KOSICE – Canada won Olympic gold last February and then followed with a quarter-finals exit from the Worlds, resulting in a seventh place finish. That team was young and inexperienced, and this year youth will be well served again, but with plenty of experience thrown into the mix.
General manager Dave Nonis has six of 19 players born in the 1990s, testament to some incredible young talent on Canada, many of whom might well be in Sochi in three years’ time.
So far, Canada is going with James Reimer as its starter and Devan Dubnyk as his backup. Reimer might well be a great feel-good story of the tournament. At Christmas, he was an unknown goalie toiling in the minors, but when Toronto called him up to the big club, he produced often great – and certainly unexpected – goaltending. If anyone had told him at the start of the past season that he would be playing for Canada at the Worlds, he would have laughed.
Playing an unconventional style, he might crash and burn and prove to be a mere mortal, or he might prove his excellent second half to the season was no fluke. Affable and enthusiastic, it’s hard not to root for the kid. Canada still has one more goalie to add, but only time will tell if that proves to be Carey Price of the recently ousted Montreal Canadiens or someone else.
Led by a pair of Maple Leafs, captain Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn, this five-man blueline corps will be given a couple of new players in the coming days. But with these two experienced players coming off much-improved seasons over a year ago, it’s a great start.
Joining them are Brent Burns, who was named the Best Defenceman at the 2008 Worlds in Canada and also played in 2010. Lesser known but effective Mark Methot and 21-year-old Alex Pietrangelo, a member of Canada’s U20 team in 2009 and 2010, round out the back end so far. This is a big and tough group with good speed.
What can you say about captain Rick Nash? He answers the call virtually every time he’s been asked, and this year in no different. He won gold with Canada at the 2010 Olympics, but personally his greatest moment came at the 2007 World Championship in Moscow. He was named MVP that year, led the team to gold, and finished that tournament with a spectacular goal against Finland in the final minute to seal the victory. He is the straw that stirs this cocktail of players who have a wide range of experience.
Jason Spezza is the other veteran name who has plenty of international participation, but then comes a plethora of hugely talented, high draft choices who are sure to make this a fast and exciting team. Jeff Skinner, still 18 after one full NHL season, is a Calder Trophy nominee.
John Tavares, a star at last year’s Worlds, is back for a second year with the senior team, and Jordan Eberle, another star from the U20s, will also be part of the team. Evander Kane and Chris Stewart aren’t as well known, perhaps, but if you want speed, watch these guys burn up the ice lanes. Nonis has one more player to add without overextending himself.
Ken Hitchcock has been coaching many a year. He was an assistant at Vancouver 2010, and he was the head coach in 2008 when Canada lost gold in the final period to the Russians by trying to sit on a 4-2 lead. Hopefully he will see the offensive potential of this roster and loosen the defense-first strategy he usually adopts.
There is no clear favourite for gold this year, meaning Canada is as good a bet as any of the top nation to claim top spot. That being said, it will need excellent goaltending to start with. A medal is certainly within reach if not altogether expected, and the rest is up for grabs.