WJC success doesn’t always translate to NHL

With an overtime win Friday night, the Toronto Marlies clinched first place atop the American Hockey League, winning the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for the first time in the team's 11-year history.

TORONTO – Every December, rosters of world junior camps are named and by the holiday season, a bunch of teenagers, many previously obscure, become household names and players of lasting interest off a few shining moments at the IIHF under-20 tournament. And the assumption that many fans make is that success on an international stage at 19 basically stamps your ticket to the NHL.

Except when it doesn’t.

The Toronto Marlies’ 3-1 win over the Manitoba Moose at Ricoh Coliseum on Saturday featured a few guys who are instructive examples on the latter count.

Back in 2009, Canada, led by the likes of John Tavares and P.K. Subban among others, beat Russia in a semifinal thriller (with Jordan Eberle’s last-ditch last-second goal to force overtime) and Sweden in a relative mundane final. One player I liked a lot on that Canadian side was Patrice Cormier, a hulking third-line centre who could physically go through the best teenagers the rest of the world could throw at him. Now, I didn’t imagine that he had anything close to first-line upside. Or even much as a second-liner. A scorer he wasn’t. A first-round pick he wasn’t either. He was selected in the second round, 54th overall, by New Jersey. Still he was an important and useful player in the world junior. You watched him and wondered if he could be a Bobby Holik-like third-liner and have a long NHL career. I thought he had a good chance even if he was something less than a sure thing. At the very least I thought he’d get in a few hundred games.

Well, Patrice Cormier has played 51 career NHL games including a single contest with the Jets in this his sixth pro season. The most games he played in any one campaign were 21 with the Atlanta Thrashers as a 20-year-old. He was in the Moose lineup Saturday and if his pretty nondescript play is any indicator, then it seems highly unlikely that he’ll be adding to that number.

What went wrong? Probably nothing much, really. Not a catastrophic injury.

The best guess: His greatest asset as a prospect, his physical strength, was something that everyone could catch up on. Maybe he could have played in the old NHL. Certainly the hook-and-old days would have better suited his game. But Cormier’s skating is pretty much as it was back when. A lot of players improve their skating as pros but more often than not it’s a byproduct of strength that comes with maturity. At that world junior tournament in Ottawa Cormier was 19 going on 30. The world caught up. And many passed him.

Not to pick on Cormier. There were others out on the ice Saturday who had highlight moments at world juniors now a long way back in the rear-view mirror: Matt Halischuk for the Moose (250 NHL games but none this season) who figured large in Canada’s win in ’08; and Richard Panik, who was the Slovaks’ best player as an under-ager in ’09. Yeah, on any given night there are more than a few who thought they were on the verge of far bigger things only to realize later that they had just enjoyed the biggest moment of their careers while still teenagers.

When Cormier looked across the ice last night he could see the Marlies’ Fredrik Gauthier. At six-foot-five and 220 pounds, Gauthier is hard to miss. In two world junior tournaments, the Leafs’ first-rounder in 2013 played a role similar to Cormier’s: checking-line centre and first-line penalty killer. Gauthier brought a little less jam to the party than Cormier but by his second time round, he was first-rate as a faceoff man. A lot of Leafs fans lamented when the Leafs selected Gauthier 21st overall—he scored 22 goals in his draft year and he was described as a defence-first forward, not exactly the stuff Leafs fans wanted to hear about their top pick. And on first glance, in world juniors and at Leafs camp, he seemed a particularly ungainly skater. If you told Leafs fans that his career trajectory was likely to track like Cormier’s you’d find some in agreement and even some who’d tell you that he’d be lucky to play in 51 games lifetime.

Well, with two goals and seven points in 20 games this year, it still looks like Gauthier is going to be goal-challenged and thus limited in where you project him. Forget about shot-creating skill on the perimeter or finishing from the slot. He wasted chances from the front of net not a body-length from the goal line. A golf pro who struggles with 18-inch putts. “He hasn’t scored and you don’t know if he ever will,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It’s bad luck partly. Just not getting the bounces.”

But maybe there’s hope. For one thing he’s a plus-7. “The one thing with Fred is that what was a weakness, his skating, is actually becoming a strength,” Keefe said. “It might be already. He has worked hard for it. And he’s worked as hard or harder than anyone on the team. He soaks up coaching and any information we give him. He wants to be better and he’s made huge strides.”

Which might be tougher to say for a couple of Manitoba players who had been world junior teammates of Gauthier last season: defenceman Josh Morrissey and forward Nic Petan, the Jets’ first- and second-round picks in 2013. Morrissey was basically a flat line Saturday and made a couple of painful gaffes. Petan, who scored over 120 and 113 in two WHL seasons in Portland, is undersized, listed at a wishful 5-foot-9, and seems to lack the burst to make the step up in class anytime soon.

Still, it’s the long game that matters.

Cormier’s career stalled when he ran out of ways to improve. Against the Marlies he looked like a guy who couldn’t improve and everyone else caught up to and passed him. Against the Marlies he looked like he had been teleported as a 19-year-old and dropped into the game at Ricoh, but forgot to bring his youthful confidence. Gauthier might have had more holes in his game at 19, but filling a hole is the start of improvement. Teams will give a first-rounder more than a fair shot—first-rounders almost have to prove that they can’t play rather than vice versa.

But out of those three, there’s going to be one guy who’ll say that he never really played another game that meant as much as one he played at 19. And it might turn out that the three of them will be able to make the same heartbreaking claim.