, including Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny, but the team will get Arizona prospect Dylan Strome, whom the Coyotes sent back to the OHL in mid-November. The depth is there and if that buy-in works, Canada has a team that can play World Cup-style hockey.

Yet even if the roster is deep, the coaching solid and the buy-in complete, there is still one more area Canada will have to improve on if the team is to return to the podium: goaltending. The last time a Canadian goalie was named to the post-WJC all-star team was 2008, when Steve Mason took the honor. And no one has really come close lately. “Let’s be honest,” said one NHL exec. “Their goaltending has been spotty. It has let them down.” 

This despite Hockey Canada being pro-active. The Program of Excellence has now run 11 years of goalie camps, gathering the most promising netminders at the under-17, under-18 and under-20 levels. Connor Ingram is a favorite to be one of Canada’s two goaltenders at the world juniors this year, along with Carter Hart. Ingram was a bit of a late bloomer, going undrafted in his first year of eligibility before an excellent season with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers forced Tampa Bay to grab him 88th overall in June. He attended the goalie camp in the summer and then played for Canada at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Michigan, where the North Americans were joined by Sweden and Finland. It was a whirlwind ride for the small-town Saskatchewan kid but one he fully appreciated.

“I had never been invited to a Hockey Saskatchewan event, let alone Hockey Canada,” he said. “There were a lot of good minds out there – Dwayne Roloson, Mike Valley from Dallas, Fred Brathwaite…it was a lot of teaching and evaluation.” 

Ingram and his cohorts watched video of past WJC goalies such as Jake Allen, the current St. Louis Blues starter. And although the coaches offered tips, Ingram noted they didn’t try to change the young goalies’ styles.

Hockey Canada has invested a lot of money in goaltending, without much success to crow about. Is it too much of a mystery, or is Canada caught with too many options? Finland looked at Canada’s success years ago and decided to invest in goaltending, with great results. Even countries with mid-tier junior programs, such as Slovakia and Switzerland, have caught lightning in a bottle with goalies in recent years. This may be Canada’s biggest challenge, as there is no uniformity. Most of Europe’s best play against older competition, but the U.S. has had success with OHLers John Gibson and Alex Nedeljkovic. Canada sometimes gets criticized for being too narrow in its goaltending search, but the POE casts a wide net and still hasn’t come up with solutions. Its goalies got bombed at the NJEC this summer, though there were better performances at the CHL-Russia series.

The goaltending will have to be, at the very least, good for Canada to be golden once again. With the tournament on home ice in Toronto and Montreal, the pressure will be on, and goaltending may act as a microcosm for the entire organization – from the coaching, to the buy-in, to the execution itself. “It’s fast hockey,” Ingram said. “And a lot of bright lights.”
 

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World juniors: How to make Canada great again