Lets start off by admitting it’s easy to slam a roster that fails. The World Juniors tournament is so electrifying its basically like Frogger; one moment you’re cruising along the highway and then suddenly, you’ve been struck by a truck and are splattered all over the windshield.
On Saturday, Canada was hit right between the headlights by a quick and composed Team Finland, and a team that many of us could have seen on top of the podium will now have to fight for a bronze medal.
Canada had won eight straight against Finland in WJC play, spanning over 12 years and outscoring them 41-8 in that span. Canada had won 13 of their 17 semifinals in their tournament history, and they lost to a team that hasn’t won a semi in 13 years. Team Canada will not win a gold medal for the fifth straight year despite winning the five gold medals before that.
It all seemed so easy five years ago! How is this possible?
Is there a drop off in young Canadian talent? Nope, our country’s best export is still a booming industry, with Canadians dominating the major junior leagues, NHL drafts and in the pro level, a Team Canada B for the Olympics could probably play Team Canada A in the gold medal game next month.
The most blaring problem I could pinpoint for Canada’s recent WJC failure is the roster makeup. Team Canada's bureaucracy is looking to choose a team with a specific identity, rather than send their best players to this tournament and let them form the team identity.
I’m not saying a hockey team doesn’t need an identity established from the get-go, and certainly the Boston Bruins proved that winning the Eastern Final last season with hardworking, gutsy players trumped elite players like Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Kunitz in their road to the conference title.
But that was a seven game series and an 82 game season, and this is not. This is a one-game, winner take all playoff tournament where teams could easily find themselves needing three goals in a period to move on, like Canada in this semifinal.
They needed Max Domi, a top-10 NHL pick whose quick feet and gifted hands have translated into 57 points in just 33 games with the London Knights. They needed Connor Brown, hands down the best offensive player in the CHL right now who has dominated with 73 points in 39 games this season.
They needed more offensive defensemen, like (Leaf prospect) Matt Finn from the Guelph Storm who has 32 points in 37 games and is a +32, or top-5 NHL pick Darnell Nurse, who can put up points (36 points in 39 games and also play a shutdown role. Brent Sutter was telling his defense to pinch in the final minutes of the semifinal, but he didn’t have the right personnel, which led to no goals and the breakaway that catalyzed the nail-in-coffin penalty-shot goal late in the third period.
There were also a lot, and I mean A LOT of better goalies on the table than Jake Patterson, who is 11-9 this season with a 3.64 GAA and .900 save percentage. But the Canadians received stellar goaltending from Zach Fucale in the semis, thus it would be obtuse to point the blame on the netminders.
Canada stocked up too much on role players, two-way forwards and grinders for this tournament. Josh Anderson, Felix Girard and (I hate to say it, Leaf fans) Freddie Gauthier are good blue-collar players who lacked offensive upside to help this team when it really mattered.
Team Canada’s legacy is high-end offensive talent, and the ability to score at will. That’s how they won five straight gold medals from 2005-2009, and that’s how they should have beaten Finland. I have no doubts this team could have prevailed in a seven game series, but in this rapid-fire tournament Canada needs game breakers, not so much the guys who do the little things.
While one grind line made up of players like Captain Scott Laughton and Curtis Lazar, who can play two-way hockey, is absolutely necessary, Canada had enough players on this team for two lines of those of players.
This flaw was especially exposed when Coach Sutter tried plugging in these well-rounded players on the top line, instead of guys like Domi and Brown who could have had a better chance at generating goals.
Hockey Canada needs to realize that gold-medal Canadian junior hockey is defined by sending this country’s best offensive talent to the tournament, not trying to forge a team identity months beforehand and make these teenagers adopt a new style in a week.
Mr. Nicholson, please let our country's highly skilled players form their own identity next year. Don’t let the suits out-strategize themselves and make it six years without a gold medal.