When Travis Sanheim was cut from Canada’s world junior hockey camp nine months ago, the coaching staff told the young defenceman they expected him to be a crucial piece to the 2016 team. He watched his would-be teammates win gold on home ice.
Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner were watching, too, eager to see respective Ontario Hockey League teammates Connor McDavid and Max Domi put on a show on the biggest junior stage.
Those three players and others, including forward Michael Dal Colle and defenceman Jeremy Roy, arrived at Canada’s world junior summer camp with plenty of expectations on themselves to make the 2016 team, and Strome, Marner and Sanheim should be among the go-to players in Helsinki.
But they’re all reluctant to think of themselves as the next generation of stars because they’re several months away from even earning a spot on Canada’s roster.
“I don’t think you expect anything, and you don’t take anything for granted,” Sanheim said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s Team Canada. It’s the greatest hockey country in the world, and it’s going to be a tough team no matter what.”
The 2015 team was impossibly difficult to make, especially for 17-year-olds. Only McDavid, who went first in the NHL draft to the Edmonton Oilers, and winger Lawson Crouse, a fellow top-10 pick, could claim that distinction.
So as disappointed as he was, Sanheim realized why he was one of the final cuts last December, and Strome and Marner got why they were passed over for camp invites. Now they’re expected to get big roles and are motivated by that.
“We both wanted to make that team,” Marner said of himself and Strome. “Such skilful forward lines that when we didn’t make it I think we both understood our chances next year. Both of us are on a line this year for this camp.
“We’ve got to leave our footprint. I think we’re both willing to do that.”
Leaving a footprint is important because coach Dave Lowry said the summer camp is just the beginning of the evaluation process. Roster spots aren’t assured for Strome, the third pick to the Arizona Coyotes, or Marner, who went fourth to the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though they went 1-2 in OHL scoring last season.
“No one cares where you got drafted, no one cares who you got drafted to,” said Strome, who along with Marner scored a goal in Canada’s 4-1 win against Russia in exhibition action Monday night. “It’s about showing what you got at camp and what you got during the season, and if they think you’re good enough to go to (main) camp, then you’ve got to prove it again at Christmastime to make the team.”
This summer, beyond Hockey Canada’s camp in Calgary, is an important time for these players as they seek to build on good seasons and prove they can do more.
Strome continues to work with skating coach Dawn Braid, who years ago helped John Tavares turn his biggest weakness into a strength, while Marner and Sanheim want to improve defensively.
“I want to show them that I can play offence and defence, no matter what they expect from me,” said Marner, who is expected to return to the London Knights this season as the Maple Leafs bring their prospects along slowly. “Whatever (Canadian coaches) want I can do. If that’s being on the third line and shutting down, I can do it. If it means being on the first or second and trying to get points, I’ll do that too.”
Sanheim, a top Philadelphia Flyers prospect, wants to steady his defensive presence for his future and the world juniors. With only Joe Hicketts expected to return to the blue line, there should be plenty of room for him to assume a major role.
That goes for the forwards, too, as only Crouse, Robby Fabbri and Brayden Point are back at summer camp after winning gold. With spots to fill also comes a desire for the younger players to lean on the experienced ones at this camp and beyond.
“You can learn a lot,” said Roy, who was a second-round pick. “Obviously they won the gold medal last year, so they’ve been there. They know what you need to obviously make the team but also to win after. You can ask them a lot of questions, and they’re willing to help you, too, so it’s great.”