One For the Books

I’m a big World Juniors fan. I think it’s one of the best tournaments in the world in terms of showcasing the best international talent. I’ve held off commenting about Canada until now, and only because they haven’t really been challenged until tonight against USA. It was the marquee tilt before the new year, and it didn’t disappoint.

This Canada squad is arguably one of the weaker ones in the past five years. Other than John Tavares, there really is no clear-cut gamebreaking forward. In past years, Canada has really been able to depend on at least two scorers. This is not taking anything away from Cody Hodgson, who has been outstanding in his own right, but offensively he is not nearly as gifted as Kyle Turris or Steve Stamkos, both members of last year’s squad.

Going into the tournament, even strength was a problem because of this. Tavares was obviously going to tear up the tournament on the powerplay, but even strength offense fell to the shoulders of Hodgson’s line with Jordan Eberle and Zach Boychuk. When your most offensively gifted player is expected to have problems 5-on-5, it’s a little worrisome, but fortunately for Canada they have incredible depth in all positions. Early on in the game the Americans took advantage, jumping out to an early 3-0 lead with two even strength goals by Kevin Shattenkirk and Jim O’Brien. Dustin Tokarski, the “big game” goalie, looked rusty after 9 days of rest, but after allowing just one goal for the next 48 minutes of play he certainly earned the win.

Penalties abound in the game, but USA put themselves in a pickle two straight penalties from Matt Rust and Blake Kessel. Perhaps it’s because international hockey rules are more stringent about stick infractions and hits, but it seemed as though both teams had some trouble early on adjusting to referees Vyacheslav Bulanov and Tom Laaksonen. With Canada on the powerplay the floodgates opened, with two quick goals from Tavares, the second one a beauty (as if he hasn’t filled the highlight reel enough). In all the Canadians scored 4 of their 5 goals (excluding the empty netters) on the powerplay. With the Canadians’ speed and tenacity it’s easy for the other team to take penalties and it occurs more often at this age because players are a little less mature and composed. James van Riemsdyk was a clear victim of this after snapping his stick after taking a slashing penalty. Not surprisingly van Riemsdyk was held off the scoresheet despite being one of the tournament’s top scorers. Even when Canada has trouble scoring, they’ve traditionally always been able to take out their opponent’s stars. This year it was holding van Riemsdyk, along with Colin Wilson (who was robbed by Tokarski when he was alone in front) off the scoresheet. Jordan Schroeder was limited to one helper. Instead I thought it was the speedy Tyler Johnson and Aaron Palushaj who were USA’s best forwards. Drayson Bowman was solid as well but I don’t feel he stepped up his play against such a tough opponent. Remember even Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were held to moderate effectiveness in their world junior appearances against Canada.

No doubt this team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the competition, despite boasting relatively less known players like Stefan Della Rovere and Patrice Cormier, but both who are quickly making a name for themselves for their strong forecheck and physical play. Both players responded immediately when Chris Di Domenico was hit in the face by a stick when skating by the American bench. The ensuing scuffle really strained the tension between the two teams. While it can be argued that the Americans were unsportsmanlike for doing this, the same can be said for the Canadian players who rubbed it into USA a bit by skating so close by their bench. Regardless, the incident sets the stage for future Canada-USA battles, which will no doubt always be as tense, if not tenser. After an American boom with Mike Modano, USA Hockey remained quiet but have yet again returned to prominence with guys like future USA ambassador Patrick Kane leading the way in the NHL. Canada will face much tougher competition from USA in the future – sorry, USA, but you can’t deny the fact that Sweden and Russia have been better in the past 2-3 years. Clearly the player who high sticked Di Domenico was thinking about setting the stage for future battles in mind…

Ryan Ellis has been a revelation on the blueline. The diminutive 18-year old has been a force on the powerplay, and his poise with the puck is incredible. Him and PK Subban has anchored a incredible Canadian powerplay which is clicking at close to 70%. However, I think one of the bigger disappointments for this team, in my mind, is Alex Pietrangelo. The St. Louis first rounder is an excellent puck mover and I don’t think he looked too out of place in his short stint with the Blues. However, I was a little surprised when Pat Quinn named Ellis as the the top powerplay quarterback instead of Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo has been limited to the second powerplay unit and spot duty on even strength – I think a little disappointing for him and the Blues, who were no doubt expecting Pietrangelo to play a key role for Canada. I think for the Blues Pietrangelo will be a long-term project, as opposed to Erik Johnson who had a great rookie season and seemed to make the transition without much trouble.

With the win Canada advances to the semis, and will face the winner between Russia and the Czech Republic. Good luck to the boys.

Another note: I wonder if it’s a warning flag for some teams when Tavares can’t score on even strength. Sure, he broke Wayne Gretzky‘s scoring record in the OHL, but I don’t even remember Gretzky being so night and day on the powerplay or 5-on-5. He’s no doubt a top end talent, and he would be my first pick, but since Sidney Crosby a lot of Canadian kids (especially top 5 picks) have been, well, overhyped. Turris is having trouble adjusting to the NHL game and by all accounts should’ve stayed at another year in the NCAA, but I think he was rushed and it doesn’t help with the Great One throwing so much praise and support on him.