In the gloomy aftermath of the past three World Junior Championships, there was a national outcry over the sorry state of goaltending in Canada.
After this year's debacle, they might want to convene a federal commission on the inability to play team defense.
Canada's 14-year streak on the podium came to a well-deserved end with a 6-5 loss to Russia in the bronze-medal clash on Saturday. It was a fitting result for a wild and exciting contest marked by undisciplined play and the sort of attention to own-zone responsibility usually seen only in pond hockey. And it was no surprise that it was a feckless defensive effort by Ryan Murphy that precipitated Valeri Nichushkin's clincher 1:35 into overtime.
From a Canadian perspective, this fourth-place finish was an almost unimaginable result. This was supposed to be Dream Team 3.0, an NHL lockout-enhanced group that truly represented the best the country had to offer. Instead, it will be remembered as a group that started slow before playing two solid games in the round-robin, but failed to raise its intensity when it got to the medal round.
There are no guarantees in this tournament. The talent gap has closed to the point that any of four or five teams can win in a given year, and in a single-elimination format anything can happen.
But this loss wasn't a fluke. This was about readiness.
Much of the blame for that will land squarelymon coach Steve Spott. The Kitchener Rangers' bench boss desperately wanted this gig, but failed miserably in what surely will be his only opportunity to guide the national side.
When a team comes out flat against both the Americans and the Russians in the medal round, that goes directly to his game preparation. Canada was outworked and outchanced early in both games and was forced to play catch-up. They gave it a better shot today, but neither game ever felt like it was theirs to win.
And while it's critical to be disciplined, Spott appeared to have coached the physicality right out of this group. The inability to control the boards or create any kind of cycle -- hallmarks of every successful Canadian team -- goes right to that overly cautious approach. And when the team needed a response, something to lighten the legs and get the hearts pumping on the bench, that thundering hit wasn't there.
Then there was his unwillingness to pair Nathan McKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, arguably the most dangerous duo in the CHL when skating together for the Halifax Mooseheads. It made sense earlier in the tournament when he needed to get a feel for how the underagers would deal with the level of play, but was maddening later on when Canada clearly needed some kind of offensive jump.
But ultimately, it was his undying faith in Murphy, his star defenseman in Kitchener, that cost Canada a medal. A goal and an assist on the power play today? Helpful in delaying the inevitable, but he was an empty sweater for much of the tournament ... at least, when he wasn't turning over the puck or blowing his coverage. Selected ahead of Frank Corrado, a player judged by several observers as the most effective blueliner in camp, Murphy was consistently overmatched, even in protected situations. The decision to put him on the ice in overtime -- even with the faceoff in the Russian zone -- was a fatal error.
Of course, Murphy wasn't the only guilty party, only the most obvious. Much like the loss to the Americans on Thursday, this was a group effort.
Jordan Binnington, given his first start after stopping 25 of 26 in relief against Team USA, was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots barely five minutes into the game. The first and third goals were on him but the second, scored by Nail Yakupov on the power play, was indicative of Canada's inept approach. Their inability to keep track of attackers and, more important, block passing lanes effectively , led to more scoring chances than any team chasing a medal should allow.
Despite the result, at least one group of Canadian fans can be pleased.
Yakupov, taken first overall last summer by the Edmonton Oilers, finished the tournament with two impactful games after earning criticism for his uninspired play during the round-robin. He had a pair of goals today, and was a consistent threat. Future teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins cemented his hold on the top forward award with a one-goal, three-assist effort that showcased the creativity and patience that make him such an exciting prospect. He ended up scoring 15 points for a team that managed just 27 goals in the tournament. The thought of the two of them skating together, hopefully soon, helps ease the pain.