World Junior Championships: What Went Wrong For Canada?

January 5th, 2014 No Comments

1aCanhockIf you are a fan of hockey on any level, by now you have heard about Canada’s fourth place finish at the 2013-14 World Junior Championships. Canada’s 2-1 loss to Russia, bounced Canada from earning a medal for the second straight year, which has many Canadians second guessing everything from the players that were selected, to the way Team Canada plays on the ice.

To be fair, with Finland defeating Sweden in the Gold Medal Game, that marks the fifth different Gold Medal winner in six years, which speaks to the increase in popularity, diversity and love of the game of hockey on a global level.

It also speaks to the level of preparedness other Nations are bringing to the table, and the excellent level of training and coaching they are offering their young players.

Heading into the WJC, Canada was thought to have one of the better rosters, at least on paper. Trouble is, paper can get burnt, just as Canada’s game plan did against Finland, which dropped Canada out of Gold medal contention.

With players such as Nathan Mackinnon, Sean Monahan, Tom Wilson and Morgan Rielly remaining with their NHL clubs, some of Canada’s best eligible players got left behind. That said, with Canada seemingly deep in talent at every position, few experts expected the loss of a few players to dramatically impact Canada’s chances to win Gold.

Up front, Canada looked poised to be an offensive juggernaut. The french connection line of Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Mantha and Charles Hudon was thought to be one of the most dangerous lines at this years WJC and, for the most part, they did not disappoint us.

Mantha led all Canadian forwards with five goals (including two game winners) and 11 points, while Drouin was second with nine points. Hudon had just one goal, and two points, but was a respectable plus+4 and played a decent two-way game.

While Mantha and Drouin put up respectable numbers, both players struggled at key times in the tournament. Mantha failed to score against Finland and Russia, while Drouin’s on-ice antics hurt his teams chances during the match against Finland.

Of course, when it comes to Canada’s forwards, there is plenty of criticism to go around. Despite not getting a ton of ice time, Connor McDavid struggled throughout the tournament. McDavid’s four points were well below expectations. He would finish with one goal in the tournament.

Sam Reinhart did not live up to expectations, Bo Horvat lacked finish, Nicolas Petan was not good enough, while Kerby Rychel’s play was laughable at times— was he even on the ice most nights? Taylor Leier and Curtis Lazar round out a very ordinary group of forwards, all of whom lacked the proper levels of heart, determination and finish at times throughout the tournament.

If you are looking for Canada’s most disappointing forward, Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Scott Laughton might just be your guy. Laughton had just one assist in the tournament and was unable to establish a physical presence at any point in the tournament. Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Frederick Gauthier was also terrible, earning one assist and finishing with a minus-3 rating.

Had Laughton and Gauthier established themselves as the shut-down duo Canada expected them to be, it could have been a much different result for Canada. Sadly, both players flopped.

Let’s face it, outside of Mantha, none of Canada’s forwards exceeded expectations. None of Canada’s forwards could be called an unsung hero. There were no Mike Richards’, no Steven Ott’s, no Stefan Legein’s…very few players left it all on the ice, very few players played with the passion and determination that Canadian forwards are known for. There was little grit on display and the overall skill level was deplorable on some nights. Simply put, Canada’s forwards collectively let their Country down.

On the backend, Canada iced a defense that was made up of mostly Western Hockey League players. Thought to be Canada’s ace in the hole, defenseman Matthew Dumba had a tough tournament— coughing up the puck on several occasions, lacking offense, making numerous poor decisions with the puck, getting caught up ice and falling well short of expectations.

Aaron Ekblad, Adam Pelech and Josh Morrissey were largely invisible. Derrick Pouliot and Griffin Reinhart (who missed the first three games due to suspension) had some good stretches of hockey, but neither was effective when the chips were down.

Goaltenders Jake Paterson and Zachary Fucale played well in spurts, but again, neither one of them stole a game for Canada— although Fucale did make a couple of highlight reel worthy saves.

Heat Nets BasketballThe bottom line is Canada did not play “Canada’s Game”. Canada’s forecheck was invisible. Canada looked tired and Canada failed to establish a physical game at any point in the tournament. In fact, one could say that Canada lost the physical battles on more nights than not, which is deplorable.

With few gritty goals, no physical presence and little in the way of a forecheck, Canada looked lost at times. Too many fancy passes, too many selfish players and far too many one-man rushes, crushed any chance Canada had of winning a Gold Medal.

So, where does Hockey Canada turn from here?

First, Canada should go back to their roots— bring in players that bring the total package (toughness, skill and high hockey acumen) and augment the roster with skill. For too many years now, Canada has tried to be something we are not, and it has cost us in the form of zero Gold Medals in five years…and counting.

“Canadian Hockey” (tough, in your face style of play, dirty-goal, defense-first, solid netminding, mentally tough players) has served us well over the years, abandoning this style of play makes little sense, so why not go back to it?

Finland won the Gold Medal this year because they came at the opposition in waves. Canada used to play like that, Canada used to win Gold Medals!

Canada also has to find a way to score on the power play. Canada was the beneficiary of three too-many men on the ice penalties in their game against Russia on Sunday and were unable to convert a single one into a power play goal. Those three penalties were gifts, and nobody was capable of finishing.

Canada iced the second-youngest team at this years WJC. That means Canada has an opportunity to bring back many of the same players they brought this time around.

My suggestion?

Be careful of whom you bring back. In 2014-15, Let’s hope Canada brings players of character. Players of skill. Players that will go through a wall for their Country.

And, most of all, bring players that understand that whining and mouthing off at the refs from the penalty box when your team is down is not a part of Canada’s game. Leave those that chose to put themselves before the team at home where their Mother’s can cuddle them, or at the very least, put a muzzle on them— you are not welcome on our team.

Don’t get me wrong, despite not bringing home a medal, each and every Canadian is proud of our players. They worked very hard to get where they are and all of them deserved to be there. Trouble is, this team never jelled. This team never found an identity and this team couldn’t score when the chips were down.

Is it the kids fault? On some level yes, as they are the ones that must execute. That said, it all begins at the grass root level— this is where most of the fault should be directed. A lack of direction, a lack of development and a lack of cohesion. Politics and an emphasis on winning through the implementation of “systems” rather than skill development is hurting Canadian hockey.

One cannot train guts, heart and drive, but we can train players to be better skaters, make better passes, hit harder and, most of all, make better decisions with the puck. Canada is falling behind in all of these areas, and the players are not the ones to blame— Hockey Canada is.

If Canada has its sights set on winning on the International stage, they will have to implement change at the grass roots level. We are talking about making changes to the way we train, starting from the beginning. There must be a plan in place to help our players peak when they qualify for the WJC. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be one and there certainly is little co-operation between the differing Provinces/Hockey Leagues.

Rival nations have the benefit of having most of their best players together for months, even years in some cases. Due to most players playing in rival leagues and residing in numerous Provinces divided by thousands of Miles, Canada’s best players are lucky to spend a few days or weeks together, never mind months or years.

Separation hurts Canada’s cohesion, it hurts our Team play. The politics of having to adhere to player quotas rather than bringing in the best players also hurts Canada’s chances for Gold. How are we going to win against rival Nations when we are fighting within ourselves?

Canada did not play as a team. Canada did not bring the right mix of players. Canada did not play the Canadian game. And, in the end, Canada will not bring home a medal in back-to-back years— a fact that should not sit well with any Canadian.

Thanks for the effort boys. Sorry it didn’t work out. Hockey Canada, more than anything else, let you down.

Can’t we all just get along?

 

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