TORONTO – Canada's world junior hockey team may not include any big names but it certainly has some big players.
Coach Dave Cameron and the Hockey Canada staff named their 22-man squad Wednesday and it features plenty of beef up front and on defence. Five of the seven defencemen and seven of the 13 forwards are six-foot-two or bigger. That's not counting winger Marcus Foligno, who is listed at six-foot-one-and-a-half.
“You don't realize it until you stand beside them, but this is a big team,” said Kevin Prendergast, the former Edmonton Oilers executive who is now head scout for Canada's national teams. “We're going to need it.
“The Americans are going to be huge and the Russians will be strong. That's why we (also) went with the older guys.”
Cameron and his staff were up past midnight making decisions on which final nine players to cut from a three-day selection camp at the MasterCard Centre, the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility.
The result was a team short on players with star power, like Taylor Hall last year or John Tavares in 2009, but one that they hope can score goals as well as play a hard-working, physical game at the world under-20 championship that begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo, N.Y. Canada opens the tournament with a Boxing Day clash against Russia.
“We'll go after teams with our size and work really hard, the same way Dave coaches his team (Mississauga St. Michael's Majors),” said Prendergast. “That's a team that doesn't have any real superstars but they just come at you with a lot of guys who can do a lot of things.”
Forward Brayden Schenn, one of four players returning from last's year's silver medal team, said being dubbed blue collar doesn't mean they sacrifice skill or the ability to score goals.
“It reminds me of a team I played on in the under-18 (world championship) with (Jordan) Eberle,” said Schenn. “We went to Russia and they said we didn't have much skill or firepower and we came out and beat Russia 8-1 in the gold medal game.
“Everyone has to come together. We'll be a hard-working team, but the main thing now is to bond and get some chemistry for a short-term event.”
Schenn and defenceman Ryan Ellis, who is back for a third straight world junior tournament, are likely the leading candidates to be named captain after the team shifts its base to Niagara Falls, Ont., on Friday.
Both were in central positions in the front row as the team photo was taken, and Cameron said it hinted that the four returning players, including defencemen Jared Cowen and Calvin de Haan, would have letters on their jerseys.
Ellis, of the Windsor Spitfires, and Tyson Barrie of the Kelowna Rockets, both 5-10, are the only players under six-foot-two on a defence that also has the imposing Erik Gudbranson of the Kingston Frontenacs and Dylan Olsen of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
A surprise pick was six-foot-four Simon Després of the Saint John Sea Dogs, who rebounded from a weak start of camp to clinch the seventh spot ahead of gifted 17-year-olds Ryan Murray and Ryan Murphy.
The muscle up front comes from Ryan Johansen of the Portland Winterhawks, tough Zack Kassian of Windsor, Quinton Howden of the Moose Jaw Warriors, Curtis Hamilton of the Saskatoon Blades, Carter Ashton of the Tri-City Americans and Brett Connolly of the Prince George Cougars.
Johansen was drafted fourth overall in June by Columbus while Connolly went sixth overall to Tampa Bay and both can be top scorers.
There is also six-foot-three Sean Couturier of the Drumondville Voltigeurs, the only one of four “underage” players – he turned 18 earlier this month – to make the team and the favourite to go first overall in the 2011 NHL draft. His rival for that honour, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels, was among Wednesday's cuts.
The son of former NHLer Sylvain Couturier was a force on attack in camp and also showed he can play the two-way game that has drawn comparisons with Pittsburgh centre Jordan Staal.
“He's versatile, he can play all three forward positions and he can play on all four lines,” Prendergast. “Sean is not going to hurt us anywhere on the ice.”
There are some smaller forwards with sniper instincts, including Louis Leblanc of the Montreal Juniors, Cody Eakin of the Swift Current Broncos, Casey Cizikas of Mississauga and Jaden Schwartz, who leads Colorado College in scoring as a freshman.
Leblanc left Harvard after one season with two aims in mind – get on a faster track to the NHL and have a better shot at playing in the world junior tournament.
“One of the goals is accomplished, and now it's to win gold,” said the Montreal Canadiens prospect. “I'm happy it worked out. It would have been a huge disappointment if I didn't make the team.”
The biggest surprise of camp was Foligno, whom Predergast said won an invitation to camp after doing well against a touring Russian team and “every time he was on the ice something happened.”
The trickiest position was goaltender, where none of the four in camp stood out, but Olivier Roy of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Mark Visentin of the Niagara IceDogs played that little bit better and were “the two we felt most comfortable with,” according to Predergast.
The team is to play pre-tournament exhibition games against Switzerland, Sweden and Finland where Cameron said final lines and defence pairings will be set.
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