Cody Ceci and Team OHL won’t need much pre-scouting when they face Nail Yakupov in Game 3 of the Subway Super Series.
The Ottawa Senators’ first-round pick is familiar with Yakupov having played the last two seasons against each other in the Ontario Hockey League. Ceci is an offensive threat and often acts as a fourth forward on rushes, but will need to show Hockey Canada he can also take care of his own end.
“The big thing for Cody is playing a responsible, two-way game,” Team OHL head coach Steve Spott said.
The Russians are proving to be tough in transition. They’re the type of team that can take a defensive zone turnover and turn it into a goal seconds later at the other end. Yakupov, the first-overall pick by the Edmonton Oilers last June, is dangerous as both a distributor and a scorer in these situations.
“He’s the captain, he’s the leader of the hockey club there,” Spott said.
Puck possession will be at the forefront for the OHL against a Russian team that will have many of these faces representing the home side at this year’s IIHF World Junior tournament. Spott wants his players to let the game come to them, rather than forcing the issue.
“They’re not a hard forechecking team,” he said. “They’re a team that will sit back, they’ll try to force you to create a turnover and then they’ll execute on transition. The challenge for Canadian players is to stay patient sometimes and we have to make sure we manage the puck correctly and get it in deep. And then use our game, which is battling low and below the goal lines and protecting pucks and scoring dirty goals.”
Spott saw how dangerous Ceci could be recently when his Kitchener Rangers visited Ceci’s Ottawa 67′s on Oct. 14. Ceci picked up an assist in the 67′s 6-2 win over the Rangers that night, and now Spott is looking forward to having Ceci on his side.
“He was fantastic,” Spott said. “He played a complete game, he ran their power-play, he was killing penalties, he was strong defensively so that’s going to be the challenge for Cody to make sure that he continues to play a complete game and use his size and strength to his advantage.”
Yakupov is the headliner of the Russian group, but he’s not the only supremely-skilled forward players like Ceci will need to keep in check.
“When you look at (Alexander) Khokhlachev, when you look at (Mikhail) Grigorenko, they’ve got a number of weapons there that they can rely on to create offence,” Spott noted. “The Russians are willing to trade chances with us; that’s not a game we want to get into.”
Connor McDavid became just the third player granted exceptional status to play in the OHL at the age of 15. Hockey’s next great superstar was named to the team as one of two injury replacements for Brendan Gaunce and Lucas Lessio.
This is the first major international event McDavid will play in, and as Spott indicates, it’s not without merit.
“We don’t pick these teams based on age,” he said. “No. 1, he’s obviously very, very capable of playing at the CHL level, he’s proven that and then No. 2, I think it’s great for the fans to see him play and for his personal career an opportunity to play against the best from Team Russia. That’s only going to make him better and he’s going to wear a Canadian sweater one day. This is going to be the first step in the program of excellence for Connor and I think that’s exciting for everybody.”
Bogdan Yakimov was passed over twice in the draft, but is a hot commodity for NHL teams hoping to lure him to play in North America. He, along with highly-touted draft eligible Valeri Nichushkin, sat out Game 1 of the series on Monday.
Malcolm Subban will get his last chance to impress Hockey Canada scouts in international play before the December selection camp. Subban is considered by many as the front-runner to earn the starting job for this year’s team, but Spott notes every job on his team will have to be earned.
“When you look at past (world junior) tournaments, I think the challenge is finding a goaltender that’s going to give you a chance to win every night,” he said. “That’s what we need right now. I know in the Ontario Hockey League, Malcolm has been, I think, delivering what we were hoping he would deliver. He’s given Belleville a chance to win every night, his record in shootouts is tremendous and his composure in the net, his poise in the net, his quickness, gives us a chance to win every night.”
The Russians received stellar goaltending from Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Andrei Vasilevski in Game 1 on Monday. Team QMJHL found holes in his game on Wednesday, and Spott sees two areas his team will need to work on in order to find the net behind Vasilevski on Thursday.
“He’s a big man, but you can see (from Monday’s game) he’s willing to kick out some rebounds,” he said. “He’s very, very quick, but I think the rebound control is an area we’re going to have to be jumping on. Once he’s down, you have to get the puck up because his ability to take away the bottom of the net is at a world class level.”
Boone Jenner may just be the most complete player in the junior circuit. His burgeoning offensive game this season makes him versatile, something that enamors him to Team OHL’s head coach.
“Everybody knows how capable he is defensively and how responsible he is, but it’s nice to see he’s getting rewarded with offensive situations in Oshawa and he’s taking advantage of those situations,” Spott said. “If Boone was with us at Christmas, he’s going to be relied on obviously to go against the other teams top lines, but ultimately it’s nice to see he’s combined the great defensive play now with some great offence as well. A world-class player and obviously Columbus has a heck of a prospect.”
Daniil Zharkov will be familiar with Subban, a teammate of his in Belleville. Zharkov, an Edmonton Oilers prospect, may have no better opportunity than now to make an impression on the Russian coaching staff. With so many skilled players ahead of him, he may need to prove he can fit in a bottom six role.
Team OHL is a perfect 18-0 in this competition and none of these players want to be part of the team that let the streak slip away. It can be seen as pressure, which is something Spott is hoping won’t become a crutch for his players.
“That’s up to us as coaches to manage that,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of prep time… Ultimately, it’s a tremendous feat so far and obviously the goal is to try to keep that alive.”
They may see a tired Russian squad after dropping Game 2 of the series 5-2 in Val-d’Or on Wednesday. The Russians will have the disadvantage of travel, but have the skill to threaten the OHL’s streak.