Hart a strong choice, but goaltending still a big story for Canada

Team Canada goaltender Carter Hart. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

With Hockey Canada making its final cuts at the under-20 selection camp on Wednesday, the time is right for a comparative study of the talent heading into the World Junior Hockey Championship that will play out in Montreal and Toronto over the holidays.

It’s too early to compare the squad to the rest of the field in the WJC—let’s hold on that until the teams start playing a few exhibition games in the coming days.

And the tournament has evolved over the years, so there wouldn’t be a lot of use looking at, say, the Canadian teams that had great runs in the late 80s or mid-90s. That would simply be an exercise in nostalgia and fun as far as it goes, but not particularly relevant. Rather than digging deep and looking at the long history of the event, let’s focus on one, the last Canadian team to win the event, the group that won the 2015 tournament and two, the group that flamed out in the quarter-finals in Helsinki in January.

It’s a lot to juggle in one space so let’s cast this out by position over the next few days. Today we’ll look at goaltending, Friday at the blue-line and Saturday at the forwards.

By starting with goaltending we are beginning with a good-news day.

Let’s start by saying that this position has been the question mark going into the tournament for Canada for the last decade. The last netminder that inspired confidence from the get-go was Carey Price, but there’s every reason to think that goaltending on this team will be at least as good and probably better than the Canadian teams in the 2015 and ’16 tournaments.

When Canada won the winter before last, Zach Fucale was okay at best. He coughed up one awful goal in the final against Russia that whitened knuckles across Canada. At least one other late goal in that game was no better than weak—he didn’t make all the expected saves. As one scout said at the time, Canada didn’t win because of him but rather despite him.

I’ve taken some flack from Montreal partisans who claim that I was pretty harsh on Fucale, the Canadiens’ second-rounder in 2013. They felt that I was too critical of him at the 2015 Memorial Cup in Quebec, although that was before he let a bucketful of pucks by him in elimination round. I’m not going to pile on any more than necessary. Suffice it to say that this season he is holding down the fort, a 9-3 record with a .901 save percentage, with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL. For the moment Price’s job is safe as is every other NHL goalie’s. Let the tweet-storm begin.

In Helsinki Canada had Mackenzie Blackwood in net and he held out some promise to be an upgrade. It didn’t quite work out that way. At 6-feet-4 and 220 pounds Blackwood is a physical talent to be sure, in the top fraction of the one per cent of recent goaltending prospects. He’d probably make it to the highest level in any sport he chose to pick up. He was great for the Barrie Colts last winter, a .921 save percentage being the best evidence of that. The New Jersey Devils had to have felt they did well to get him in the second round of the 2015 draft. Nonetheless, Blackwood was inconsistent at best at the WJC, particularly against the host Finns in the quarter-finals.

Again, like Fucale, when the game mattered most, he gave up one painful goal and another that should’ve been stopped. In contrast to Fucale’s, Blackwood’s gaffes led to a loss.

Footnote No. 1: Blackwood was suspended for the first couple of games at the WJC for an egregious offence with the Colts in the run-up to the tournament and that included the crucial opening-game loss to the U.S. Mason Macdonald was between the pipes and though they out-shot and out-played the Americans, the Canadian kids lost 4-2, which didn’t exactly spell doom for them but set them up for an awful seeding in the elimination games. Missing those two tournament games certainly didn’t ready Blackwood for work down the line.

Footnote No. 2: Blackwood was seemingly the most nonchalant Canadian kid at the this tournament in recent memory, which may just be his make-up but really would leave you wondering just how dialed in he was.

Before the start of the 2016-17 CHL season Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips was the favourite to be Canada’s No. 1 at the WJC and he has more than earned the job. His numbers absolutely shine: 16-3-4, 1.85 and .928. As far as major junior goes, you can’t ask for much more than that. And this is no one-off but rather the continued improvement he’s shown across his three seasons with Everett.

Hart doesn’t quite have the pedigree Fucale did—Fucale had backstopped the Halifax Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup in his draft year. And he doesn’t have the size and raw athletic talent that Blackwood possesses, but almost nobody does. Nothing in the scouting reports really jumps out at you—Hart is not a freak of nature.

What NHL Central Scouting’s chief goaltending expert Al Jensen told NHL.com is fairly representative of the breakdowns: “He’s very poised, patient and calm in the net,” Jensen said. “He doesn’t get rattled, has an excellent butterfly and seals the ice well with his pads. He can keep his body upright to protect the upper corners, has a good glove hand and good rebound control.”

Another goaltending scout had a more esoteric reading: “What I like about Hart is just that he competes. He’s completely focused and has a really good read of the play in front of him. And that gives the players in front of him a lot of confidence.”

The Flyers drafted Hart in the second round last June (presumably with GM Ron Hextall’s seal of approval) and he’s a ’98 birthday, so he’ll actually be eligible for next year’s tournament as well. The old line about “the WJC being a 19-year-old’s tournament” ceased to be operative a few years back, to whatever extent it was really true. Nonetheless it is for the most part a tournament for 19-year-old goalies and Hart is the exception to that. Canada has had other 18-year-old netminders but they’ve usually been kept in a backup role, kept around as a learning experience for next year.

Hart as No. 1 might speak to his quality or the dearth of talent in the pool of goaltenders in the 1997 class or both. If Hart struggles or gets hurt and the No. 1 job falls to his backup Connor Ingram, goaltending will likely be as big as any story for the Canadian side.

Tomorrow, a look at the Canadian blue-line.

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