EDMONTON – The years 19 produced a bumper crop of defencemen for Canada.
Of the 17 invited to the national junior hockey team's summer camp this week, 10 are first-round draft picks of NHL clubs.
Even if one or two make the jump to the NHL this season, Canada's strength at the 2012 world junior championship in Edmonton and Calgary will be its blue-line.
“There's so many good defencemen here,” Kitchener Rangers defenceman Ryan Murphy marvelled Thursday at Rexall Place. “There's so many guys who can do what I do.”
Canadian hockey occasionally experiences a freakish bump of talent at a position. The class of forwards born in 1985 includes Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter and Ryan Getzlaf, who won gold for Canada at the 2005 world junior championship followed by Olympic gold just five years later.
It remains to be seen if this pool of defencemen produces players who reach those heights as quickly. But the size, mobility and skill they possess now bodes well for Canada in the future.
Canadian head coach Don Hay is more concerned with how they perform over the next six months. He'll choose seven at December's selection camp prior to the world junior tournament.
“There's offensive players, puck movers and there's more the big-body type of guys,” Hay said. “You want a well-rounded group back there. You want to be able to fit your needs and have those players jump in and contribute in the best way they possibly can.”
Erik Gudbranson of the Kingston Frontenacs, the lone returning defenceman from the 2011 junior team, was the third overall pick in last year's NHL draft by Florida.
Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal), Brandon Gormley (Phoenix), Mark Pysyk (Buffalo), Doug Hamilton (Boston), Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh), Ryan Murphy (Carolina), Stuart Percy (Toronto), Duncan Siemens (Colorado) and Jamie Oleksiak (Dallas) are the other first-rounders.
Canada's recent acquisition of the six-foot-seven Oleksiak further bolstered its assets on defence. He was a late addition to Canada's summer-camp roster when he decided to play under this country's flag.
A dual citizen, Oleksiak was cut from the U.S. junior team last year and invited to their summer camp. He was born in Toronto and played his minor hockey there.
“I had to look at myself and ask myself where I belonged,” Oleksiak said. “It's obviously a tough decision. I have a lot of history with the U.S. program and it's an honour to get invited to both camps.
“It really came down to what I felt comfortable with. I really came down to where my heart was and where I grew up and had the most connection with.”
Had Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips been born 12 days earlier, he would have been another summer camper here drafted in the first round. The White City, Sask., native must bide his time until 2012.
Murray was Canada's captain at the world under-18 championships this year in Germany, where the team finished fourth. Murphy, from Aurora, Ont., was his defensive partner and named the best player at that position by the International Ice Hockey Federation directorate.
Those two are safe bets to wear the Maple Leaf when Canada opens the tournament Dec. 26 versus Finland at Rexall Place. Murphy is just 18 and there is less room on Carolina's roster for him since the club signed Tomas Kaberle as a free agent.
NHL teams have traditionally sent their teenaged defencemen back to junior clubs for more development because of the physical demands at that position in the NHL. There seems to be more exceptions to that policy now. Five 18-year-old defencemen graced the opening-day rosters for the 2008-09 season.
The salary cap has been a factor in the NHL's recent retention of 18- and 19-year-olds. Teenagers are cheap labour because their contracts are limited to three years and their annual salary is set at less than a million dollars – before bonuses.
At six-foot-four and 211 pounds, Gudbranson seems the defenceman at junior camp most physically ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Gormley would have played for Canada at the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., if not for a dislocated knee suffered just prior to last December's selection camp. The Moncton Wildcat played four games for Phoenix's AHL affiliate this spring and he'll get a long look at Coyotes' training camp in the fall.
“Obviously your main goal is to make the NHL, but you grow up watching this tournament as a kid,” Gormley said. “It's something I've always wanted to do. If I'm back in junior, I pray to god I'll get the chance to do it.”
The summer development camp concludes Sunday. An intra-squad game is scheduled for Saturday at Rexall Place, followed by another Sunday in Fort McMurray.
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