Canada has the man advantage over rivals at world juniors

Justin Cuthbert

There have been two dominant eras for Canada at the world junior championship. The nation found its footing in the competition first in the early 1990s, claiming seven of the first eight gold medals awarded to begin the decade. Canada soon followed that up by placing either first or second for 10 straight championships beginning in 2002 — a stretch that included a record five consecutive world junior golds.

It’s been largely hit or miss since, and the country will likely never be as dominant as it has been at certain checkpoints in its history. Competing power nations are now simply too strong, while others once considered inferior have closed the gap, eliminating the benefit of the preliminary round layup.

Considering just how difficult it is, now, to string together world junior titles, Hockey Canada, winners at two of the last three tournaments, has the opportunity to establish a more modernized version of a U20 dynasty with a triumph on home ice in the coming weeks under first-time head coach and long-time assistant Andre Tourigny.

OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC - JANUARY 5, 2020: Canadian players Liam Foudy, Quinton Byfield, and Jacob Bernard-Docker (L-R front) celebrate with the trophy after the medal ceremony for the 2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship final match between Canada and Russia at Ostravar Arena; Canada won 4-3. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
Can Canada repeat at the World Junior Hockey Championship? Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)

Canada is the clear favourite for the tournament, which is to be played under the most unique conditions inside the Edmonton bubble — the hockey fortress that will need to deny the COVID-19 virus entry for a second event after successfully holding up for the NHL over the summer.

Here’s how Canada stacks up, how it’s gotten here, and what it’s up against.

Loaded for bear

It seems Canada closely resembles neither of its last two gold medal winners. Where it was a scrappy, underdog unit three years ago, it was a group largely built around one of the most prized prospects in recent history, Alexis Lafreniere, the last time out. This winter the team is marked by its depth of top end, but perhaps not truly elite talent.

This Canada team is the product of two incredibly strong draft offerings from the prospect pipeline. A staggering 20 first-round NHL blue chips were included on the final roster (chosen from the 32 total), including 10 top selections from each of the last two drafts. Just two skaters — defencemen Kaedan Korczak and Jordan Spence — are without that pedigree among skaters, meaning that more than 90 percent of non-goaltenders on the team are first-round prospects.

But while all these players — including Korczak and Spence, who were chosen in the second and fourth rounds, respectively — are expected to factor in at the next level, the team might not necessarily be equipped with one common trait among many successful Canadian teams. Between Quinton Byfield and Dylan Cozens, and an incredible top pair of Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale, perhaps the Canadians do have that singular talent or dominant combination to lean on to change games and factor in big moments — much like Lafreniere accomplished last tournament, and like Connor McDavid, John Tavares and Carter Hart have done in the past. But what seems more likely from this group is that it will look to win on volume, not by relying on outstanding performances — something that’s only underscored by the fact that NHL-established forward Kirby Dach will miss the tournament after suffering an injury in Canada’s lone tune-up game, a win over Russia.

But how’s this for depth? It’s expected that the returning Byfield, who was selected No. 2 overall in the most recent NHL Draft, and will be the youngest player on the roster for a second straight year, will be elevated from the fourth-line centre slot to fill the void left by Dach.

The talent is seriously rich for Canada this winter. For that reason, this team is shaping up to be one of the better versions of what Canada has done times over, which is to win international events with the strength and depth of its program.

That one weakness?

Another common theme for Canada is a lack of star power in net. Sure, Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Carter Hart are among the netminders who have starred for Canada in previous world juniors as unquestioned No. 1s, but more often than not it seems the Canadians are playing hunches, choosing their “guy” from a selection of unheralded options.

That will be the case again for Canada with Devon Levi, a seventh-round selection of the Florida Panthers, appearing to have the edge over the twice undrafted Taylor Gauthier and Dylan Garand, a fourth-round selection of the New York Rangers.

While right now it seems the crease is Levi’s to lose, let’s not forget what happened last winter, when Joel Hofer took the job from Nico Daws and went on to outperform a goaltending class the featured first-round talents Spencer Knight and Yaroslav Askarov. It’s entirely possible that Levi falters, that either Gauthier or Garand is needed, and that Canada will require one of them to rise above the returning start netminders for the United States and Russia, respectively.

The bumpy road

As rosy as things seem for the Canadians, there are certain disadvantages facing the team that should be considered the strongest on paper. First of which is the fact that the world junior championship is going to be the first bit of competitive action that nearly the entire roster has seen in many months.

The main prospect pipelines for Canadian talent have been essentially shut down as the country continues to grip with the COVID-19 pandemic. This runs counter to much of what’s happening over in Europe, with many top leagues trudging forward and therefore allowing many prospects to continue with their on-ice development.

Hockey Canada’s plans to compensate for this inaction was to stage a mega month-long training camp beginning six weeks before the tournament’s Christmas Day start. Unfortunately these plans were quickly scotched when positive COVID-19 tests were discovered in camp, forcing the players into an emergency quarantine. Instead of simulating the high-level competition they have been without, players were now limited to the confines of their hotel rooms, their workouts reduced to ones organized over Zoom.

Team Canada has since returned to the ice to speed through its preparations. Only time will tell if it will be sufficient.

Which teams to worry about

It’s the usual list of contenders for the world junior crown, however Canada has the luxury of avoiding most of them until the knockout round as the clear favourites in Group A.

On the opposite side, Russia and the United States fill in immediately behind Canada in terms of favourites, while Sweden, despite being hit hard by the COVID-19 virus in the lead-up to the event, remains strong — even if its incredible 51-game unbeaten run in the preliminary round of the tournament seems at risk in the loaded Group B.

Russia has quite a bit of firepower led by an exciting top line expected to feature Rodion Amirov and Vasili Podkolzin. The Russians also have one of the top goaltending prospects in recent memory, the aforementioned Askarov, who should be motivated to perform after a forgettable tournament last winter.

The Americans are a little snakebitten heading into the competition, losing a trio from Boston University, as well as a return-eligible forward with a first-round pedigree in John Beecher. Still, there’s a whack of talent on the roster that includes five lottery selections from the 2019 NHL Draft in forwards Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield and Matthew Boldy, as well as Knight. Draft-eligible forward Matthew Beniers is also one to watch.

Finally, Sweden has lost both on-ice and coaching talent. Tre Kroner will be without a handful of incredibly important players, including top draft-eligible prospect William Eklund, as well as several members of their coaching staff after positive tests were found in their camp. Still, between Lukas Raymond and Alexander Holtz, the Swedes possess big-time talent.

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