It’s that time of year again. You love the World Junior Championship, we love the World Junior Championship, everybody loves the World Junior Championship. And with training camps opening up for many of the 10 teams this week, we’re getting closer to finalized rosters for the winter affair in the Czech Republic.
Canada, led by coach Dale Hunter, is bringing 31 players to camp, with Joe Veleno, currently playing with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, set to join the team in the Czech Republic next week. The camp will be held at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in Oakville, Ont., host to an Olympic-sized ice surface much like the one that’ll be used in Ostrava later this month. Per usual, Canada will play two exhibition games against the U Sports Selects, a group made up of Canadian university players between the ages of 20 and 24.
Much of the Canadian roster participated in the World Junior Summer Showcase held in Plymouth, Mich., in August, so there weren’t a ton of surprises. Of note, the fates of forward Barrett Hayton (Arizona) and defenseman Noah Dobson (NY Islanders) are still unknown. With both still in the NHL – albeit, not playing often – there’s no guarantee they’ll be available when the tournament begins on Boxing Day.
With Canada’s selection camp beginning on Monday, here’s a look at three major roster decisions to keep an eye on:
Choosing the starting goaltender
It’s been a while since Canada had a goaltending conundrum entering camp. Despite Ian Scott’s spectacular year in the WHL, Michael DiPietro has appeared to be Canada’s guy from the get-go and held the fort in 2019. Carter Hart was the clear choice during his two runs, and even MacKenzie Blackwood had the inside track all the way up to the 2016 tournament. But nobody has seized the opportunity like in past years.
Of the five goaltenders Canada brought to the summer showcase, only two – Hunter Jones and Olivier Rodrigue – will take part in camp. Jones was the dark horse option heading into the tournament in Plymouth, but he was named OHL goalie of the month in October and was outstanding during the series against Russia last month. Rodrigue, the pre-season favorite for the starting role, was Canada’s best goalie at the showcase, albeit in limited time, and his history with the team means the national team brain trust will be confident in what he provides. That said, Nico Daws, a complete long shot heading into the season, has been one of the OHL’s best goalies after taking over the starting role in Guelph as a third-year netminder. Does he make it as the hot hand? What about Joel Hofer, who is neck-and-neck with USA’s Dustin Wolf as the WHL’s top goalie?
Depending on who you ask, all four goalies are capable of taking the No. 1 job and there’s a valid reason for each making or missing the roster. If no goalie stands out, Rodrigue likely has the upper hand. With just two games over the four-day camp, it’ll likely come down to who can play the best half-games against U Sports. No pressure, right?
Who will secure the seventh spot on the blueline?
If an NHL team dresses a seventh defenseman for a game, he’s typically there to fill gaps. But when it comes to Canada’s world junior team, the seventh defenseman is actually one of the most important players as they’re asked to fill whatever role is asked of them.
Assuming the Islanders don’t loan out Noah Dobson, a few top options will miss the team. Returnee Jared McIsaac isn’t considering the lock he was even six months ago, particularly with a shoulder injury limiting him to just three games with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads this season. If anyone needs a big camp, it’s the Detroit Red Wings prospect. Meanwhile, Braden Schneider had a superb summer showcase and, despite the team having six 2000-born defenders at camp, he could make the cut simply because he’s a two-way, smooth-skating, right-handed defensemen, something the Canadians are lacking. The team could also elect to bring 6-foot-7 blueliner Kevin Bahl in a shutdown role if that’s what Hunter prefers over a utility defender.
The real wildcard is Jamie Drysdale. The projected 2020 first-round pick is having a heck of a season with the Erie Otters, scoring 31 points in 29 games, the best numbers from a U-18 defenseman in the OHL (his 1.07 points-per-game average is fifth among draft-eligible defenders since 2000). Drysdale has the talent to make the team, and being one of four right-handed defensemen at the camp helps his odds. But would the team consider dropping a 19-year-old in favor of bringing the 17-year-old Drysdale? Other than goaltending, the Drysdale decision might be the most interesting facing Hunter and his management group.
How many draft-eligible players will make the team?
Bringing nine 2020 draft eligibles to the selection camp is unprecedented given the nation’s deep talent pool. Headlined by Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield, the favorites to go first and second overall in June, the group of draft eligible talent also includes forwards Cole Perfetti, Dylan Holloway, Connor Zary and Dawson Mercer, defensemen Drysdale and Schneider and goalie Daws.
The only locks are Lafreniere and Byfield, but a few others could find a way to squeak in. Schneider, for example, is a late 2001, so he wouldn’t be left off due to his age in a tournament dominated by 2000 and 2001-born players. Given his summer showing, you have to imagine Hockey Canada is high on his play. As mentioned above, Drysdale has played too well to be left off the roster, but the competition for a puck-moving defenseman further down the D-corps makes his inclusion no sure thing. Perfetti could become one of the NHL’s best sharpshooters someday, but the depth down the middle is strong. He’s a high-end prospect for a reason, but there’s no need to shoehorn him into the lineup over a more experienced option. As for the rest, chances are they are fringe candidates at best, especially as Canadian management tends to prefer drafted, experienced talent.
A safe bet at this point is that three draft-eligible players will make the cut: Lafreniere, Byfield and either Drysdale or Schneider in the seventh spot. However, Daws could bump that number to four. The last time Canada had more than two draft-eligible players on a team was back in 2008 when Steven Stamkos, Luke Schenn and Drew Doughty wore the maple leaf.