Theodore, Duclair turn heads vs Finland

A few weeks back, I watched the first game of the Subway Series, Russia versus the best eligibles in the WHL, in the only licensed establishment around Moose Mountain National Park in southeast Saskatchewan. The crowd watching the game with me was small but had a large rooting interest, namely defenceman Shea Theodore. Theodore didn’t see much action that night and wasn’t on the roster on the roster for Game 2.

The open question was what plans Hockey Canada had for him, if any, at the world junior tournament.

The crowd that was intently watching this Subway Series game was the coaching staff of the Seattle Thunderbirds, Theodore’s team in the WHL. At that point in time, Theodore had yet to play a single regular-season game in the 2014-15 campaign. Attach an asterisk to “regular season” because his season has been anything but regular.

He had sprained his elbow at the Anaheim Ducks training camp and spent six weeks in convalescence with the big club. He had seen his first action in a pair of games with Norfolk, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate. In fact, the Subway Series opener was not just his third game of the season but also his third game in three days. He still hadn’t played for Seattle.

Could Theodore catch up for all that time he had missed? His coach Steve Konowalchuk had no doubts about that. So long as he was healthy, he would be good to go. Konowalchuk expressed one concern: He suggested that Theodore might not be a Hockey Canada type of guy. Not a knock against him, just the fact that, when it comes to Hockey Canada, the sun shines more brightly on some rather than others. Those who are liked get the benefit of the doubt, those who don't are skating uphill and into the very cold wind.

Two nights later, Theodore did not look great in his first game back with Seattle, an ugly loss in Moose Jaw. This was a bigger deal than it sounds because Hockey Canada's head scout Ryan Jankowski and the World Junior coach Benoit Groulx were in the house, doing a last cross-country sweep before heading into the war-room to put together their roster.

Based on what Jankowski and Groulx had seen, it would take more than a little projecting to pencil him in for any significant role.

Things change.

Evidently, reports that Hockey Canada got from video that the staff screened gave them the confidence to save a place for him on the roster. Going forward, he might log more minutes than any other skater on the team.

Theodore is a left-handed shot playing on the right side of the blueline with Darnell Nurse in what has emerged as the Canadians' top defensive pair in this tournament. As Theodore noted after last night's win over the Finns, Groulx is tapping his shoulder and Nurse's when other teams' biggest threats are out there. What can fully expect that Groulx will try to match Theodore and Nurse against Jack Eichel and Alex Tuch when Canada meets the U.S. in the New Year's Eve showdown.

Theodore and Nurse complement each other well but they aren't a match on appearances. Nurse looks the part of a shutdown D-man: length, long reach and stability on his blades. He exudes control. Theodore for his part, looks hyper sometimes, his motor racing way ahead of the game. He'll take off on a rush or jump up on a break but those are sometimes things. He's at his best when he lets the puck do the work for him, when he thread a 120-foot pass through traffic, when he beats forechecking pressure with quick reads and sleight-of-hand breakouts.

Groulx is going with a bit of a rotation with his power play--forward Robby Fabbri is seeing some time back on the point and Josh Morrissey was the D man across from him. However, Theodore got a few shifts against the Finns and it was his shot that Sam Reinhart tipped and hacked and whacked into the net to give Canada a 2-0 lead in the second.

There's a lot of talk about Jack Eichel facing stiffer competition in the NCAA than what he'll face in the QMJHL. What I can tell you with confidence--until Eichel makes the NHL he won't see a blue liner with the hockey sense and hard wiring like Theodore's.

Anthony Duclair is probably never going to be a player who does something electric every shift. Even the New York Rangers, the team that is loaning him to the Hockey Canada for the duration of the WJC, don't picture him turning out that way. Not that he coasts, not that he takes shifts off, not that he checks in and out, just that he seizes moments than makes moments happen.

I suspect the New York Rangers are a house divided as far as its plans for Anthony Duclair.

Last night, Duclair had a shining moment. He surehandedly lashed a loose puck over a sprawling Finnish goaltender Jussi Saros to restore a two-goal lead for Canada in the third period of the hosts' 4-1 win. He had a better game last night compared to the unimpressive 4-0 win over Slovakia--on that count he was no different than most of his teammates.

It says here that the Rangers used good judgment in loaning Duclair back to Hockey Canada for the World Juniors. It's refreshing when NHL teams are able to set aside the short term and look at the long-run development of a player. It's refreshing and unfortunately rare. This time with Team Canada will serve Duclair and the Rangers well down the line. However, what follows is an even tougher decision with big implications--something that if poorly handled could negate any benefit for Duclair and the Rangers from his participation in this tournament.

There are those in the Rangers' organization who think it would be best for Duclair to be assigned to the Quebec Remparts after this tournament. Some with the club think he could play a role with the Rangers and learn at the higher level even if he were a scratch on occasion--an apprenticeship and an insurance policy. Duclair himself understandably votes with the latter bloc. Hey, when you've played on Broadway it's hard to ride the bus to Baie-Comeau.

It's an unknown at this time what the Rangers will do. Word around the QMJHL is that the Remparts think there's half a chance he'll be back. Word around the Bell Centre--a mishmash of scouts and people who know the hometown hero--is that Duclair is working on assumption if not a promise that he'll be back in Manhattan. It's a delicate situation to say the least, easier to mishandle than balance the team's interests with the player's hopes.