As the World Junior Hockey Championships approach, Team Canada prepares roster with extended camp in Red Deer
By Brendan Makay, Contributor
Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most enjoyable tournaments of the year is still set to take place — the yearly U20 World Junior Hockey Championships, where the best players under the age of 20 from around the world get to represent their countries and play for hockey supremacy in this Christmas classic. This year, the tournament will be held in an Edmonton bubble that will be very similar to the one the NHL ran for its playoffs.
Similar to the NHL playoffs, there will be no fans in the stands and the players will have to stay in the bubble for the entirety of the tournament. Canada comes into the tournament looking to defend their gold medal that they won in 2019 in the Czech Republic. With only one out of the three major junior leagues in Canada playing right now — the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — Canada had to get creative with this year’s evaluation camp.
Under the circumstances Canada is faced with, the team made plans to establish a bubble in Red Deer. They have invited a total of 47 (26 forwards, 15 defensemen, 5 goalies) players to participate in practices, three inter-squad games and six games against U SPORTS teams.
Typically, Team Canada plays the U SPORTS all-star team that brings players from all over Canada, but this year Team Canada will instead play their games against the University of Calgary Dinos, Mount Royal University Cougars and the University of Alberta Golden Bears. U of A, the 2020 Canada West regular-season champions, is set to play against Team Canada on Nov. 28. The camp will start on Nov. 16 and proceed through Dec. 13 when the team will enter the Edmonton bubble.
Another different aspect of this year’s tournament is that it could be similar to that of a lockout year. With the NHL most likely not playing until January, we may get to see players we regularly would not have seen because they would’ve been playing in the NHL. Players like Kirby Dach of the Chicago Blackhawks or Alexis Lafrenière — the first overall pick of the New York Rangers and last year’s tournament MVP — will have a chance to suit up for Canada. This is similar to the lockout years, when should-be NHLers suited up for their respective countries in the tournament. The lockout years have historically served Canada well as they have won two gold medals in the three latest NHL lockouts.
Another advantage Canada will gain this year is that their team will be more familiar with each other than ever before because of the extended camp. In a typical year, Team Canada only gets a week or two to prepare their roster. With a roster consisting of players from all across Canada, that usually means the players are forced to build chemistry on the fly. This year, they will have over a month to get to know each other and blend their skills.
There will be potentially seven returnees (five forwards and two defensemen) from the 2020 gold medal team. The big player to keep an eye on is Alexis Lafrenière, who may be loaned to Team Canada from the New York Rangers.
The forward group will be led by returnees Quinton Byfield, Dawson Mercer, Dylan Cozens and Connor McMichael. Byfield and Mercer did not play a very big role on last year’s team but they can be expected to be real contributors this year. Cozens and McMichael will be relied upon heavily once again as strong two-way presences.
Bowen Byram will be asked to bring his experience and strong two-way game to solidify the top end of Canada’s defence while Jamie Drysdale the other returning defenseman for Canada will bring a strong offensive punch for the powerplay and will provide more than passable defence.
There will be a lot of exciting newcomers to keep an eye out for at camp, including Alex Newhook of Boston College. He was the 16th overall pick to the Colorado Avalanche in last year’s draft and just about made last year’s World Junior team but was ultimately passed over.
Cole Perfetti, who was the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft, brings a ton of offensive skill and a good track record in international play. However, it would not be a surprise if he does not make the team this year, as the World Juniors are historically a difficult tournament for eighteen-year-olds to play in.
A player looking to re-emerge himself in the minds of many is Kirby Dach. He was plagued with an injury at the beginning of last year, which greatly hampered his chances of making Team Canada. Many predicted that he would make last year’s team, as he could be a great middle six-piece for Team Canada.
Shane Wright is a very interesting player as he is not eligible for the draft for another two years yet was still invited to the camp. Wright was the most recent player to be given exceptional status and play as a 15-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and is almost unanimously expected to go first overall in the 2022 NHL draft when his time comes.
On the backend, keep an eye out for Kaedan Korczak who’s large stature (6’4) and age (19) could come in handy on a backend that may not be the biggest. Additionally, last year, Kevin Bahl was a valuable asset with his size and strength at 6’7 on Canada’s smaller defensive core.
Flames fans should keep an eye on Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary. They are both forwards and the last two first-round draft picks by the Flames. They both are on the mid to smaller range in terms of size, but should not be overlooked as they are both good skaters with a ton of offensive upside. There is a good chance that one, if not both, will crack Team Canada’s roster — but this is very dependent on who Canada gets in terms of possible NHLers.
With home-ice advantage in Edmonton and a lengthy camp to prepare the team, Canada will enter as favourites when they attempt to win back-to-back gold medals.