SASKATOON – The next Canadian junior hockey team looks like a more physically punishing version of the squad that won the country's fifth straight world junior championship in January.
There are several players who combine high-end skill with the ability to bang at Canada's summer camp in Saskatoon this week.
“I think if we want that kind of bruising style of Canadian hockey, I think we have the players who can make the team that style,” Windsor defenceman Ryan Ellis observed Thursday.
Smartly applying brute force would help Canada's chances of winning a record sixth straight gold medal at the 2010 world junior championship in Saskatoon and Regina starting Dec. 26.
The games will be played on a smaller ice surface than they would be if the tournament was in Europe.
“It's good for guys like me who can hit,” Rimouski Oceanic forward Patrice Cormier said. “If we have a big team, I think it's a good thing being on a smaller rink.”
Players demonstrating the ability to take time and space away from the opposition, as well as skill, in Saskatoon this week can help themselves to an invitation to December's selection camp in Regina.Canada's summer camp runs until Sunday at Saskatoon's CUC, where the hosts play Group A games starting Dec. 26 versus Latvia. All medal-round games will also be in Saskatoon.
The 2009 edition of the Canadian team was one of the youngest the country had ever sent to a world junior tournament. The team compensated for its lack of muscle at forward by drawing penalties and scoring on the power play.
Canada relied heavily on Cormier and Barrie Colts forward Stefan Della Rovere for intimidation up front.
“Last year, there were some things we wished we had more elements of on the team and we just didn't have it. That was unusual for a Canadian team,” said head coach Willie Desjardins, who was an assistant to Pat Quinn in Ottawa. “This year we have a chance to have that element for sure.”
If they make the 2010 squad, six-foot-four Josh Brittain of the Barrie Colts, six-foot-five University of Denver product Joe Colborne, six-foot-three Zach Kassian of the Peterborough Petes, Kelowna's Brandon McMillan, Baie-Comeau's Gabriel Bourque and Brandon Wheat King Brayden Schenn are forwards who can both handle the puck and hit.
The back end packs punch with twin towers Colten Teubert of the Regina Pats and Tyler Myers of the Kelowna Rockets, plus bruiser Alex Pietrangelo of the Niagara IceDogs, who all played for Canada on the 2009 squad.
67's Tyler Cuma would have also played that role on Canada's defence in Ottawa, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first intrasquad game of selection camp last December.
“It's fortunate I do get another opportunity,” Cuma said. “It would have been worse if last year would have been the only opportunity to make this team.”
There are 10 players from the team in Ottawa eligible (age 18 or 19) to return and play for Canada again in Saskatchewan: forwards John Tavares, Cody Hodgson, Evander Kane, Jordan Eberle, Cormier and Della Rovere and defencemen Myers, Teubert, Pietrangelo and Ellis.
The perennial question for Canada is how many will be playing in the NHL and unavailable to their country again? The 2009 squad won gold even without eight players who were in the NHL.
NHL clubs have been inclined the past couple of years to keep teenagers in the fold because they are relatively cheap labour under the salary cap. Also, advances in training regimens and summer skating camps prepare young players better to make the leap to the pros.
Neither Desjardins nor Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray would hazard a guess at how many veterans Canada might have in Saskatoon.
“It's so hard to tell,” Desjardins said. “You'd think three or four for sure won't be back.”
Added Murray: “Our expectation is there will be between 10 or 15 guys starting the year in the NHL because it's a really strong group of players and we'll just watch it as it unfolds.
“We really don't get too fired up about that until mid-November when the kids have either established themselves as NHLers or it looks like they'll be coming back to junior.”
The New York Islanders aren't likely to send the Tavares, the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, back to the London Knights. The Canucks will give Hodgson a long look.
The Edmonton Oilers demonstrated with Sam Gagner and Alex Cogliano they aren't afraid to incorporate youngsters into their lineup, so Eberle may be NHL-bound.
Teubert (Los Angeles), Myers (Buffalo) and Pietrangelo (St. Louis) have the size and skills to make the transition to the NHL, which would leave Ellis as the leader of Canada's defence in Saskatoon.
“Our defence alone, I wouldn't say it's going to be a problem, but it's going to be shaking up I think,” Ellis said. “Myers will probably make Buffalo and Teubert has a great shot at making L.A. and Pietrangelo also made the Blues last year.
“We have some great guys coming in so I don't think it's going to be a big shaking. The team could look different, could look the same. It all depends on what happens at NHL camps and that's when we're going to know what kind of a team we're going to have.”
Experience isn't everything, but it's something to have players who have won in tight situations in the tournament. Canada was five seconds away from losing to Russia in the semifinal in Ottawa when Eberle scored the tying goal and his Canada prevailed in a shootout.
“That experience in the room will help others guys coming in who don't have it,” Desjardins said. “Not just the shootout, and knowing we were down and got a break, it just tells us all how prepared we're going to have to be because it's going to be really close. Those guys know that.”
Sudbury Wolves forward Eric O'Dell was watching Ice Age 3 in an Ottawa theatre Wednesday night when his cellphone vibrated. He took the call and was hastily summoned to Saskatoon to take the place of Hodgson at camp.
Canada's leading scorer in Ottawa did not skate in Wednesday evening's opening practice. He was said to be day-to-day with an undisclosed upper body injury. The first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks wasn't expected to get on the ice at camp.
“It seems like he's tweaked it a little bit,” Desjardins said. “We'll see later on, but I don't think he'll go.”