Canada’s WJC defence is balanced but is it gold medal calibre?

Dante Fabbro. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Picking up from where we left off with our comparative breakdown of Canadian goaltending at recent world junior tournaments, let’s look at the blueline corps that will be trying to win gold for the home team, a very tall task.

As mentioned yesterday, there’s not much point in going through the dusty archives and lamenting that we could use, oh, Shea Weber or Drew Doughty or P.K. Subban. The game and the tournament has evolved a lot over the past 10 years or so. That and the fact we let our thoughts be coloured by the images and reputations these guys developed as pros and not necessarily what they were as teenagers. More immediate context is more useful in gauging where this team is likely to stand.

Two winters ago, the last time (in a long time) Canada won gold the Canadian team was just loaded on the back end. In this tournament or any short tournament like it, you’re looking for one horse you can ride, a d-man who can log big minutes, match up against other nations’ top lines, get the puck out of the Canadian end and, ideally, play the point on the first power play. At the 2015 tournament Canada had that player in Darnell Nurse, then of the Soo Greyhounds, most recently of the Edmonton Oilers. Hockey Canada couldn’t have counted on him being available at the start of the season—it seemed like a pretty good shot he was going to stick with the Oilers as a 19-year-old, a season removed from his draft year when he went seventh overall. (The only blue liner drafted ahead of him was Seth Jones.) Nurse never played better, not before, not since.

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Man among boys stuff. At 6-foot-4 he casually just brushed aside any teenager who tried to get wide on him. It seemed he could do anything he really put his mind to. Looking back on it now, the roster of that team wasn’t a balanced one—among the seven defencemen on the team only Madison Bowey was a right-handed shot. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter. Whoever had to play over on his off-hand on the right side managed it pretty seamlessly.

Shea Theodore might have filled the role of the lead defenceman if the Oilers had hung on to Nurse. Theodore had spent most of the season to that point with Anaheim or rehabbing an injury with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate. Going back to junior, even to the world junior tournament, was something like a boxer moving up a class or two and then coming back down to fight guys in his own weight class. With Nurse and Theodore on hand all the other blue liners (notably Josh Morrissey, Joey Hicketts and Dillon Heatherington) were asked to do reasonable tasks within their skill sets. Further: But for Hicketts, it was an entirely 19-year-old defence. These guys had been there.

The team that fell in the quarterfinals to the host Finns last January was a downgrade at each spot on the board. Hicketts was back, but his was once again going to be a supporting role. There wasn’t any defenceman as skilled as Theodore, never mind Nurse. Maybe the hope was that Haydn Fleury of Red Deer would step up but that didn’t work out. I suspect the best future pro in the group might be Thomas Chabot of Saint John in the QMJHL, an Ottawa prospect, but he was an 18-year-old. There was no big physical presence out there.

Again, there was only one right-hand shot back there—Roland McKeown of Kingston. But when Canada was in against the Finns and they were rolling Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi over the boards, none of the defencemen inspired any confidence. Granted, a big ask, especially on the big ice surface, but still, you would have had more hope of Nurse or Theodore vs. Laine than any of the talent on hand for Canada in Helsinki.

How does the D corps for the latest Canadian team shape up compared to the last couple who have gone to the tournament?

Jake Bean D L 6’1 170 06-09-1998 Calgary, Alta. Calgary (WHL)
Thomas Chabot D L 6’2 188 01-30-1997 Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Que Saint John (QMJHL)
Kale Clague D L 6’0 177 06-05-1998 Lloydminster, Alta. Brandon (WHL)
Dante Fabbro D R 6’1 190 06-20-1998 Coquitlam, B.C. Boston University (HE)
Noah Juulsen D R 6’2 185 04-02-1997 Abbostford, B.C. Everett (WHL)
Jeremy Lauzon D L 6’2 207 04-28-1997 Val-d’Or, Que. Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)
Philippe Myers D R 6’4 206 01-25-1997 Moncton, N.B. Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)

Chabot is back and he seems like the best bet to emerge as the leader on the blue line. (Interesting footnote: Nurse was passed over by Canada as an 18-year-old, as the team instead went with then draft-eligible Aaron Ekblad.) Although Chabot put in some time with the Senators in the early fall (he got into just one game), you knew it was far more likely the team was sending him back to junior for the bulk of the season.

Potentially on the upside, balance: Dante Fabbro of Boston U., Noah Juulsen of Everett and Philippe Myers of Rouyn-Noranda are right-handed shots.

Possible issue, age: The team has three ’98 birthdays: Jake Bean from the Calgary Hitmen, Kale Clague from Brandon and Fabbro.

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Fabbro, Nashville’s first-rounder (No. 17 overall) last June, looked pretty safe if not eye-poppingly dynamic on the back-end at the world under-18s last spring, but then again, that Canadian team finished out of the medals and had its lunch eaten by the host Americans in a 10-3 pummelling. Said one scout this week: “Fabbro’s game helps you most on the power play. He can really move it around back there. At the collegiate level, though, he has his challenges going back and getting control of the puck. He’s not elite speed.”

All three ’98s played on the Canadian side at last year’s Ivan Hlinka, but really it’s not a step up so much as a quantum leap going from U18s to U20. And, likewise, Canada finished way out of the medals at that Ivan Hlinka, not qualifying for the semis—although you could read too much into a summer tournament where one bounce or one post can put you on the outside looking in.

Bottom line: There’s neither a munchkin nor a tower back on the blue line and there’s surely some comfort for these players skating on the North American-sized ice surface. Nonetheless, though it shouldn’t be taken as an insult when you note that this blue line corps lags a fair bit behind that Nurse, Theodore et all from two years ago, the real challenge will to be better than the outfit that got lit up by the Finns last January.

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