The countdown is on and we are just days away. Canadians are getting their houses set up in preparation; people can hardly sleep, it can only mean one thing... The World Juniors tournament starts in less than a week
The team Canada boys will enter the tournament as the defending champions for just the second time in the last ten years after beating team Sweden 3-1 in last year's Gold Medal game. That team, however, is much different than that of this year's roster and the average hockey fan may not know too much about this year's group. If you don't, I'm here to help.
To start things off, here's how the team breaks down in this year's tournament:
Michael DiPietro (Ottawa, OHL)
Ian Scott (Prince Albert, WHL)
Evan Bouchard (London, OHL)
Josh Brook (Moose Jaw, WHL)
Noah Dobson (Acadie-Bathurst, QMJHL)
Jared McIsaac (Halifax, QMJHL)
Ian Mitchell (University of Denver, NCAA)
Markus Phillips (Owen Sound, OHL)
Ty Smith (Spokane, WHL)
Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Spokane, WHL)
Shane Bowers (Boston University, NCAA)
Maxime Comtois* (Drummondville, QMJHL)
Mackenzie Entwistle (Hamilton, OHL)
Morgan Frost (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL)
Cody Glass (Portland, WHL)
Barrett Hayton (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL)
Alexis Lafrenière (Rimouski, QMJHL)
Brett Leason (Prince Albert, WHL)
Jack Studnicka (Oshawa, OHL)
Nick Suzuki (Owen Sound, OHL)
Owen Tippett (Mississauga, OHL)
Joe Veleno (Drummondville, QMJHL)
*denotes returning player
Before the tournament has even begun, it's clear that the team has been plagued by injury. Notable omissions from the list due to injury include Ottawa Senators prospect and returning player Alex Formenton, and projected second line winger Gabriel Vilardi.
Formenton was hurt in a warm up game last Wednesday, after he fell awkwardly when trying to split the D men. He was seen just days after walking around on crutches, unable to put weight on his leg. It's a big loss for team Canada who was hoping to lean on the veteran after he notched four points in the team's seven games last year. Formenton was a player that could've easily played out the year in Ottawa with the Senators but they thought they had lucked out when he was shipped back to London in the OHL.
Vilardi, meanwhile, was not viewed as having the veteran leadership that Formenton had, but was still expected to be a big contributor on a roster that has next to no tournament experience. Unfortunately that won't be the case as the back injury that has plagued him for the past two seasons has flared up, and won't be healed in time to play in the tournament. It's a tough loss considering the point production he showed in London (58 points in 32 games.) Vilardi had been practicing on the second line until that point, leaving a big hole in the roster.
Canada was dealt another blow in a game against U Sports on Friday when WHL breakout star Brett Leason was hit in the hand by a shot, and was forced to leave the game. Leason, who was leading the WHL in scoring when he left for the tournament, didn't play in Wednesday's pre-tournament game against Switzerland but Hockey Canada's director of men's national teams, Shawn Bullock, said that "[they're] positive that he's heading in the right direction."
Despite all the injuries early on, there are still some bright spots in the line up. One of which is the opportunity that has opened up for 17 year old Alexis Lafrenière of the Rimouski Oceanic. With two top forwards now missing out, Lafrenière is set to become the first 17-year-old to play for Canada since Connor McDavid, and the ninth youngest player in Team Canada World Juniors history. He has shown some serious talent at such a young age, scoring 80 points in 60 games as a 16 year old in his first season with Rimouski. While he may have squeezed in because of injury problems, don't be surprised if Lafrenière plays a big role on this team by the end of the tournament.
One guy who has no choice but to play a big role coming into the tournament, is Maxime Comtois. The only returning member of the team, Comtois is going to be relied on to be a leader of this inexperienced squad. Comtois was a bull in a China shop on Wednesday, using all of his 6'2 209 lbs frame to intimidate defenders, earning two goals and two assists in the process. He'll need to continue that scoring touch if they want to beat some of the other powerhouse teams in the tournament.
Sticking with the forwards, the team is going to need a lot from potential captain Nick Suzuki. The Owen Sound Attack forward has 43 points in 28 games in the OHL this season, but failed to get on the score sheet in their pre-tournament opener. He'll be a valuable asset (if he can find his scoring touch) to add some depth scoring after the Comtois line. His ability to put up points in a hurry will be troublesome for opposing defencemen.
On the defensive side of things, there are quite a few question marks outside of Evan Bouchard. With no returning players, and a mix from all three CHL leagues and one NCAA player, team Canada will rely heavily on Bouchard to lead the defensive core. He had one goal in his short, seven game stint with the Edmonton Oilers this year, and has been a point machine on the back end in London ever since. With 18 points in 13 games, Bouchard can do some special things for their offence from the back end. He's also a towering force in the defensive end who isn't afraid to throw his weight around. He'll be counted on to eat up a lot of minutes throughout the tournament.
Finally, the goalie situation looks rather similar to that of many previous team Canada squads. The duties at the moment will be split between Michael DiPietro and Ian Scott until one of them takes the reigns. DiPietro didn't get off to a good start on Wednesday, letting in three goals on only 17 shots. Scott will take over the net in their preseason game on Friday against Slovakia in an attempt to make his case for becoming the team's starter. The team hopes that one of the two will emerge as the starter before the tournament opens on boxing day.
There are many questions surrounding the team that may or may not be answered in the next couple of days. One thing we do know for sure, is that any team this country puts together will always compete up until the medal rounds. So on December 26th get your families together, gather around the TV, and prepare for what could be a wild tournament coming up for all of Canada.