On Thursday night, Canada ended their four game exhibition series at the Summer Showcase in Calgary, topping the Czech Republic by a score of 6-2. It gave team management and fans a chance to check out some of the potential options for the upcoming World Juniors in Finland, a tournament that they recently won back in January. If you missed it, it’s probably because you forgot that there was actually some hockey to be played in August, but if not, here’s a couple of things that stood out to me during the four game mini-tournament.
Mitch Marner: Marner was one of the top three players every time he played, no question. The fourth overall pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the most recent draft, Marner continuously made everyone better on every shift. He even earned some important power-play time in his two games, most notably early on in the final game. His chemistry with Dylan Strome was fantastic on Thursday, setting up Canada’s fourth goal after dodging Czech defensemen at the blue line. As long as he doesn’t make the NHL, he’s a lock for this team.
Brayden Point: There’s nothing negative you could say about Point’s performance at the camp this summer. After basically fighting his way into a bottom spot with the World Junior team back in December, Point lead this week’s event with eight points in just two games. It almost seemed like they could have put him in a checking role, and despite his size, he’d still be dominant.
Every time he touched the puck, you could always expect something good to come out of him. Whether it be his tremendous chemistry with Travis Konecny, who got four points when paired with Point, or Nick Merkley, who scored twice thanks to the Lightning prospect, it looks like Canada has a budding star on their hands. All three of those players could form a line that could show some major upside in a top six role, something that Canada will look to replace with the departures of Anthony Duclair and Max Domi.
Three-Headed Goalie Beast: When each goalie played in just one full match each, it’s hard to really judge how the three goaltenders performed for Canada. They all had very strong performances, though, so it’s hard to really choose a clear order for them all.
Mason McDonald probably has the starting role just on experience alone. After acting as the starting goalie for Canadian teams at both the U17 and U18 tournaments, Hockey Canada knew what to expect from McDonald. In his one game of action, a 4-1 victory over Russia, McDonald looked rather unbeatable, minus the one soft goal from far that he allowed. He was the best goaltender in the last tournament that he participated in for Canada, the U18’s back in 2013, and at 19 years old, he’s the oldest option between the three.
Mackenzie Blackwood probably had the best overall game, a 26 save performance over the Czech’s in their first meeting on Tuesday. While Samuel Montembeault had the tougher chances in the game and a half he participated in, the Florida Panthers prospect did allow four goals in regulation, the most of any Canadian goalie. That’s not a fair knack against his game, though, as he had to face much harder scoring chances and looked very quick on most of his saves. When you have this much competition between the three goalies, there’s a good chance that any of them could win games at the World Juniors. But who will be the one to actually do it? My bet is on McDonald.
Travis Sanheim: A year ago, Travis Sanheim didn’t make the Canadian World Junior team after a very less-than-stellar performance during the two exhibition games against the CIS Selects. I knew he was better than that. From what I’d seen and heard from him as a Calgary Hitmen star, I thought he’d be ready to take control and prove himself this time around.
Once again, I wasn’t impressed. He still seemed to struggle in the transition game, making a good rush in the offensive zone, only to be made look dumb in front of his own net. Canada won’t lack solid two-way defensemen, so his negative impact in Canada’s zone wont help him. Fortunately, there’s still a lot of time for him to improve and continue his strong play with Calgary. In fact, he could end up being one of the better WHL defenders this year. But when he returns to put on the jersey at the selection camp in December, he’ll have to do a whole lot better than the last two times he did.
The forward chase: Two of the most compelling players that may miss out on the team are Mathew Barzal and Mitch Stephens. Both were standouts for Team Canada at the U18’s, but with a good mix of 19 and 18-year-olds already on the team, two of the most recent NHL Draft picks may have a tough time making the roster.
That’s not due to a lack of trying or anything. Barzal proved that his passing abilities are elite, with his set-up of Oliver Leblanc’s goal on Thursday being a very clear example of that. But for both players, their time just may not be until next year. There is simply a lot of depth, both mixed in with older players looking for a final chance or younger guys steaming out of the most recent draft, all looking for spots in the final six as well. But if any two players really made a case as potential fourth line options, Stephens and Barzal really proved that they are a force to be reckoned with.
The defense chase: Despite the defensive pool being just a little smaller, there is going to be one heck of a battle to fill out that top six. Joe Hicketts, the only returning defenseman, is a lock for sure. Mixed with either Noah Juulsen or Thomas Chabot, who he skated with on Thursday, Canada will have a few good options to mesh with as potential top pairing defensemen with the ability to do almost everything right.
But after those three, it gets a little muddier. Almost every defenseman had their ups and downs in Calgary, especially Haydn Fleury. Another late cut from a year ago, Fleury had some really strong moments where he was very good defensively. At the same time, he was responsible for a few goals throughout. It was kind of an up and down tournament for Fleury, but I would still lean on the side of him making the team.
Travis Dermott and Brandon Hickey both had quiet games at times, but in the end, expect them both to be in Finland this winter. Dermott had a goal in one of his two games patrolling the blue line, while Hickey, a dark horse, proved to be a safe, stay-at-home blue liner. Both made their play known in Calgary, giving them more of a chance to make the team.
But what about the rest of the defense? Roland McKeown struggled, as did Sanheim. Nicolas Roy was so-so, but made up for it with some solid decisions near the end. Plus, you can’t forget about guys that didn’t play, such as Matt Spencer, Mitch Vande Sompel or even Jakob Chychrun. All in all, Canada’s defensive fight will likely be the most interesting positional battle heading into the main tournament, and with junior hockey seasons on the horizon, many things can change rather quickly.
Undrafted wildcards: Every year, Canada tends to give chances to some of the younger, undrafted options around the country. This year, only one player, Julien Gauthier, came to camp before his NHL Draft. You can’t count out Logan Brown or Tyler Benson, a member of Canada’ Ivan Hlinka entry, just yet.
But what about defensemen like Kale Clauge or Jakob Chychrun? Both are outstanding young defenseman that should be potential members of the team once the real event takes place, and if Chychrun can stay healthy, he may actually be better than some of the choices that did make camp.
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