Goalies: All things being equal, this should have been Mackenzie Blackwood’s tournament to lose. It still very well may be, but the big-bodied Barrie Colt will sit at least the first two games of the tournament while serving the final leg of an eight-game suspension the Ontario Hockey League handed him for a vicious slash to Sudbury Wolves’ defenceman Danny Desrochers back on Dec. 4. That being said, the New Jersey Devils’ second rounder is the squad’s best goalie, posting a shining .932 save percentage and a record of 16 wins from 24 starts to date. The first two games of the tournament, at least, will therefore be given to Mason McDonald, the lanky 19-year-old Calgary Flames prospect that gave up six goals in a bizarre final pre-tournament game back on Tuesday. The athletic Halifax native has significantly worse numbers on a significantly worse team than Blackwood, as the Islanders have only helped McDonald to seven wins in his 19 starts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League so far this year. Nevertheless, numbers don’t tell the full story, and McDonald is a solid, if not spectacular, replacement for Blackwood. He could certainly earn more starts if he steals the show, particularly in a Boxing Day showdown with the Americans. Samuel Montembeault of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada was brought in right after Blackwood’s suspension was handed out, and is capable if something goes wrong.
Defensemen: There really are not any superstars in this group, but they have a lot of hockey IQ, and a little bit of everything. If the five-foot-eight Joe Hicketts did not steal your heart last year, he will get ample opportunity to do so this time around. The Detroit Red Wings free-agent signee plays with a ton of skill, intelligence, and with a competitive edge that any coach would love; and they do, as he has worn at least a letter for three of his four seasons so far with the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals. Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder and Red Deer Rebel Haydn Fleury might be the closest thing this corps has to a complete package. The seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft is 6-foot-3, skates well, and loves the physical side of the game. Travis Sanheim, a Flyers first rounder from 2014, is a point-producing machine from the back end, and uses his pro-ready intelligence to be effective all over the ice. Boston University man Brandon Hickey and Roland McKeown, the Kingston Frontenac and only right-shot among the defenders, are smart safety valves, while the 18-year-olds of the group, Saint John’s Thomas Chabot and Erie’s Travis Dermott, are skilled offensive catalysts. This group is not overly sexy, but they all fill roles and are as capable as any corps in the tournament.
Forwards: Eight of 13 Canadian forwards are under 19, and commentators are often quick to point out that having youth like that at the business end of a lineup can spell trouble when it’s time to play for gold medals as Canada is always expected to do. Only time can really tell whether this group, that is generally very explosive, will be hamstrung by that inexperience. The great news in that regard is that the Vancouver Canucks were gracious enough to release the supremely aggressive Jake Virtanen. The former sixth overall pick is an elite skater with a great release and a tremendous physical edge, and has parlayed those attributes into 19 NHL games already this year. Moose Jaw Warriors captain Brayden Point is scoring for fun in the WHL so far this year to the tune of 43 points in 19 games, though part of the campaign has been derailed by a shoulder injury. The 19-year old Tampa Bay Lightning prospect is a slick and skilled with an excellent work ethic despite his small size and has been named captain of this Canadian squad. 18-year-old sensations Mitch Marner from the London Knights and Dylan Strome from the Erie Otters went one-two in OHL scoring last year as draft-eligible players and have already formed strong chemistry. The Leafs prospect Marner is the dynamic, slender ‘Pat Kane’ type that can make plays and handle the puck on a string, while Strome, the future Arizona Coyote, is a power-forward finisher in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf. These two are all-but-sure to delight Canadian hockey fans with their skill all tournament. After Point and Virtanen, Lawson Crouse, the big-bodied Florida Panthers first-rounder from the Kingston Frontenacs, is the only other returnee among the forwards. He will be a 200-foot, physical presences that will get his share of points simply because he is stronger than most defenders at this tournament. The player to watch that may not yet be a household name is Travis Konecny, the 18-year-old captain of the Ottawa 67’s, who has electric puck skills, a great release, and a tremendous level of determination and grit. Seattle Thunderbird Mathew Barzal might be one to dominate next year’s event, but has the high-end skill and playmaking ability to make an impact at this tournament as well. Watch for Saginaw’s Mitchell Stephens to use his smarts and ability to play up and down the roster, as needed by the coaching staff.
Projection: There is an awful lot of grit, character and determination mixed in with that explosive skill on this team, so don’t count Canada out because of its youth. Head Coach Dave Lowry has already voiced that the team needs to be a lot more disciplined than they showed in the pre-tournament (they gave up 21 power plays against over the three games), and in a loaded event like this one, they will certainly need to cut those numbers way down. Goaltending, youth, and discipline are question marks that mean Canada may not be the gold medal favourites, but their talent means there is no excuse for this squad to not be in the mix when the medals come around.