TORONTO – Seeing talented forward Brayden Schenn back with Canada's world junior championship team was like a godsend to coach Dave Cameron.
The high-scoring forward from the Brandon Wheat Kings was among 40 players to arrive Saturday for the three-day selection camp to pick Canada's squad for the championship that begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Schenn was returned to his junior squad last week after splitting the start of the season between the Los Angeles Kings and their AHL club in Manchester, N.H.
“It's an early Christmas gift,” said Cameron. “He's got a chance to be our best player.
“To win this tournament you need some luck and we consider it luck that he came back.”
The camp begins with practices during the day and an intra-squad game at night both Sunday and Monday at the Mastercard Centre and a game Tuesday night against a team of university players.
The final 22-man team is to be named Wednesday.
Schenn is among only four players returning from the squad that lost the gold medal game in overtime to the United States at last year's tournament in his home town of Saskatoon. The others are all defencemen – Ryan Ellis, Calvin de Haan and Jared Cowen.
Cameron hopes those four will be part of the leadership group on team that may be lacking offensive stars from the squads of recent years like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle or John Tavares.
They will be looking for scorers to make a splash in camp, like high draft picks Ryan Johansen of the Portland Winter Hawks and Brett Connolly of the Prince George Cougars, speedy Cody Eakin of the Swift Current Broncos and gifted Louis Leblanc of the Montreal Juniors.
There are also two “underage” forwards expected to go high in the next NHL draft – Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Volitigeurs and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels.
“It's as wide open as it can be with only four returning players, but obviously we have some guys rated ahead of others,” said Cameron, who has taken leave of the Ontario Hockey League-leading Mississauga St. Michael's to guide the Canadian squad.
“Now it's time to take the ratings off the paper and bring it down to the ice.”
When told he had been likened to a Christmas gift, Schenn just laughed.
“They can say all they want, but I still have to prove myself,” he said. “Nothing comes for free.
“They say we don't have the firepower we had last year but there are always guys that step up.”
As in most years, there is an all-star team's worth of players who are eligible to play for Canada who are not available because they are already in the NHL.
They include Hall, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche, Evander Kane of the Atlanta Thrashers, Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, Tyler Seguin of the Boston Bruins and Kyle Clifford of the Kings.
“That's something we deal with every year, but there's an opportunity for guys to come in and establish themselves,” said Cameron. “But we're still going to focus on team play.
“You're not going to make this team being one-dimensional. Your play away from the puck has to be such that we trust you as coaches to put you out there.”
Ellis won gold in his first world juniors in 2009 in Ottawa, and was part of the team that was beaten on John Carlson's overtime goal in the final last year after Eberle had scored twice in the final three minutes of the third period to tie the game.
“The loss ignites a fire,” said Ellis, a member of two Memorial Cup teams with the Windsor Spitfires. “I won with Team Canada and you want to do that again, but losing it in the final stuck with me.
“So it's going to be a great tournament this year.”
As the only third-year player, Ellis would be a natural candidate to be named captain, but he said that has not been discussed.
“It's a bit different this year, I'm one of the older guys now, but everyone's still go to earn his spot on the team,” he said. “I have to work hard and hopefully help the younger guys out, like (Ryan) Murphy (of the Kitchener Rangers). He is in the exact situation I was in my first year.”
It is rare for more than one 17-year-old to make the team, but Cameron said that with only four returning players it leaves more spots open and gives the younger players a better chance.
Couturier, a six-foot-three centre, knows he'll have to battle hard to make it.
“I'm one of 40 players here and I think everyone has an even chance to make the team, so I'll give it everything I've got.”
Cameron said it has not been decided whether to name 13 forwards and seven defencemen (plus two goalies) to the team, or have 12 forwards and eight on the blue-line.