Why Canada’s WJC quarterfinal is more than just a game

Canadians Travis Konecny, Joe Hicketts and Brayden Point are looking forward to playing Finland in the quarterfinals on Saturday and know they will need to play their best to move on. Courtesy: Hockey Canada

HELSINKI — Let’s get it out of the way at the start: yes, you can read too much into the outcome of one game. Trends in any sport, the big sweeping ones, aren’t simply set into motion by a single win or a loss. Maybe for a single athlete, I’ll grant you, it’s possible that one game elevates or devastates, but it’s not as common as you’d suppose. But on a grand scale, no, for better or worse, a game is just a game, the smallest sample size, a moment in time.

With that established, I submit for your consideration Canada’s quarterfinal game against the host Finns in the 2016 World Junior Championships.

NHL scouts will tell you that the under-20s don’t really start until the tournament reaches the win-or-go-home stage. If you were to ask Hockey Canada’s executives and the coaches of this year’s team, they’d want to tell you the same but would likely hold back on it, simply because it would come across as self-serving and disingenuous.

This year’s edition of the national junior team has not been very good. "It’s like they’ve been worse every game," one veteran NHL scout said after Canada’s loss to Sweden in the final game of the opening round. "And really, they might have been worse every period. They never looked as good as they did through the first two periods of the opening game against the U.S. …"

The scout was referring to a hard-luck loss to the Americans despite the Canadian teens taking play to them.

"… and by the time they got to Sweden, it was a complete breakdown. No structure. They had a stretch late in the first when you thought they were getting it together but it didn’t last. You can’t say that they quit but they had no confidence. They just looked lost out there in the third."

These are awful signs for the Canadian team given that the scripts for most of the past gold-medal winners have stuck to the same narrative: struggles early, improving play by the time the tournament reaches the knockout stage.

The professional watchers in Helsinki, scouts who have skin in the game, have watched the Finns more closely than other teams here simply because their lineup features two high priority draft-eligible players, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, who have been only sensational through four games, keying the tournament’s best power-play unit.

"Laine and Puljujrvi aren’t bumping [American centre Auston] Matthews out of the top slot but they might have played themselves into the No. 2 and 3 spots," one NHL scouting director said. "And if Canada doesn’t play smart and avoid penalties—which they haven’t so far—these two guys will punish them."

Suffice it to say that the consensus here is that Finland is a heavy favourite to knock Canada out of the tournament. Even though the Finns lost to Russia in the opening round, scouts rate them as the best team here and the best team the country has ever sent to the world juniors.

There. Does all that sound dire enough?

Now consider this: if the Canadian teenagers lose to the Finns Saturday and are sent packing, it will be the third time in the last four tournaments that Hockey Canada doesn’t have a medal of any colour in the showcase age-group event. Yes, for stretches in the ‘90s the Canadian fans considered the gold at the world juniors just the normal course of business. Ditto five straight winters from 2005 to 2009. If you wanted to feel good about the state of the game in the country, if you wanted to build a case that Canada had it all right about skill development, you could point to the world juniors. We’re all good.

That, however, has gone sideways of late. Yeah, sure, the 2015 tournament was a thrill; the prodigy, Connor McDavid, in the lead role with a cast of highly skilled players like Max Domi and Darnell Nurse in support. But put that gold-medal team into context—even with a once-in-a-generation player, even with what was considered the strongest team in several seasons, even with home-ice advantage, that Canadian team won a white-knuckle final against Russia. It was an impressive, albeit something-short-of-dominant, Canadian team. There was no separation from the field like the 2005 squad that featured Getzlaf, Perry, Bergeron, Weber and Crosby among others. No, last year, you came away thinking, “They’re good but the rest of the world can play too.”

If Canada loses to the Finns at Hartwell Arena in the quarters, it will signify not much on its own but take into consideration the aforementioned context: three medal-less teams out of the past four years. Then factor in that this year’s NHL Entry Draft will likely feature two or three Canadian players in the top 10 picks and almost certainly no more than one in the top six. Further factor in that the longer range isn’t much more promising, given that scouts rank the class of Canadian 2017 draft-eligibles as even softer than this year’s vintage.

Look at the very big picture and imagine assembling Olympic teams in 2018, or even more to the point 2022. Ditto World Cup teams when the tournament can be squeezed in. Maybe Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner will be leading lights on those big stages—but then again, Laine and Puljujarvi and Mathews and the Nylanders look like better bets. Does a defenceman from this Canada team ever play for the national team? Yeah, I don’t see it either.

For Canada, the long run doesn’t look terribly promising. A couple of Olympic gold-medal teams came out of players who figured large in that great run from 2005 to 2009. That was a deep pool. Of late, though, the talent pool is about as deep as a birdbath. It certainly seems that way relative to the rest of the world, something that you can say with greater conviction than you might have in 2013 and 2014.

Said one scout after the loss to the Sweden to end the opening round: "I expect that Canada will play its best game but there’s no guarantee that it will be enough. Only just a chance that it will be enough."

And given that they need two wins to get a medal, it doesn’t look promising at all. That looks like a long shot right now. Read into that what you will. To say that the Canadian game is in trouble, well, you might stand accused of being alarmist. To say the rest of the world has gone a long way and caught up to Canada (and inched ahead) is entirely fair. It wouldn’t just be a loss if Canada falls to Finland. There’s more in play than that.