BUFFALO – Every coach is different, every tournament, every pair of goalies. Every situation has its own considerations, and this year’s U20 is no different. But Canada’s coach, Dave Cameron, has a very large decision to make in the next 24 hours and counting regarding his starting goalie for the quarter-finals game against Switzerland on Sunday afternoon at HSBC Arena.
Consider. Canada played four games in the Preliminary Round—Russia, Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden. At the start of the tournament, Cameron made no declaration about who was or was not his number-one goalie. Olivier Roy? Mark Visentin? He wasn’t saying.
That’s fine. Many coaches subscribe to this code of silence. Canada beat Russia 6-3 in the team’s first game, a game marked by impressive offence, perhaps surprising creativity, and an effective power play. The win, however, masked the fact that Roy surrendered two weak goals.
Piqued by any suggestion from media after the game that Roy was weak, Cameron declared himself satisfied with his goalie’s performance. Two nights later, Brayden Schenn stole the spotlight with a five-point night in a 7-2 win over the Czechs, again masking the fact that both Czech goals were thanks to weaknesses from Roy. To his credit, Roy made a big save that led to a 2-1 goal for Canada, but in a 7-2 game against a team headed for the relegation round, it could hardly be considered a game changer or defining moment.
Cameron started Visentin the next night against Norway but also suggested Roy would be back for the Sweden game, thus making clear that Roy was the go-to goalie for the rest of the tournament. Visentin had a reasonably strong game in the 10-1 win, but in such a one-sided game a true analysis of a goalie's abilities is difficult.
The problem for Cameron comes as a result of the team’s 6-5 shootout loss to Sweden on New Year’s Eve. By anyone's standards, Roy was undeniably weak, and Robin Lehner wasn’t so hot at the other end, either. But Lehner at least made up for his poor game by stopping both Canadians in the shootout while Roy allowed two goals on three shots.
For a team like Canada in an event like this, the Preliminary Round is not much of a concern. Canada doesn’t have to worry about the Relegation Round or must-win games in the early going. The greater concern is to get the players on the same page, develop chemistry and find the right line combinations and defence pairings, and get set up for the playoffs.
Yes, there is added incentive of finishing in first place to receive a bye through the quarterfinals, but to have to play that extra game should never be a concern for Canada because that seventh- or eighth-place team shouldn’t pose much of a threat.
Cameron could have given each goalie two games in the Preliminary Round and then decided who to go with the rest of the way based on tournament performance. This would have been straightforward and logical. Not every coach on every team does this, but if you’re not sure at the start of the tournament who is number one, it sure is a good way to find out. And if you are sure who’s number one and find out you are wrong, it’s also good strategy to give the backup some support in case you have to rely on him later on in the tournament.
So now, Cameron has a tricky choice to make. Does he go with Roy for the Switzerland game in the quarterfinals, or Visentin? This is a game Canada should win, so its purpose is really to set the table for the semi-finals and finals. If he goes with Roy and the goalie is weak again, he can’t possibly insert Visentin in the semis and expect a great performance. Go with Roy now, and you’re going to have to go with him the rest of the way.
If he puts Roy in and the goalie plays well, it will be his first good performance of the event but suggests Roy is inconsistent – which Roy will show up for the semis? (It might also suggest Roy is rounding into form, but that is wishful thinking at a critical time like this.)
If Cameron goes with Visentin, it’s a gamble, and coaches don’t like to have gambles in their game plan. He’d be admitting Roy isn’t the goalie for the playoff round and is hoping Visentin, not given much of a chance earlier, rises to the occasion. If Vistentin plays well, he would certainly go the rest of the way. If he plays poorly, Cameron would have to flip back to Roy who had been demoted to backup, played poorly, and is now asked to win a semi-finals game.
And what about the Swiss? They deserve some credit here. Yes, Canada is the heavy favourite, but the Swiss held the Americans to a 2-1 game on New Year’s Eve and have had a good tournament. The quarterfinals should be a set-up for a run to the medals for Canada, but it could also be the last game of the event if Canada isn’t careful.
In the big picture, this dilemma exposes Canada’s woes in the crease at all levels. Indeed, one might even use the word crisis. Canada has undoubtedly many of the best and most talented skaters in the world, but goaltending is in a weak state. Canada’s goaltending at the 2010 U20 was a major factor in the gold-medal game loss to the U.S., and in 2009 Canada won gold despite below-average goaltending. (And which three goalies will play for Canada in Sochi? There is no bona fide leader of the pack right now.)
In truth, Cameron has painted himself into a corner. He pretty much has to go with Roy and close his eyes and pray the goalie can play a solid game. By not alternating goalies in the Preliminary Round, he has left himself with little choice.
Or, does he roll the dice and give Visentin the call? Either way, Canada can't afford to spot the opposition two goals a game because of weak goaltending. That's a recipe for elimination.