The Canadian team charged with reclaiming gold at the world junior hockey championship will be able to count on a big, deep defence, multi-purpose forwards and an experienced goaltender.
“We have real good balance,” coach Don Hay said Wednesday of his 22-man squad. “When we tried to put the team together, we really looked at what we’d need if somebody went down with an injury. Could that players move up? Play on the power-play and kill penalties and things like that?
“We have a couple top-end lines and a couple of hard-working third and fourth lines and we have players that can fill different roles and move into different positions.”
The defence is big and skilled.
Led by Saginaw Spirit’s Jamie Oleksiak (almost six foot seven and 244 pounds), the seven defencemen chosen average almost six foot three and 200 pounds. Five of them were taken in the first round of the NHL draft.
Up front, Canada profited when Devante Smith-Pelly of the Anaheim Ducks and Brett Connolly of the Tampa Bay Lightning were made available to the Canadian team.
Smith-Pelly, five foot 11 and 212 pounds, is projected to play the wing on Canada’s top line and create space for his linemates.
“I think we’ll be physical in a lot of different ways,” said Hay, who coaches the WHL Vancouver Giants. “We have a lot of speed that will let us get to pucks quickly and then when we get the pucks we’ll be physical on the puck. You have Smith-Pelly who will create a lot of physical play and I think guys will really follow him.”
The 2012 world junior hockey championship opens Dec. 26 in Calgary and Edmonton. Canada will play its Pool B games in Edmonton. Pool A and medal-round games are in Calgary.
Mark Visentin, one of four Niagara IceDogs named to the Canadian team, will start in goal.
“Coming in, he’s the No. 1 guy,” Hay said. “I think you’re always proving yourself and he knows that.”
Scott Wedgewood of the Plymouth Whalers is the other goalie.
Visentin, Connolly, Quinton Howden of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Jaden Schwartz of Colorado College all played in the 2011 tournament.
Canada had the gold medal in its grasp in Buffalo with a 3-0 lead heading into the third period. Russia scored five unanswered goals on Visentin in the third to take it away from them.
Freddie and Dougie Hamilton will be the first brothers to play for the Canadian team since Randy and Mike Moller 30 years ago. Freddie is 19 and Dougie is 18. The Hamilton brothers and centre Ryan Strome are the other Niagara IceDogs on the team.
Hay plans to wait a few days to name his captain and assistant captains. After practising as a team for the first time Thursday in Calgary, the players head to Banff, Alta., for more practice and team building.
Candidate for captain
Schwartz, who was unable to finish the tournament in Buffalo because of a broken ankle, is a candidate for captain.
“Now the players can kind of relax and be themselves a little bit and we’ll get to see which player really wants that role,” Hay said. “Some people don’t want that role and others are looking forward to it.”
Saint John Sea Dogs winger Jonathan Huberdeau and Howden made the team despite questionable health. Huberdeau, who broke a bone in his right foot Nov. 7, stepped on the ice in skates for the first time since then for Wednesday’s team picture.
Howden took a hard check from Connolly in the second intra-squad game of camp and did not play in the final exhibition game.
Howden, said to have an “upper-body injury,” also took part in the team photo Wednesday.
Howden and Huberdeau, both Florida Panthers prospects, are expected to be important players for Canada. Huberdeau was the Memorial Cup MVP and Howden provides valuable experience from the previous tournament.
Hay can bring a player he cut from the team back in the event of an injury between now and Dec. 26. It’s not Hockey Canada’s policy to keep extra players once the team has been named because it messes with chemistry and is seen as a distraction.
“We feel they’ll both be ready,” Hay said. “We talked to our medical staff last night and we feel really good about them.”
Hay, who coached Canada to gold at the 1995 world juniors in Red Deer, Alta.. released 13 players Wednesday morning.
If he does recall a forward to replace Huberdeau or Howden, Brett Bulmer of the Kelowna Rockets, Philip Danault of the Victoriaville Tigres or Tyler Toffoli of the Portland Winter Hawks are possibilities.
The Ontario Hockey League has the most players on the team with 10, followed by five from the Western Hockey League, four from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, two from the NHL and one from the college ranks.
The Montreal Canadiens have the most prospects on the team with three: forwards Michael Bournival of the Victoria Tigres, Brendan Gallagher of the Vancouver Giants and Saint John Sea Dogs defenceman Nathan Beaulieu.
Of the nine Alberta-born players invited to selection camp, only defenceman Mark Pysyk from Sherwood Park, Alta., made the squad.
Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray is one of two undrafted players on the Canadian team and highly-rated for the 2012 NHL entry draft. Barrie Colts forward Tanner Pearson, the only player on the team who wasn’t invited to summer camp, is the other.
Of players released in the morning, Danault was a surprise. He’d scored two goals in the previous night’s exhibition game.
“I’m cut but I respect their decision,” said Danault, who at 18 will have another chance next year. “If they win the gold medal, I’ll respect it more for sure.”
Kitchener Rangers defenceman Ryan Murphy, a first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, was also released. An offensive defenceman, Murphy altered his game to show he could also be defensively responsible.
“I kind of look back at it and wish that I was playing like myself,” Murphy said. “Maybe I didn’t have to change my game, maybe I just have to be aware of other aspects of my game.”
Who will be Canada’s most important player?
© The Canadian Press, 2011