Fantasy types and draftniks love the world junior championship mostly as a window into the future of the NHL. Its selling point can be summed up in four words: See tomorrow’s stars today.
Those preoccupied with prospects probably are looking at Friday night’s gold-medal game, not thinking about data analytics so much as simple arithmetic. The Swedes have a lot more elite talents who are projected to be top-six forwards and top-four defencemen than does the Canadian team.
(We can suspend judgment about goaltenders because, well, who knows? As good as Carter Hart has been for Canada in the last two tournaments; as good as Filip Gustavsson was shutting out the U.S. in the first period of the semifinal, when the outcome was very much in doubt; you just can’t say with any authority that the two netminders will be No. 1s at the next level. It’s going to take a few years before that plays out.)
Sweden’s Elias Pettersson looks like the franchise centre that the Canucks desperately will need him to be in the post-Sedin era and Rasmus Dahlin, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, has about a 90 per cent shot of being a franchise defenceman. Meanwhile, on Canada, well, there’s probably a couple of guys who will take some of their NHL journeymen’s salaries and park it in Tim Hortons franchises. Drake Batherson racked up a hat trick against the Czechs and the Ottawa Senators seem to have done well to select him in the fourth round of last year’s draft. But do you see him in an All-Star Game? Nah. Sam Steel, an Anaheim draft choice, 30th overall in 2016, is a nice little player. But do you see him cracking the Ducks’ top two lines? Possible, but far from a lock. When it comes to talent, the Swedes’ stack is simply bigger than the Canadians and talent wins out, amirite?
It is, of course, a lot less straightforward and less predictable than I’ve laid out above. Yeah, talent usually wins out over the long haul, over an extended series, but, given the format of the world juniors, a lesser team has to fool the opponent and the fates for 60 minutes. It can get done. It has.
I spent a few hundred words scratching my head the other day, trying to come up with a suitable comp for this Canadian team, which advanced to the final Thursday night with an emphatic beatdown of the Czech Republic. It’s still a struggle though this group has one game left to play.
Let’s face it: If you’re beating Switzerland 8-2 and the Czechs 7-2 to get to the gold-medal game, you’ve done your part. But you’ve also had a favourable draw, especially so when you put it beside how it turned out for the defending-champion host team. If the U.S. were going to win gold here, they were going to have to knock off Russia, Sweden and Canada. Yeah, verily they didn’t quite skate through this valley of death.
This Canadian team has me thinking of the squad at the under-20s in Vancouver in 2006. The previous year was the powerhouse with Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Shea Weber and a hundred million more dollars worth of elite talent, freighted down by Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medal. Canada’s ’06 team was essentially starless. Its leading scorer was Blake Comeau, its beating heart was Steve Downie, and its puckstopper was Justin Pogge. Sure, they had Jonathan Toews but as a 17-year-old he was limited to a third-line role. The blue line was somewhat stronger though star-crossed than the manpower up front, what with Kris Letang and Marc Staal, both troubled by illness and injury, in addition to the late Luc Bourdon. But bottom line, it didn’t look like that Canadian team had much of a chance against a Russian team led by Evgeni Malkin, who in that tournament had looked very much like the player he’d become, a Stanley Cup champion, a major trophy winner and someday a first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famer. Alexander Radulov also shone for the Russians, more brightly than did anyone on the Canadian roster in the run-up to the final. Russia was a prohibitive favourite.
OK, you know how that turned out: Canada 5, Russia naught. And really Downie, scared the hell out of the Russians.
Don’t get me wrong: The 2018 edition of the Canadian team is more talented than the one 12 years ago. But against the Czechs, you could see stuff that will put them in good stead with the talented Swedes. The Canadian forwards have an impressive work rate, buzzsaws on the forecheck. There’s little doubt they match up pretty well with the Swedes as far as team speed goes. I doubt any Swede could chase down Jordan Kyrou. And they are at least the Swedes’ equal when it comes to hockey smarts. The only time Canada has been in trouble in the tournament was when Maxime Comtois took a terrible penalty in the late going against the U.S. in the outdoor game that allowed the hosts to send the game to overtime and then a shootout. We’re not likely to see that repeated in the final.
In one moment against the Czechs I saw the that edge the 2006 team brought. At the end of the first period, with the score 3-1 and the outcome still hanging in the balance, defenceman Dante Fabbro crushed the Czech forward Daniel Kurovsky. It was a heavy but clean hit and the Czech forward stayed down for a few seconds until time ran out, like he didn’t want any more of that. Back in ’06, it was Downie practically running a Russian defenceman through the end boards on the first shift. Dustin Boyd — yeah, Dustin Boyd, a journeyman these days skating with Moscow Dynamo — dropped Malkin, who got up to his skates and was about 75 per cent of his usual self the rest of the way.
It hasn’t exactly been the most thrilling tournament and the fans have stayed away in droves. Nonetheless, the final could be a fascinating study in contrasts—the two best teams have made the gold-medal game and really neither has played a game with an opponent in the class of the team on the other side of the ice Friday night. It would be simplistic to say that it’s a battle of skill versus will, but that’s a significant part of it.