By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
Canada has won their past five WJC’s on NHL-sized ice. In 2017, they’re back home
Goalies: With the top two goaltenders from the Western Hockey League, Canada is stacked between the pipes, a position they have struggled for in recent years. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Connor Ingram is at the top of his game right now and made important saves when needed against the Czech Republic on December 21st. A national midget champion with the Prince Albert Mintos, where he won the top goaltender award at the 2014 Telus Cup. Now, Ingram is leading the WHL with a .935 save percentage and is capable of stealing games for the Kamloops Blazers, so Canada hopes it will help them as well.
The second best goalie in the WHL happens to be Carter Hart, an 18-year-old Philadelphia Flyers prospect. Currently, in his third year with the Everett Silvertips, Hart won the CHL Goaltender of the Year award following a breakout season in the Canadian Hockey League. Hart is as hot as it gets in the crease right now, but the only goalie currently beating him happens to be his World Junior partner. Both goalies will likely get a chance during the four round robin games, but one of the two will have to take the job and run with it. Likely, whoever gets the start against the United States on New Years Day will be the netminder poised to play throughout the remainder of the tournament.
Defensemen: Canada typically doesn’t struggle in the offensive department, and in a lot of cases, the goaltenders don’t get a lot of action. So when you look back at some of the biggest issues in the years that Canada has lost in, you can point back to the defence. This year, however, may be a bit different, with a fairly strong core to look at, even if it may be the weakest position. Thomas Chabot will be counted on as a leader on the back end, with the offensive defenseman hoping to tack on to his strong start with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. Playing at over a point-per-game, Chabot struggled during the 2016 tournament, especially late in the tourney, but has developed his zone coverage ever since.
Joining Chabot on the top pairing will be Philippe Myers, a QMJHL champion with the Nouyn-Noranda Huskies. A big, mobile puck mover, Myers went undrafted at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft but signed with the Philadelphia Flyers shortly after. Myers has progressed quite well ever since, and is on pace for a strong third-season in the Q thanks to a near point-per-game average. He looked strong with Chabot in pre-tournament action and should earn a lot of ice time in Toronto this year.
One of Canada’s late cuts a year ago, Noah Juulsen is off to his best season in the WHL this year with the Everett Silvertips and a chance at a gold medal is exactly what he needs to continue with his momentum. Juulsen, a late first-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 2015, is a solid two-way defender that compliments the two-way dominance of Jake Bean, who will also be in the top four. Bean, a first-round selection by Carolina in 2016, led all WHL defensemen in scoring with 24 goals in 2015-2016, only to see him miss the first few weeks this year thanks to breaking a finger from a slash by Medicine Hat forward Chad Butcher. If Bean can replicate his strong Under-17 World Championship performance from 2014, then Canada has quite the catch with the Calgary, Alberta native.
Forwards: Let’s cut to the chase: Dylan Strome may be the best player in the entire tournament. Patrik Laine isn’t here. Connor McDavid is destroying the NHL. Now, it’s Strome’s time to take the reigns and get the medal he wanted so badly in Finland a year ago. After starting the year with the Arizona Coyotes, Strome was sent down to the OHL’s Erie Otters for his fourth and final campaign with the club and after 16 points in just seven games, it’s clear he’s got things figured out. Strome was one of Canada’s better players last year, posting six points as an 18-year-old for the eventual sixth-place finishing nation. Now, Canada will look upon their captain and (likely) top forward to get the job done.
Outside of Strome, the offence continues to dive deep. Taylor Raddysh is a great example of that, and considering he’s Strome’s OHL linemate, there’s extra reason to keep a close eye on him. Raddysh is currently in the top five in OHL scoring with an incredible 61 points in 28 games, following up a 73 point effort a year ago. This is just the second time Raddysh will represent Canada in international play, but the 18-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning prospect is ready to be a dangerous goal scorer in the top six.
Canada is extremely deep down the middle and Mathew Barzal is no exception. He may not have the dominant offensive numbers that Raddysh has, but with 19 points in 13 games, the future New York Islanders star has the potential to be one of the best playmakers overall. He’s known for his ability to make game-changing passes and his breakneck speed make him one of the toughest players to contain every single night. He’s also returning to the tournament after a good 2016 effort, but 2017 will be his true calling card.
One player that really made his mark during the pre-tournament was Anthony Cirelli, who scored twice on the Canadian fourth line against the Czech’s on December 21st, including a beautiful breakaway goal through the middle. When paired with Blake Speers, the duo created some of the best plays seen by any of Canada’s forward group and will likely be paired again in a fourth line scoring role. Cirelli went undrafted in the OHL before being a key player for the Oshawa Generals during their Memorial Cup title in 2015, while Speers, a goal scorer his entire life (he recorded 288 points in a single minor bantam season), has proven his worth in the OHL over his 188 games in the league.
An intriguing case in Canada’s top six is Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus’ third overall selection in the most recent NHL Draft. Dubois was a fantastic player for Canada at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament and put up a whopping 99 points in his sophomore season with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles last year, earning him the CHL Top Draft Prospect Award. But this year, with just 18 points in 20 games, his production has slowed down quite heavily. The tournament could be exactly what he needs to get his season back on track because if you know Dubois, you know you’re getting one heck of a hockey player.
Saginaw Spirit captain and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mitchell Stephens will also be hoping to get payback for Canada’s weak performance a year ago. A tremendous two-way threat that nobody can overlook, Stephens had a very strong Under-18 World Championship performance in 2015 with ten points in seven games. Earlier that year at the Ivan Hlinka, Stephens helped Canada to a gold with six points in five games on a roster that featured Strome, Barzal, Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny, among others. As a 19-year-old, Stephens will be counted on to be a leader and a guy the team can rely on to steal games.
Projection: In order to win tournaments, Canada typically needs a bit of extra pressure from the hometown fans to get the spark ignited. If winning the past five tournaments they’ve played on NHL-sized ice doesn’t get fans excited, then maybe the fact that the team absolutely dominated their competition in pre-tournament competition will help. Or maybe the fact that they have potentially the best player in Strome, or two of the best goalies in major junior. Canada will not back down this time and will almost surely compete for a gold medal in Montreal on January 5th.