HELSINKI – If you listened to the scouts in attendance at the Ice Hall on Thursday, you come away with awfully low expectations for Canada going into the elimination round.
It’s not the fact that the defending champions will be facing the host Finns, who had an impressive comeback win over the Czechs Thursday.
More to the point, with a 5-2 loss to Sweden, Canada has one regulation win through four opening-round games. Even that comes with a qualifier: Canada rolled over a Danish team that was bound to suffer a letdown in the wake of a tight win over Switzerland that secured the team a spot in the A pool next year.
Thankfully there are no placement games for losing teams in the quarter-final or else this Canadian team could end up in a seventh-place game—echoes of ’98 and the loss to Kazakhstan.
Over the last decade and more it’s hard to think of a Canadian team that has been less impressive than the current edition. Should we have seen it coming?
If Hayden Fleury, Travis Sanheim and Thomas Chabot are your best, well, best of luck in a WJC. None of them would crack last year’s top four (Nurse, Theodore, Bowie and Morrissey). As for Joe Hicketts, well God bless him, he’s a great story, an underdog it’s easy to root for but it’s hard to see him as a player at the next level. Now consider this: The top four from the 2015 championship team was just good enough in a nail-biter final against Russia. Marginally better than the silver-medallists. It’s a huge dip down from one year to the next.
When the team was selected, many cited Virtanen as a key asset. He was, after all, playing occasionally for the Vancouver Canucks earlier this season. Still, those who remembered Virtanen play in last year’s tournament would say that Canada won despite him, not because of him. He has been here what he was in Montreal and Toronto a year ago: a kid who looks like he has tools, good skating and a heavy, heavy shot, but as one scout said, "he never makes a play … just sort of happy to play like a pest but without the smarts to be effective like that."
In the loss to the Swedes, Virtanen snuffed out one sustained first-period power-play threat for the Canadians by trespassing in the opponents’ crease. That came at a juncture when it looked like Canada might rally from an early 2-0 hole. On other shifts in the early going, if Virtanen controlled the puck in the Swedes’ zone, he neither got a good shot off nor found a linemate who could. It might seem unfair to single out Virtanen, because others were just as ineffective but he’s named here because, as a returning player he was supposed to be a key asset, one the Canadian team could count on.
Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner
Marner picked up a late powerplay goal to draw Canada within two and offer faint hope of a comeback but according to scouts here, his play has been indifferent in Helsinki.
"There just wasn’t any chemistry there between Strome and Marner, who they opened up with," said one scout. "Last year the coaching staff had line combinations and roles figured out—Domi, Reinhart and Duclair on the first line, McDavid with Lazar on the second line, Paul as a guy on your heavy line. But when Strome and Marner didn’t find [chemistry] then the line shuffling starts and you’re still experimenting when you’re supposed to be peaking."
Again, it might seem unfair to throw these two under the bus (and Strome has worked hard and performed pretty well) but they’re representative of a problem that stretches across the roster. "No one knows who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do out there," a NHL scouting director said. Now some people will cut Strome and Marner slack, saying that they’re 18 and this is an event that favours 19-year-olds. But then look at others who aren’t 19. Given that Strome and Marner have been incredibly prolific across the last two OHL seasons, if someone would have told you two weeks ago that draft-eligible Alex Nylander would outplay them, you would have brushed them off. Nylander’s goal and primary assist in the first period showed the way for Sweden.
OK, he missed a good stretch of time with a shoulder injury a few weeks back and, after being cleared to play and reporting, sat out some time in the run-up to the tournament. He looked like a dynamic player in last year’s tournament but not here.
"He was so good this year in the Dub before getting hurt, best player in the league and no one even close," a scout who works the WHL said. "It’s hard to say whether he’s still nicked up or if his timing is just off but the fact is that he’s not the same player and he could have and probably should have been the first-line centre like Reinhart was last year."
Looking ahead, well, lower expectations. Against the Swedes, Canada took a few bad penalties and any acting out against the Finns will be fatal. Said one scout who watched the hosts’ win over the Czechs before coming to catch the last 40 minutes of Sweden’s rout of the Canada: "The Finns have the best powerplay in this tournament. That’s how they came back against the Czechs, two powerplays late, two goals. (Jesse) Puljujarvi and (Patrik ) Laine, both get a goal (for Finland), and right now Canada doesn’t have anyone playing even close to where they are. And it’s not that they’re 19 or anything. They’re draft-eligibles. It’s a 19-year-old tournament except when you’re getting beaten by 17-year-olds."