REGINA – With so much firepower missing, the first question about Canada’s team is where the goals will come from at the world junior championship.
After Jordan Eberle of the Regina Pats, who scored six times in as many games at last year’s world juniors, and the dynamic Taylor Hall of the Windsor Spitfires, the team looks strong on two-way character forwards and less so on offensive flash and dash.
But the potential for goals is there, and one of the team’s best weapons, power-play point man Ryan Ellis, is not worried.
“Eberle’s got close to a goal a game and (Adam) Henrique’s close to that in our league (the Ontario Hockey League),” Ellis said Wednesday after final cuts were made at the Canadian team selection camp. “Hallsie’s close to that and a few guys from the Quebec league as well.
“I don’t think it’s an issue, or ever will be in Canada. Everyone seems to think it’s a problem, but I guess we’ll see what happens.”
Concern arose before the camp when centre Cody Hodgson, who led the tournament last year in Ottawa with five goals and 11 assists, pulled out with a back injury.
The team was already without eight players still eligible for the under-20 tournament but who have graduated to the NHL – John Tavares, Evander Kane, Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Michael Del Zotto, James Wright and Tyler Myers.
With only a few of those players, Canada would be considered a shoo-in for a record sixth straight goal medal when the tournament begins Dec. 26 in Regina and Saskatoon. Without them, the country’s depth will be tested.
Happily for Canada, the St. Louis Blues made Alex Pietrangelo, who will likely be the anchor of the defence, available for the tournament.
When asked for a defining word for his team, coach Willie Desjardins said “character.”
“We have a lot of leaders, guys who are captains on their club teams. We have a lot of versatility with guys that can play different roles and play on different lines. It’s key that we have guys that will handle pressure well.”
But will they score enough to beat talent-rich teams from Sweden or Russia?
“You’ve got to score by committee,” the Medicine Hat Tigers coach said. “The big thing last year was, if you take away power-play goals, there wasn’t lots of scoring.
“It was the power play that was so good and that’s something we’ll have to work on.”
There were no big surprises as nine players were cut to trim the roster to a tournament-ready 22, except perhaps for scoring centre Cody Eakin of the Swift Current Broncos.
This team should be led by the four players from the Memorial Cup champion Spitfires – Ellis, plus an entire line of centre Henrique, left winger Hall and big right-winger Greg Nemisz.
A potential scoring line could have Eberle on right-wing with centre Brayden Schenn of the Brandon Wheat Kings, the fifth overall pick by Los Angeles at last June’s NHL draft, and the quick and physical Brandon McMillan of the Kelowna Rockets.
An all-Quebec line could have rugged returning centre Patrice Cormier with his Rimouski Oceanic teammate Jordan Caron, a goal-scorer, with hard-working left-winger Gabriel Bourque of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
That leaves returning left-winger Stefan Della Rovere of the Barrie Colts with two young players with the offensive gifts that could provide what Canada needs – quick centre Nazem Kadri of the London Knights and five-foot-seven Brandon Kozun, the Western Hockey league scoring leader for the Calgary Hitmen.
Big Luke Adam of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles could also fit into a line at centre or on the wing.
Desjardins and his staff will work out the combinations in practice and from pre-tournament games next week against Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. A captain and alternate captains will also be named later.
If games at the four-day selection camp was an indication, Canada will be strong in goal with Jake Allen of the Montreal Juniors and Martin Jones of the Hitmen.
There is also a good mix of size and mobility on defence with returnees Pietrangelo, Ellis and banger Colten Teubert of the Pats, plus Jared Cowen of the Spokane Chiefs, Calvin de Haan of the Oshawa Generals, Travis Hamonic of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Marco Scandella of the Val d’Or Foreurs.
The cuts were made after the on-ice portion of camp ended with an instructive 4-2 loss to a team of Saskatchewan and Regina university players on Tuesday night, where a failure to finish was the glaring deficiency in a game in which the juniors had a 38-23 edge in shots.
“We have to get better,” said Desjardins. “Right now, we’re a group with a common goal, so we’ll come together pretty quick, but we have to work hard at getting better.
“I looked at the game and the university team beat us on a set play on that one power play for their third goal. We didn’t have that because we haven’t been together, so we have to get plays like that in over the next few days.”
A spotlight will be on Hall, a candidate to be drafted first overall in June, much as it was last year on Tavares. The Kingston, Ont., native’s speed down the wing and playmaking ability will be tested in a high pressure tournament, much as it was in his MVP performance at the Memorial Cup in May.
“I’m used to it, but that’s not what I’m focused on now,” said Hall, who turned 18 in November. “I’m playing for my country.
“It’s a whole different animal. For sure, the spotlight will be there, but I’m not too worried about it. Obviously, they brought me here to play offence, but I also have to be responsible on the other side of the ice and be a good team guy. Hopefully I can accomplish all three of those things.”