TORONTO – A year ago it was Taylor and Tyler and this year it's Sean and Ryan who are the ''underage'' stars trying to earn a spot on Canada's world junior hockey team.
Taylor Hall made the team and went on to be drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers a year ago, while Tyler Seguin was cut at the selection camp and then went second overall to the Boston Bruins.
Both are still young enough to play for Canada at the world juniors, which is for players under 19, but have already embarked on their NHL careers.
Instead, this year's camp has Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels, ranked as the first and second best prospects respectively for the 2011 NHL draft by International Scouting Services.
And they are not alone, as 17-year-old defencemen Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers and Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips are also among the 40 players vying for spots on the 22-man roster that will play at the world juniors starting Dec. 26 in Buffalo, N.Y., although Murray won't be available to NHL clubs until the 2012 draft.
Couturier is a six-foot-three centre who was third in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring with 16 goals and 35 assists when he left for the selection camp. His combination of size and soft hands has made him the early favourite to go No. 1 in the draft.
“I try not to think about it,” the son of former NHL forward Sylvain Couturier said Monday. “I'm just focused on making the team.
“There are a lot of centremen here, but I'm focused on myself and how I should play.”
Like most players, Couturier needed a period to find his game in the opening intrasquad tilt on Sunday night, but then had some bright moments playing with Michaël Bournival of the Shawinigan Cataractes and tough right-winger Zack Kassian of the Windsor Spitfires. Couturier nearly scored, but saw his spin-around shot from the slot ring off the post in the third period.
Coach Dave Cameron said he doesn't rule out selecting younger players, even more than the usual one per year, as long as they show they can play sound hockey in all three zones of the ice.
He said younger players are often unwilling to commit to defence because they were such stars at every level of minor hockey they were never asked to do it.
That doesn't worry Couturier.
“I'm usually a good two-way forward, so I just try to stay myself and play the same game I usually do,” said the much-travelled skater, who was born in Phoenix where his father was playing minor league hockey but raised in Bathurst, N.B.
Nugent-Hopkins, listed at only 166 pounds on a six-foot-frame, is more about speed and playmaking, as his eight goals and 33 assists with Red Deer this season attest.
“I'm not the biggest guy so I've got to use my quickness and agility to get around guys and avoid checks
and stuff,” said the Burnaby, B.C., native, who set up linemate Jaden Schwartz's goal in the opening
Like Couturier, the draft seems a long way off for Nugent-Hopkins, and it may be easier on them as the buzz around the top two picks hasn't been quite as loud as it was for the Taylor-Tyler debate. Still, Nugent-Hopkins is flattered to be rated so high.
“Just to be mentioned like that is a big honour,” he said. “It's really surreal, to be honest, but it's great. I just try to take it all in stride.”
The ISS rates Swedes Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog third and fourth, but their fifth-ranked player is the speedy and skilled Murphy, who had some bright moments playing with veteran Jared Cowen in his first intrasquad game.
Last summer, Murphy failed to make Canada's under-18 team, but his stock has risen steadily with Kitchener, where he has 13 goals and 31 assists in 30 games this season.
“It's a lot of fun,” the five-foot-11, 176-pound rearguard said. “I don't have anything to lose – that's the way I'm looking at it now.
“I'm trying my best to make this team but I don't think the 19-year-olds intimidate me too much because I
play with them all year on my club team. I try to put the age thing out of my head and just play my own
That means jumping into the rush when he can and using his speed to get back when the puck goes the other way.
The six-foot-one, 190-pound Murray is more defensive-minded, but can still contribute on attack. He's been getting plenty of advice from Windsor's Ryan Ellis, who is back for a third straight world junior tournament.
“He told me just to play my game and don't be nervous,” said Murray. “He told me how bad his first game was, so he said ‘You can't be worse than I was.’ So that was a bit comforting.
“I'm just trying to play the right way – keep things simple, playing smart, defensive hockey and playing a 200-foot game.”
Couturier got one break. He turned 18 on Dec. 12, so he was able to don a visor and ditch the dreaded full face cage that international rules oblige all under-18 players to wear. The other three are still 17 and must wear the cage.
When asked about the cage, Murray grimaced and said “not good.”
Cameron expects to make a few cuts Tuesday morning before the final 22-man roster is announced on Wednesday.
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