Team Canada: Colossus or Kitty Cat?
"Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. "
- Cassius (Julius Caesar, I, II, 135)
It's not often that you'll hear Shakespeare quoted in a blog about hockey, but some times you think the Bard might have worked for TSN.
Canada is hockey's colossus. Particularly at the World Junior Tournament. The Red and White have won a medal at the last twelve tournaments and only missed out on their sixth consecutive Gold in Overtime last January. Not only are the other teams in the tournament measured against Canada, Team Canada itself is measured against the editions which came before. The veritable demi-gods who cast Russian, American and Swedish entries into their wake with little more than a shrug.
Canada failed to win Gold last year in a World Junior Gold Medal game that became an instant classic. The annual migration of top Canadian talent to the NHL has left the World Junior team scrambling to fill voids. For there is no doubt that if Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Taylor Hall, Jeff Skinner, Tyler Seguin and Ryan O'Reilly were playing in this tournament (they are all age eligible) that Canada would be returning to the top of the podium.
But without these stars in their line-up, the rest are indeed made underlings. Not by themselves. No Canadian entry has ever strived for anything but Gold. It may be cliche, but Canadians do not play for Bronze. They are made underlings by fans who gripe about the lack of star power. By a media that uses "blue collar" as a synonym for "under talented".
What are the strengths and weaknesses of this year's Team Canada? Well...
- Canada has a glut of defensemen. There's a good chance that this defence corps is the one the would be gracing the Canadian blue-line regardless of NHL graduations. It carries a significant size advantage - the average size on the Canadian blue-line is 6'2" - 207lbs - that should come in handy on small ice but it also has considerable mobility to deal with faster opponents.
- Brayden Schenn's return means Canada has a legitimate 1-2 punch at centre with Schenn taking the first like and Ryan Johansen anchoring the second one. This puts the two best centres in the WHL and arguably the two best centres in all Major Junior on the Canadian squad.
- Size and Snarl. Canada is big. Several forwards have managed at least 70 Penalty Minutes during a CHL season at some point and some of the CHL's most prominent power forwards like Zack Kassian, Carter Ashton, Marcus Foligno and Curtis Hamilton are on this roster.
- Dave Cameron. Any OHL watcher will tell you that this team has the look and identity of one of Dave Cameron's teams. Have you seen the record of his Mississauga Majors lately?
- No player on this roster has ever scored 50 goals at the CHL level. Only three (Brayden Schenn, Cody Eakin and Sean Couturier) have ever scored 90 points.
- Size versus Speed. You want a demonstration of size versus speed? Look at video of Chris Kreider or Jerry D'Amigo or Derek Stepan flat-footing Jared Cowen at last year's tournament. Canada's defence features three very large defenders in Cowen, Erik Gudbranson and Simon Despres. After his NHL preseason, few question Gudbranson's ability to keep up with a faster pace of play, but Cowen and Despres will have to prove themselves battle ready
- Experience. There are only four returnees from last year's team in Saskatoon. The American team, attempting to defend its gold medal on home soil, is returning nine players from last year's roster. Dave Cameron went older with his selections likely, in part, to mitigate this factor.
-Olivier Roy. Roy came into camp as arguably the least impressive of the four goaltenders. Smaller, and dependent on his reflexes, Roy will have to show his stuff in the pre-tournament games to mollify those concerns. If he is unable to, and something should happen to Mark Visentin, the Canadian position becomes precarious.
Those are the question marks and statements of this year's Canada. In the end, it's up to the players. No amount of media speculation, or fan complaining can shoulder the blame for them if they prove the cynics right and fail to recapture Gold. And this team, like drought teams from '99 to 2004 will be made underlings, not by their lack of stars but by themselves