After cutting nine players on Thursday, Hockey Canada has nearly set the roster that will compete in the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championship. But one cut still needs to be made and that decision could go a number of ways.
First, forward Aidan Dudas – a star with the Owen Sound Attack and property of the L.A. Kings — continues to nurse a left wrist injury. If he can get healthy before the start of the tournament, he will fit somewhere into a bottom seven role. Another injury to watch is projected first overall pick Alexis Lafrenière’s ankle issue, which is also believed to be minor and hasn’t slowed him down in Rimouski, where he has a CHL leading 70 points in only 32 games. Given his days off this week, he should be ready to go come Boxing Day.
Besides injuries affecting roster decisions, two current NHLers could still be released to Canada. The first is Kirby Dach of the Chicago Blackhawks, who has put up 10 points in 25 games played through Thursday night. The other is defenceman Noah Dobson of the Islanders, who’s played the last two games and is averaging roughly 14 minutes a night through nine games played. The NHL roster freeze on Dec. 19 is the deadline for these two players to be released to Canada for the tournament.
The strength of this club will be down the middle of the ice. The Arizona Coyotes’ Barrett Hayton being added to the roster does wonders for the centre ice depth while Ty Dellandrea, Joe Veleno, Dylan Cozens and Benoit-Olivier Groulx give Dale Hunter plenty of options and versatility. Cozens plays a speed game, Veleno should provide offence and Groulx will be leaned on more defensively and on the penalty kill.
In terms of wingers, Connor McMichael and Quinton Byfield are 1-2 in OHL scoring with 59 and 57 points respectively. Liam Foudy is a speed burner while Oilers pick Raphael Lavoie is dangerous every time he gets the puck, but can fall victim to inconsistency. Dawson Mercer has had a brilliant year, possesses a quick stick and plays with some bite. Cozens, Veleno and Groulx have also all played wing.
Another strength would be on defence, where there two returning players in Jared McIsaac and Ty Smith who are both capable defenders and efficient puck movers. Kevin Bahl played well in the first U Sports game and his skating is underrated. Ottawa Senators prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker is of similar ilk and can really shoot it. Bowen Byram is a one-man breakout machine and is also dynamic offensively. The there’s Lethbridge’s Calen Addison who — as pointed out to me by Hamilton Bulldogs GM Steve Staios — is an excellent passer whose laser like deliveries are on-time and crisp.
The wild card on the blue line is 17-year-old Jamie Drysdale, who was brilliant in Thursday’s U Sports game. He’s essentially mistake-free, his poise is uncanny and his boots will roam on international ice. Canada has great balance between left shots (Bahl, McIsaaac, Smith and Byram) and right (Addison, Bernard-Docker and Drysdale) but Dobson’s addition would add an entirely different dynamic and would cost one of the others a spot.
The goaltending position is wide open as expected. Some WHL coaches and managers have raved about how good Joel Hofer has become in Portland while Oilers prospect Olivier Rodrigue is steady in goal but doesn’t project as a thief.
But the greatest story in net is 18-year-old Nico Daws, who was the backup for the OHL champion Guelph Storm last season and has now taken over the starting job. After being passed over in the NHL Draft last summer, he’s now down 25 pounds and is a projected second-round pick in 2020. He’s as cool as the other side of the pillow and he may end up stealing the crease.
Assuming Hunter coaches this team like he does the London Knights, expect the top players to get more than their fair share of ice time. Turnovers and sloppy play will not be tolerated, and there will be a premium on playing both sides of the puck. Also expect this team to trap and transition, which will be most recognizable in neutral ice, where opposition’s turnovers should be quickly moved up ice from defenceman to defenceman and chipped in via the winger with forecheck support from the other two forwards. Finally, Hunter likes to give his players freedom to be creative in the offensive zone, which with Canada’s talent could be a lot of fun to watch.
Last year’s sixth-place finish forced Canada into the pool of death with Russia, the U.S., Germany and the host Czech Republic. Canada will open the tournament against the Americans on Boxing Day.