As always, canada skates into the World Junior Championship with the highest of expectations. While it may be unfair to expect a program to medal every year in what is a competitive tournament, that’s the annual burden for the Canucks. But it’s a challenge they are always willing to take on.
Behind the bench this time around is Dale Hunter, the prolific London Knights coach who boasts three OHL championships and two Memorial Cup titles on his resume. Hunter is adept at helming star-laden teams in London, and though his only international experience with Team Canada was at the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament in 2013, he did steer that group to a gold medal.
Once again, Canada will most likely miss out on some eligible talent due to NHL obligations – it’s hard to see Kirby Dach leaving Chicago, for example – but this team has the weapons to score. Goaltending? Well, that’s another matter. Let’s break down the likely roster for Canada’s 2020 WJC squad.
The most important player up front is left winger Alexis Lafreniere, the prospective No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft. The Rimouski Oceanic superstar has been one of the leading scorers in the QMJHL after finishing tied for second last season. Lafreniere’s ability to take over a game was on full display at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan on both the power play and on a line with Dach and Detroit Red Wings prospect Joe Veleno. Speaking of which, Veleno is another key name to watch up front. Both he and Lafreniere played on last year’s disappointing Canadian entry, and needless to say, larger roles and a chance for redemption will both be key factors in their contributions.
In terms of new faces, Tampa Bay first-rounder Nolan Foote is an obvious candidate thanks to his summer showing. Foote has an absolute bomb of a shot, and he used it to his advantage at the WJSS. Because of his shooting prowess, the WHL Kelowna star is a weapon on the power play, and with Lafreniere and Veleno working the puck around the zone, teams won’t be able to zero in on Foote as much as they would like to.
Another player who made a statement in front of the Canadian brass is center Akil Thomas. The Los Angeles Kings pick was very good at the CHL-Russia series as a member of Team OHL, and his game has rounded out during his time with the Niagara IceDogs. Thomas has the skill and hockey sense to make things happen. Dallas Stars first-rounder Ty Dellandrea is another option down the middle, and he has the two-way game to make an impact. The OHL Flint standout looked good at the CHL-Russia series, playing with a chip on his shoulder.
When it comes to speed, Hunter can look to one of his Knights in Liam Foudy, the Columbus Blue Jackets first-rounder who has been piling up points since returning from an early shoulder injury. Should Canada need sandpaper and shutdown acumen, Anaheim Ducks prospect Benoit-Olivier Groulx can deliver. Like many of Canada’s forwards, the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads vet can line up at either center or on the wing. The X-factor is Arizona’s Barrett Hayton, who would bring a huge shot in the arm if he’s not still busy in the NHL when the tournament gets underway.
This will be a strong suit for the team, and if the New York Islanders loan out Noah Dobson, this group will be practically bulletproof. Dobson, who played on last year’s team and had a chance to bury the Finns when his stick infamously blew up on him, had been up in the NHL since the beginning of the season.
A two-time Memorial Cup champion, Dobson’s skating ability and leadership would be a major addition. Even if he’s not available, Canada will have experience on the blueline with Ty Smith. Like Dobson, Smith is a great skater and can pile up points from the back end. The New Jersey Devils prospect has been a point-per-gamer for the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. The third possible returnee on defense is Detroit Red Wings pick Jared McIsaac, who missed the first two months of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. McIsaac plays a splendid two-way game and just needed to get back up to speed. At the least, he had the chance to see some action with QMJHL Halifax before Canada’s December camp began.
In terms of new names, Colorado Avalanche first-rounder Bowen Byram will draw a spotlight thanks to his offensive smarts and vision. He played a pivotal role in helping the Vancouver Giants make it to the WHL final last year. Staying out west, there’s also hard-hitting Jett Woo to consider. The Calgary Hitmen defender is a Vancouver Canucks prospect who, like the rest of his potential Canadian brethren, moves well. And though the Canadian program tends to favor major junior players over U.S. college kids, it’s hard to ignore how good Ottawa Senators pick Jacob Bernard-Docker has been since he arrived at North Dakota. The sophomore is a responsible two-way defenseman, but he has really upped his offensive game and was averaging nearly a point per game in the early going for the Fighting Hawks.
Overall, Canada figures to have a very mobile defensive unit with great depth. Last year’s coaching staff seemed to keep the reins on defenders joining the rush and it ended up costing Canada in the quarterfinal against Finland. Given Hunter’s experience, that shouldn’t be a problem this year.
For Canada to earn a medal in Ostrava, they will need at least above-average goaltending, and someone will need to step up and prove they are capable of it.
Heading into the December camp, Edmonton Oilers pick Olivier Rodrigue was the frontrunner but far from a sure thing. He’s playing for a top-end Moncton Wildcats squad in the QMJHL this season after several years in Drummondville.
The real problem for Canada will be sorting out the field. The program brought five netminders to the WJSS, though Zach Emond (San Jose) didn’t suit up due to injury. No one – including Rodrigue – really stood out, nor have any of them dominated in the first half of the CHL season. In fact, the best eligible Canadian goalie so far this year has been WHL Portland’s Joel Hofer, the St. Louis Blues pick.
This is where Canada’s brain trust will really earn their stripes, because netminding will make or break this year’s effort. That’s typically the case at the WJC. Choose wisely, and it may mean a gold medal. Choose wrongly, and it won’t.
THN's ODDS FOR GOLD: 4-1