Sports Hockey

WORLD JUNIORS

Canada loads up on offence for world junior selection camp roster

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

TORONTO - 

It was supposedly the late Herb Brooks who had the famous line about not bringing an All-Star Team to the 1980 Olympics. “I am not looking for the best players,” said Kurt Russell, who played the U.S. hockey team’s head coach in the movie Miracle. “I am looking for the right ones.”

For the longest time, that was how Canada also used to assemble its international teams.

Skilled scorers could be found on the top-two lines. But from Rob Zamuner winning a roster spot over Mark Messier at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano to Kris Draper being chosen ahead of Sidney Crosby at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, bottom-six jobs often went to role players because the thinking was you could not ask a star player to get his hands dirty and block shots.

That thinking probably cost Canada a couple of Olympic medals and was part of the reason why the country’s top teenagers endured a five-year drought at the world junior championships. It was only after a disappointing fourth place finish in 2014 in Malmo, Sweden, where Canada lost to Finland in the semifinal and then to Russia in the bronze medal game, that the top-six and bottom-six formula was scrapped.

The tipping point, said Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski, was Max Domi.

Domi had been left off the 2014 world junior team because Canada’s scouting staff was unsure whether a top scorer would be able to fit in and play a bottom-six role if necessary. In the process, the team lacked the offensive depth to compete with the top countries in the world.

“In Malmo, we played an exhibition game against Sweden and we didn’t touch the puck,” said Jankowski on Tuesday, following the announcement of Canada’s world junior selection camp roster. “They were so good in that tournament and they lost to the Finns who beat us because we didn’t have enough skill on our team. We didn’t have enough depth of talent.”

Last year, the team put the focus back on talent. Domi not only made the team but also tied for second in scoring with five goals and 10 points in seven games. And Canada, which had the top four scorers in the tournament, won its first gold medal since 2009.

But the big change was with the bottom six. In the past, Canada’s bottom-two lines were filled with role players who brought a responsible two-way game or simply played with energy. But having Brayden Point as the 13th forward at last year’s world junior championships gave the coaching staff the versatility to move him up to the top line when Connor McDavid and Curtis Lazar were struggling to score.

In other words, it is much easier to teach a skilled player to play a grinding role than it is the other way around. It is a philosophy that Canada has adopted not just with the junior teams, but also for the Olympic, world championship and World Cup teams as well.

“Players are going to conform because they want to play for Canada and they’ve got the jersey on,” said Jankowski. “My conversation with Mike Babcock after Sochi was ‘You can ask guys to work hard, you can teach guys to block shots. Who’s going to score? Who’s going to bring the offence?’

“If you’re bringing those role players for the third and fourth lines, they don’t have enough offence.”

Scoring goals at this year’s tournament in Helsinki, Finland should not be a problem for Canada. Even without McDavid, Sam Bennett, Robby Fabbri, Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen and Aaron Ekblad, who are still junior-eligible but currently playing in the NHL, the team has more than enough offensive game-breakers at its disposal.

Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner, who finished 1-2 in OHL scoring last season, headline a talented group of forwards that includes Point (43 points in 19 games this season), Anthony Beauvillier (35 points in 18 games) and Travis Konecny (39 points in 25 games).

“I think last year’s team was special,” said Jankowski. “Not very fair to comment compared to last year’s team, but we’re going to have guys in their own right this year who are going to bring the talent, bring the skill and can create offence.”

If there is a difference from last year, it is that moving back to the bigger ice surface puts a greater emphasis on speed and skill and even less on size and strength. Ten players on the selection camp roster are 5-foot-11 or shorter, while 6-foot-4 goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Mason McDonald are the biggest on the team.

“Size isn’t as important,” said Jankowski. “But what I like about all our smaller players is that they compete ... you’re going to see Mitch Marner blocking shots, you’re going to see all these guys do a number of things.

“But let’s not cut our skill in half.”

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos



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