Five Team Canada Olympic hopefuls to watch at Karjala Cup

Simon Despres was waived by the Anaheim Ducks last season and signed in the KHL for 2017-18. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

Next week, Canada will participate in a six-team tournament in Finland at the Karjala Cup, alongside Russia, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Sweden and the host Finns. It’s the next step towards picking the roster for Canada’s entry in the men’s hockey tournament in the 2018 Olympics and we’d expect a number of the players involved in this tournament will also be in Pyeongchang come February.

“Our first goal is to have a large part of our final roster ready in time for the Karjala Tournament in November,” Team Canada general manager Sean Burke said in August. “There will be some changes after that, but we need to get the group together by then. And then we’ll be better prepared for another tournament in Moscow in December.”

While the Karjala Cup roster gives us a good idea of what the Olympic team may look like, there are still a few things up in the air. The availability of CHL players remains a question and Jarome Iginla is still on the radar as a potential NHL-calibre player. He only has one factor working against him, though it’s a large one: Iginla isn’t currently playing anywhere this season.

Canada has already been involved in some key tournaments over the summer months that helped Burke get the selection process to this point. We focused on six key performances from the Sochi Hockey Open an Nikolai Puchkov Tournament earlier this year and all of those players will be at the Karjala Cup, too. For this piece, we’ll look at five other notable players to keep an eye on at next week’s event who weren’t on one of the summer rosters.

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Rene Bourque: Has come up on the radar now because of his great start to the season in Sweden’s top league. Bourque was in the NHL as recently as last season, when he scored 12 goals and 18 points in 65 games with the Colorado Avalanche, but the 35-year-old hadn’t been a significant producer in the NHL since back-to-back 27-goal seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Currently, he’s tied for third in goal scoring in the SHL with seven in 14 games. Without its top stars, Canada could find it difficult to score at the Olympics this time around. If Bourque shows up as a scorer at the Karjala Cup against other national teams, he could earn his Olympic roster spot.

Linden Vey: Another player who was in North America last season, Vey has stormed his way into the Olympic conversation with a terrific start to his KHL career. Last season, Vey was humming along as a near point-per-game player in the AHL with 55 points in 61 games for the Stockton Heat, but at 26 and unable to earn more than four games on the Calgary Flames roster, he picked up and joined Astana Barys in Kazakhstan. Vey, whose best NHL season was a 10-goal, 24-point effort in 2014-15 for the Vancouver Canucks, is tied for first in KHL scoring with Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev at 35 points in 28 games. His 28 assists are a league high.

Dylan Sikura: At just 22 years of age, Sikura would figure to be one of the younger players if he cracks Team Canada’s Olympic lineup, and if junior players are deemed ineligible. Currently in his fourth season with the NCAA’s Northeastern University, Sikura has six goals and 14 points in just seven games to lead the circuit. Last season, Sikura was a contender for the Hobey Baker Award with 57 points in 38 games, and will be considered a favourite for it this season. “He’s ready for the NHL now,” one scout told Elliotte Friedman.

Chris Lee: There was a lot of buzz around Lee’s NHL prospects after his record-setting performance by a blueliner in the KHL last season, but after receiving a PTO from the Los Angeles Kings in the fall, the 37-year-old didn’t earn a contract and re-signed with Metallurg Magnitogorsk last week. He hasn’t yet played a game in the KHL this season, but figures to be a big producer again. Because of his NHL hopes, Lee didn’t play in either of the summer tournaments for Canada, but he was the only non-NHLer to play for the country in May’s World Championship. His offensive upside and the fact he made a roster full of NHLers gives Lee an inside track for an Olympic spot.

Simon Despres: After playing just one NHL game last season and ending up on the LTIR with a concussion, Despres signed with Bratislava Slovan of the KHL for this season and has five points in 18 games. His injury history is a concern and his offensive upside doesn’t appear to be there, but in Despres you have a player with first-round pedigree (30th overall pick in 2009 NHL Draft) and a player who once earned a five-year, $18.5 million contract in the NHL. With NHLers absent and Team Canada scrounging for high-end talent, Despres will get a look at the Karjala Cup.