In the five years since Canada last won a Gold medal at the World Junior Championships, dynasty has been replaced by denunciation. The second Canada is eliminated the theories about why things went wrong float to the surface. After five years of disappointment almost nothing has gone uncriticised: the coaching, the goaltending and the construction of the team have all been put under immense scrutiny. Several internal changes have been made to try to maintain the stranglehold Canada has on the hockey world.
Five years later, Canada may finally be figuring it out heading into this year’s tournament. The quickest, and easiest way to improve the team’s quality is the offensive composition, particularly that of the bottom six. It has long been a hockey Canada mentality that the bottom six lines should have a role to play and not necessarily be offense first. This archaic thought process has crippled Canada at all levels.
Since 1998, team Canada’s senior roster has included names such as Rob Zamuner, Shayne Corson, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper. In today’s NHL, that would be the equivalent of Canada bringing players like Taylor Pyatt, Steve Downie, Brandon Prust and Dave Bolland to the Olympics. Back then, however, it was deemed the kind of grit that set Canada apart from other countries.
This mentality has been weeded out at the senior level. Canada displayed in both Vancouver and Sochi that the new strategy is to take the most skilled players available. It still lingers, however, at the junior level. Last year Canada played a checking line of Kerby Rychel, Josh Anderson and Frederick Gauthier. Even when the squad was “stacked” for the 2013 tournament with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Morgan Reilly, Dougie Hamilton, Mark Scheifele and Nathan Mackinnon the team insisted on bringing role players.
The results are consistently the same. In the past two tournaments, the bottom six have accounted for only two goals. This meant Canada could easily be beaten if opponents shut down their top two lines. Both Finland and the United States were able to take advantage of this the past two years.
Thankfully, it seems that Canada will be taking a step in the right direction, as head scout Ryan Jankowski has made it clear that management has pinpointed this flaw in the system and will be fixing it for this tournament. The criteria for the Canadian team is now speed and skill, and that includes the bottom six. To be fair, this was promised last year and Canada still played a checking line. But with the skill up front this year, that is less likely.
If Canada is able to get one or more of the eligible players currently in the NHL, it would push everyone down the lineup and therefore really improve the team. But as of recently, Hockey Canada does not seem incredibly confident that they will be receiving any help from the big leagues.
NHLers or not, the team is deep at center, which instantly ensures offensive quality throughout the lineup. Other than Connor McDavid, who by all accounts should be available for the tournament, Nic Petan and Gauthier are all returning from last year’s tournament. Add Robbi Fabbri of the Guelph Storm into the mix, who will likely supplant Gauthier for the third line spot, and Canada might be the best team down the middle in the tournament.
The wings will get a bit trickier, especially if they don’t get any NHL help, which would drop Jake Virtanen, Michael Del Colle or Max Domi to the third line. Nicholas Ritchie has been a stud this year in Peterborough and will bring skill and size as a 19-year-old. Nick Baptiste is another talent who could really help the Canadians in terms of secondary scoring. He’s a reliable player who will bring some leadership to the group. These are just a few of the options Canada has, as a number of talented 19-year-olds are available for the third line.
Now it is just a matter of selecting the best ones, and finding bottom six combinations that can score consistently, instead of just attempting to stop the other teams from scoring. If Canada can do this, they might just have nullified one of the major causes for their five-year gold medal drought.
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