Canada is Bringing a New Identity to Men's World Championship

Canada's roster may not scream "gold medal" this year, but some of the best tournament performances have come from determined groups that were written off from the start.
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Maxime Comtois

Maxime Comtois

Not everyone loves the World Hockey Championship. Just ask THN's Matt Larkin his feelings on the event. For North Americans, the tournament takes place when most of the world's top players are competing for the Stanley Cup and this year is no different.

But if you can look past this being a tournament where best-on-best is more of the exception than the rule, then this tournament can be a blast. It's one with 16 teams, the biggest in any international hockey tournament. Many stars are made: guys like Evgeni Dadonov, Antti Raanta, Artemi Panarin and Joonas Donskoi have used this tournament to help further launch their NHL careers. 

The 2021 tournament has the unique position of being in the middle of the pandemic, so many of the world's top players have elected to sit it out in order to spend time with family. In Canada's case, it's offering something we don't typically see at this event: a young roster without many stars to boot.

Of Canada's 25-man roster, which you can see below, 10 players were born in 1999 and later, including 2002-born Owen Power, one of the top prospects for the 2021 draft. According to Elite Prospects, the team's average age is 23.92 years old – surprisingly, that's younger than the group the team sent to win silver two years ago. The difference, however, comes down to NHL experience. All 25 players had played in the league at some point, combining for 8,253 games played. This year's outfit has 3,394 games of experience, and four of them have never made the top level. 

Only three players on Canada's roster have participated in this tournament in the past: Troy Stecher, Adam Henrique and Darcy Kuemper (Michael DiPietro was the third goalie in 2018 and never played). Of that group, they combined for one goal and five points in 27 games.

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One name to watch is Anaheim's Maxime Comtois. Canada needs an offensive leader, and the 22-year-old had a solid first full year in the NHL with 16 goals and 33 points. But his play with Canada's national team has always been notable, dating back to a huge U-17 World Championship performance in 2015 and carrying on until his second World Junior Championship medal in 2019. This is his first time with the men's national team, but given the season he's had and his reputation within the Hockey Canada circles, expect him to be given ample opportunities to play an important role.

This tournament should also be a good opportunity for Connor Brown, hot off of a career year with the Ottawa Senators. While it didn't top his 43-point run a year ago, his 34-point season would have ended closer to 50 in a full campaign and his eight-game goal run was a highlight of Ottawa's season. This will be Brown's first time suiting up for his nation but might certainly not be his last. And don't forget Andrew Mangiapane - this guy is ready for a breakout.

One other name to keep in mind: Justin Danforth. He's the lone player on this team that made their living in Europe this off-season, but Columbus rewarded him with his first NHL contract earlier this month. Talk about a guy who really had to fight to prove themselves. He's 28 years old, signed an ECHL contract out of college back in 2017, struggled in the AHL and then went overseas. He went on to have a pair of outstanding runs in the Finnish Liiga with Lukko before nearly finishing with a point-per-game in the KHL. He's a depth guy for Columbus, but Hockey Canada is familiar with him at the Spengler Cup and World Junior A Challenge level. What a moment for the Oshawa, Ont. native.

The starting goalie should be Kuemper, but his Arizona teammate Adin Hill has proven worthy of a couple of starts along the way. Kuemper is one of the very few players on this Canadian team to have played at the World Championship before, having suited up for his country back in 2018. Kuemper was in net for the team's only round-robin losses coming to USA and Finland and was generally unspectacular, but the tournament was otherwise a disappointing affair for the team in a fourth-place finish. Kuemper can be so underrated at points, even earning some Vezina Trophy consideration in 2019 and 2020. 

Kuemper has struggled to stay healthy in his career, getting limited to just 56 games over the past two years. When he's at the top of his game, he can be one of the best goaltenders in any given environment, and Canada's hoping to latch on to that. If all else fails, Hill is a noteworthy backup that'll receive some attention from Seattle at the expansion draft.

The blueline is where things get a bit tricky. As it stands, a feasible top pairing could include San Jose's Mario Ferraro and Detroit's Troy Stecher. Both played top four for their respective clubs and should eat minutes for Canada. Nicolas Beaudin looked great in the AHL and had some nice runs with Chicago, but he's still a guy with 20 games played in the NHL and no experience with Team Canada. At 28, Colin Miller is the senior man on the blueline. Does that mean he'll be the main man when they need him? His time in Buffalo has been a struggle so not completely ideal. This bit of a mix-and-match D-group could play beneficial for a young player like Power to prove what he can do against men, or even Braden Schneider after yet another great year in the WHL. 

Of course, a ton of attention will be placed on the kids. Winnipeg's Cole Perfetti, New Jersey's Kevin Bahl, Columbus' Liam Foudy and LA's Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Gabriel Vilardi are among the U-21 players with limited-to-no NHL experience to their credit that will look to claw their way up the lineup. Perfetti showed signs of being ready for the NHL this season but the Jets did the right thing and let him develop at his own pace – and he had a solid World Junior Championship performance to boot. Bahl got a look to close the season out with the Devils and showed some promising signs, and on a team like Canada where the defense is likely a weakness, this will be a true growing moment for the big defender. The latter were all NHLers this season but this will be a good chance to showcase what they could do after playing on weaker clubs.

Look, there's a good chance not a single player on this team makes Canada's Olympic unit in 2022, assuming NHLers do in fact go. This is far from an ideal lineup for Team Canada, but one you had to expect given the complications of COVID-19 and traveling. But that's not a Canadian-only excuse: the pandemic has hurt all the major teams more than we're used to seeing just solely because of the NHL playoffs. Finland won the 2019 tournament with no full-time NHLers. 

At this point, I have to predict that the three teams that'll medal are Canada, Finland and USA. Even without the star talent, Canada should still contend for the gold, especially if Henrique, Comtois, Brown, Mangiapane and even Mike Bunting can come through.

This is a perfect opportunity to find a new Canadian hockey superhero.

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