As Canada prepares to take on Finland in the WJHC Quarter Finals, the consensus among players and pundits alike is that this matchup will be anything but a cake-walk.
Matter of fact, Canada is considered the underdog in the 2016 WJHC Quarter Finals, and nothing about that should sit well with anyone affiliated with Canadian hockey.
Is Canada the Underdog in the WJHC Quarter Final?
This doesn’t appear to be “the year’, in terms of being medal contenders. Not when you have powerhouses like Russia, USA, Sweden and even Finland running roughshod over the opposition; the latter leading all nations with 23 goals across four outings. The goal differential between those clubs and Canada’s is less than flattering, and that’s a telling metric.
While each team has its inherent weaknesses, their collective strengths appear to leave Canada’s youngsters on the outside looking in, as they just haven’t been able to carve out an identity as a team. Coach Dave Lowry describes their offence as a win-by-committee approach. If anything, they are like a New York Rangers-type patchwork-quilt of talent that perhaps looks better on paper than they do on the ice.
Blame it on the roster selection if you like. Cutting sure-shot top five draft prospect Jakob Chychrun in the first round of defence cuts raised eyebrows, especially when the defenders they have left could hardly be considered big bodies. A responsible, 6’2’’ two-way defender would look pretty good right about now considering the task at hand; being containing a pair of 6’4’’ Finnish monsters, Patrick Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, who shred defenders like a three-cheese blend
All too often, Canada has struggled to sustain any real pressure in the offensive zone and if they have any hope of exploiting Finland’s inherent weakness between the pipes, who have a tournament-worst 13 goals-against, then they are going to need to generate some meaningful zone-time during the WJHC Quarter Finals.
Easier said than done as Finland’s trio of Sebastian Aho, Laine and Puljujarvi have the kind of synergy as a unit that is almost as dynamic in its own end as it is in the offensive zone, as they gallop up the ice at breakneck speed before dazzling with set plays and improvised attacks comprised out of sheer instinct. Pulujarvi and Laine have more individual points than most of team Canada’s forwards have shots.
Wingers Laine and Puljujarvi get the lion’s share of attention as the duo stand out in terms of stature as much as they do for their sublime skills. Both are just 17 years young and are expected to be selected in the top five of the 2016 entry draft. The reason for their success? Simple: they are having fun together.
Their coach sees that it’s working and hasn’t tried to over-coach them: “If you over-coach them, you will make a mistake,” said Finland’s head coach, Jukka Jalonen told Michael Traikos of the National Post prior the the WJHC Quarter Finals. “Obviously they will make some mistakes, but if you try to correct them all the time and they start thinking all over the ice, it’s bad. So you have to let them play.”
You may have surmised that my evaluations have been less-than glowing, concerning Canada’s 2016 junior team. And it’s not because I am down on any of the kids as individuals, but like many I’ve spoken to, I can’t help but find myself armchair-coaching as I see what appears to be questionable decisions regarding structure, line choices, and overall team makeup. Again, no real “identity” as a group leaps out, just a mish-mash of talent that seems out of sync.
The kids are saying all the right things. They’ve obviously been coached up on the media side as well, but when the powerplay is as underwhelming as it has been, you have to wonder why they aren’t delivering the goods. And when line combinations get nary a game together before the deck is re-shuffled, how can we expect any sort of chemistry to evolve? It’s great that Dylan Strome has been instructed to use his shot, but the kid is a monster playmaking centre as well as a goal-machine, with the innate ability to slow the game down and see lanes emerging before anyone else on the ice has a clue, and that part of his game is probably being negated.
Mitch Marner was better versus Sweden, but he still appears to be over-processing. At times, he looks to be playing to avoid mistakes when he should be flowing and doing what he does better than almost everyone else in this tournament is capable of.
I think it’s time for head coach Dave Lowry to let the kids play their game and develop a little rhythm out there instead of micro-managing and second-guessing his own decisions. Lawson Crouse and Travis Konecny are quite possibly lethal together. They’ve been lifelong chums, and inspire each other to play a brave, spirited game that could motivate others.
Jake Virtanen has proven to be more Kyle Beach to date than Ryan Callahan. Playing on the edge is a great momentum-shifter, as long as you know what side of the line you’re meant to play on. Six-foot-four winger Julien Gauthier is scoring at almost a point-a-game clip in the QMJHL. He’s been under-utilized on a team reportedly engineered to score by committee, but if Canada is to exploit Finland’s goaltending, they’ll need that net-front presence he can help provide.
The back end has contributed one goal in four games. That makes it a tough grind for the forward lines. These guys are rushers, not crushers, and they need that green light to jump in and support the wingers along the wall and move the puck around the zone as well as getting point shots to places where they can be converted into rebound opportunities.
At this point, all the hope is that Canada’s cast of talented kids can find a way to contain Finland’s high-octane offence and match their intensity out of the gate, avoid the penalty box, and bury their chances.
Puck drop for the WJHC Quarter Finals is at 11 AM EST. Get your popcorn ready.