The Canadian team has looked like a powerhouse in its preparation for the 2017 world junior tournament.
In exhibition games this week, the Canadians followed up a 5-0 victory against the defending champs from Finland in Montreal on Monday with another 5-0 win against the Czech Republic in Ottawa on Wednesday.
Head coach Dominique Ducharme’s team, which opens the 10-country, 11-day tournament against Russia in Toronto on Boxing Day, hasn’t skipped a beat even though six of the country’s top teenagers aren’t around because they’re playing in the NHL.
“We aren’t yet perfect, but we’re happy with how we’re progressing,” said Ducharme, the coach and general manager of the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs.
Imagine for a moment if Connor McDavid (Edmonton), Mitch Marner (Toronto), Travis Konecny (Philadelphia), Lawson Crouse (Arizona), Jacob Chychrun (Arizona) and Anthony Beauvillier (N.Y. Islanders) were made available. Still, this Canadian team runs deep with speed and skill.
Returnees hope to rebound
There are five players back from last year’s disappointment in Finland, in which Canada bowed out in a quarter-final loss to the host team. A lot will be asked from forwards Dylan Strome, Mitchell Stephens, Julien Gauthier, Mathew Barzal and offensive defenceman Thomas Chabot to lead the way.
Strome, Barzal and Chabot each started the season in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes, Islanders and Ottawa Senators, respectively.
Talented right-winger Blake Speers also began the season in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, but suffered a broken wrist upon his return to junior on Oct. 27 with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He had been out of action for six weeks prior to joining the Canadian junior team this month and he should be a factor as the tournament rolls along.
Two other forwards to keep an eye will be Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mathieu Joseph and the highly touted Pierre-Luc Dubois. Joseph has scored a remarkable 25 goals in 29 games for the Saint John Sea Dogs this season.
Dubois, selected third overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets last June, has struggled with six goals in 20 games this season. He then was traded from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada on the day he arrived at the Canadian junior selection camp earlier this month.
Habs pick may feel heat
Carter Hart has been pegged as Canada’s No. 1 goalie. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect has been solid with the Everett Silvertips this season, going 16-3-0 with a .928 save percentage.
His Silvertips teammate, defenceman Noah Juulsen, may feel the heat more than any other Canadian player because when this tournament moves from Toronto to Montreal for the medal round, the Montreal Canadiens 2015 first-round selection will be performing in front of the Habs faithful.
But, as always, the entire Canadian junior team will feel the heat performing at home. Canada only has won five times in 11 tries in front of the loud and supportive Canadian crowds.
It will be up to the 43-year-old Ducharme of Joliette, Que., to keep his teenagers focused and disciplined. A left-winger in his playing days, Ducharme was a teammate of Martin St. Louis and goalie Tim Thomas in his final two seasons at the University of Vermont.
His coaching resume includes a Memorial Cup title with Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and the 2012-13 Halifax Mooseheads. That club lost just twice on its way to the national championship, going 16-1 in the QMJHL playoffs and losing once in the round-robin portion of the Memorial Cup tournament.
Ducharme will look for that sort of dominant run with the Canadian juniors, a team that has won only once (2015 in Toronto) in the past seven years.