Speed and depth key to Canada’s junior team ahead of world championship

Team is fast, very deep and balanced heading into a competitive world junior championship in Buffalo

Looking at Canada’s junior team roster there are no budding superstars like Connor McDavid or Mitch Marner. But there is a simple philosophy: take time and space away from your opponent and then you can take the puck too.

Head coach Dominique Ducharme and Hockey Canada executives Shawn Bullock and Joel Bouchard have built a team that is fast, very deep, and balanced heading into a competitive world junior championship in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Our goal when we lose the puck is to retrieve it as quick as possible,” said Ducharme on Friday. “We want to make sure we’re stepping in front of guys to retrieve it, separating them from the puck.”

Only one player on the team — stalwart defenceman Cale Makar — was taken with a top-10 pick in an NHL draft. The Colorado Avalanche selected him fourth overall this past summer. The next highest pick on the team was forward Michael McLeod, who the New Jersey Devils chose 12th overall in 2016. Most of the team are second round picks or lower.

But the roster does include Ontario Hockey League points leader Jordan Kyrou — a second-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2016 — and Sam Steel, last season’s Western Hockey League player of the year, who the Anaheim Ducks selected 30th overall in 2016. Taylor Raddysh (second round in 2016, Tampa Bay) and Robert Thomas (20th overall in 2017, St. Louis) have also shown flashes of brilliance together in exhibition games.

“I think we have a full four lines, 13 guys that can contribute,” said Dillon Dube, a 2016 second round pick of the Calgary Flames, who had two goals and an assist on a line with Kyrou and Steel in Friday’s 8-1 win over Switzerland. “It’s going to be good. Obviously, it showed tonight that every single line can score.”

Dube, Raddysh and McLeod are part of a core of seven players returning from last year’s silver-medal team. Defencemen Jake Bean, Kale Clague and Dante Fabbro as well as goaltender Carter Hart are also returning. Ducharme sees those seven veterans as an invaluable asset that may give Canada the edge it needs.

“Anyone that went through the tournament, they know what to expect. You can’t buy experience,” said Ducharme. “That’s mileage and I think it’s good for them personally to be able to use that and bring their game to another level, but also useful for every other player on the team to be beside those guys that have been through the tournament.”

Victor Mete, who was loaned to Hockey Canada for the world juniors by the Montreal Canadiens, joins that seasoned blue line, making depth at defence arguably Canada’s greatest strength. Conor Timmins, Cal Foote and Josh Mahura, who was recalled to the team as a substitute while Fabbro recovers from a lower-body contusion, round out the defence.

“We’re a defence-focused team this year,” said backup goaltender Colton Point, who only faced four shots over 40 minutes of play against Switzerland. “I think we’re proving that right now with our shutdown D. They blocked probably more shots than I stopped today.

“If you want to win tournaments you have to start with the D corps.”

Canada’s gaudy numbers against Switzerland and in a 9-0 shutout of the Czech Republic on Wednesday in another pre-tournament exhibition can be deceiving, however. The Czechs had just travelled to North America from Europe and did not play their top players. Switzerland is one of the four lowest-ranked teams at this year’s world championship.

A truer test will be Finland, Canada’s first opponent at the tournament on Dec. 26.

The Finns are just as deep as the Canadians, but have the added motivation of finishing ninth last year — a swift fall from grace after winning gold in Helsinki in 2016. Forward Aleksi Heponiemi will be the focal point of their offence, as he leads the WHL in points with 19 goals and 52 assists this season for the Swift Current Broncos. Captain Juuso Valimaki, Eemeli Rasanen and Henri Jokiharju will lead Finland’s defence, with all three playing major junior hockey in Canada.

“They have a few defencemen that move really well,” said Ducharme. “They’ve got a few guys up front that can score goals. It’s a good group of players and we expect the game to be tight. We’re going to be playing a good team so we have to be at our best.”

Canada faces Slovakia on Dec. 27, the rival United States in an outdoor game at New Era Field on Dec. 29 and then finishes the preliminary round against Denmark on Dec. 30. The tournament quarterfinals begin on Jan. 2.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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