Through three games, Canada has largely disappointed at the 2016 World Junior Championship. Just one regulation win in three tries and five points total is not what Canadian fans expected from their team to open the tournament.
Throw away the Denmark win, that was just men against boys. When you do that, it’s 0-0-1-1 with a goal differential of minus-2. In general, it appears the team is enamoured with the extra width of the ice surface. With all their depth of skill, the Canadians have been most dangerous when getting to the middle, and they should be able to get there more. Teams like Switzerland will battle you all day on the boards. They love it.
What it’s all meant is way too many shots from the outside with way too few bodies in front. That’s how you end up with two goals in regulation against the team that lost 2-1 to the same Danes you out-shot 56-11 one day ago. This has been, by IIHF measures—or anyone’s, really—far from a dominant team. Here’s why:
The depth that Canada boasted entering the tournament has yet to show itself. There’s been little speed on the attack, little creativity down low and a lot of missed passes and play that just hasn’t looked crisp. Maybe it’s just a lack of chemistry, but coach Dave Lowry better find a recipe soon. He’s got two days to the Sweden game.
The bright spots have been Dylan Strome, who’s scored in every game, and Mathew Barzal, who’s looked dangerous just about every time he’s been on the ice. But that’s about it.
Jake Virtanen has not looked like an NHL player. If anything, he’s played a little frantic at times and hasn’t asserted himself physically. Slick shootout goal aside, Brayden Point has also disappointed. Granted, he’s coming off an injury, but he’s the captain and the consensus most dominant player in the CHL. He’s here, so he’s got to be better.
And Mitch Marner? Sure he’s got three points, but he’s looked like a skilled 18-year-old in a 19-year-old tournament: flashes of greatness, but inconsistent at best.
Without a dominant physical presence, Canada’s blue line needs to dominate by moving the puck. And it hasn’t. Part of the problem with the forwards not attacking with speed has been the passes from the back end—there haven’t been enough good ones.
Even Joe Hicketts and Thomas Chabot, who have cemented themselves as Canada’s top D-men, have struggled getting the puck to the forwards on the breakout. There have been too many slaps up the boards and long, cross-ice passes.
Attacking in waves with speed and skill is what was expected of Team Canada. That starts with the defencemen and it really hasn’t been there yet. It will have to be against Sweden on New Year’s Eve.
Mason McDonald will be in tough to see another game. That’s not his fault, and neither was the loss to Team USA. But Mackenzie Blackwood was the presumptive No. 1 when the tryout roster was announced, and will be from here on out.
Blackwood played well in his first full game of any consequence since Nov. 28 and saved Barzal’s and Chartier’s bacon to keep the game 2-2 late when those two bungled a breakout and collided along the boards near centre ice. Blackwood looked big and athletic in stopping 23 shots and two more in the shootout.
Simply said, this is a squad that hasn’t looked prepared for games. I’ll even give them a Boxing Day pass against the U.S., it might be too much to ask any group to be 100 percent ready on Day 1. But Tuesday against the Swiss, Canada did not look like it was ready for any sort of push back after owning Denmark a day earlier.
The power play has been inconsistent at best. Yes it’s running at 30 percent, but not scoring on Alex DeBrincat’s five-minute spearing major in the U.S. game, and squandering a 5-on-3 against the Swiss are two reasons this team’s fate is no longer in its own hands.
There has been too much play up top with the man advantage for a team loaded with top-end talent at forward. Canada has been most dangerous with the man advantage attacking off the half-boards or playing down low, but that’s obviously not how the players are being told to run the power play.
Outside of a couple good responses by Travis Konecny and Brendan Perlini after being flattened by Swiss players, I can’t remember seeing a Canadian team get out-played physically like this one has.
It’s not only about big hits, it’s been about taking the man instead of waving at the puck. And having a player or two take the game into their own hands by seeking physicality out. How has Lawson Crouse not flattened anyone yet? Or Julien Gauthier? Hicketts, all 5-foot-8 and 177 lb. of him, has the team’s biggest hit to date.
This isn’t me suggesting guys should be running around like heat-seeking missiles like in years past, but you can change momentum with physical play, and this team hasn’t tried that.
If Switzerland can do to the U.S. what it did to Canada Tuesday, there’s some hope to finish second in Group A. But that rests on a win over Sweden. With the way the team is playing right now, it’s a slim hope.