TORONTO — Another disappointing defeat at the world junior championship in 2014 hung over Hockey Canada. Management knew it messed up by leaving skilled players like Max Domi and Darnell Nurse off the team that finished fourth in Malmo, Sweden.
Two months later, a star-studded Canadian team that had the likes of Patrick Sharp, P.K. Subban and Martin St. Louis as extras and won gold at the Sochi Olympics and changed Canada’s approach to its the national winter sport.
Coach Mike Babcock’s message was: "You can ask guys to work hard, you can teach guys to block shots. Who’s going to score? Who’s going to bring the offence?" It’s now the mantra for all of Hockey Canada.
Gone are the days of Canada picking role players like Rob Zamuner, Shayne Corson or Kris Draper over players with more talent. The upcoming world junior team is the latest example of Hockey Canada’s seismic shift from the old reputation of big, hard and strong to the exploitation of skill, skill and more skill.
"The identity of the Canadian team has changed," Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey operations Scott Salmond said. "There has been a cultural change, and I think European teams are now looking at Canadian teams and saying, ‘Geez, these guys play a real skilled game."’
Like Zamuner and Corson at the 1998 Olympics and Draper in 2006, Domi is the poster boy at the junior level for what not to do. Two years ago, director of player personnel Ryan Jankowski said Hockey Canada knew immediately it had made a mistake not to select him when during an exhibition game against Sweden "we didn’t touch the puck."
Canada struggled to score and lost to Finland in the semifinals.
"We left Max off the first year because we didn’t feel he conformed to the way that we wanted the game played, and we weren’t very good that year in Malmo," Jankowski said. "We didn’t have enough skill, we didn’t have enough talent, we took role players."
Babcock and Team Canada’s dominant, undefeated run to gold in Sochi created what Salmond called the new blueprint. Canada overloaded other teams with so much skill that they owned the puck, played in the offensive zone the majority of games and locked down defensively when they had to in front of all-world goaltender Carey Price.
"We did the same in 2010 in Vancouver," Babcock said. "To me you take the best players, that’s what you do and you can always get them to do whatever you want them to do, you just tell them what you want."
If there was any reluctance from Hockey Canada to abandon the rough-and-tumble, physical brand of hockey the country had been known for, Sochi blew away any arguments. Teams at the under-18, under-20 and world championship levels have followed suit to golden perfection, and the World Cup team will follow the same recipe.
At the crux of the new philosophy is Canada’s depth of talent. Salmond and Jankowski pointed out that other nations’ top two lines and defensive pairings have gotten progressively better, but where Canada can and should succeed is down the lineup.
"It’s such a shift because traditionally we were two skilled lines, a third line that was two-way, a fourth line that was that energy — Jordin Tootoo," Jankowski said. "What happened was our third and fourth lines weren’t good enough. The other countries are too good, and when we’re leaving off our skilled players, we’re playing right into their hands."
At last year’s world juniors, big Toronto Maple Leafs centre prospect Frederik Gauthier was the only real role player, as skilled players like Brayden Point got an opportunity to play. With Domi, Connor McDavid and others playing defence and scoring almost at will, the result on home ice was the defiant end to a five-year gold-medal drought.
Credit belonged to coach Benoit Groulx for taking his "world-class" players and getting them to buy in. That challenge is now in the hands of Canadian coach Dave Lowry, who has plenty of skill at his disposal with returnees Point, Lawson Crouse, Jake Virtanen and Joe Hicketts and newcomers like top-five NHL draft picks Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome.
"You’re going to see Mitch Marner blocking shots, you’re going to see all these guys doing a number of different things, but let’s not cut our skill in half," Jankowski said. "That’s the beauty of the Canadian player: They’re all going to play hard, they’re all going to compete because they’re Canadian."
It’s not just the willingness of Canadian players that makes this work but the ability, according to San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, an assistant at the past two world championships.
"We have available to us high-skill guys that can play those roles," DeBoer said. "You look at the best players in the world — Jonathan Toews. He could play on your fourth line or on your first line.
"I think maybe that’s different than 10 or 15 years ago where I think there was a bigger discrepancy between the skill in the league and the guys who weren’t the skill. Now you’ve got a lot of skill people that are capable of playing depth roles and I think that’s a great luxury."