It has often been said that the hockey season is more of a marathon than a sprint. For players entering their first-year of eligibility for the National Hockey League draft, the marathon begins with the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Held annually since 1991, the tournament pits eight national teams against each other for under-18 glory. Most importantly for draft fanatics it provides a chance to see all of the top draft-eligible players in one place at one time, something that rarely happens with the spring’s IIHF Under-18 Championship tournament.
After the annual selection camp over August long weekend in Calgary, Hockey Canada announced their roster for the tournament.
— Team Canada Men (@HC_Men) August 2, 2016
The importance of the Hlinka tournament has in turn placed a lot of importance on the Canadian selection camp itself – particularly when you bear in mind how many Canadians are drafted into the NHL each summer. However, the importance of the large international ice when putting together the Hlinka roster cannot be understated, as the coaching staff focused on quick transition drills and overall speed during the camp. Several strong 2017 prospects were not named to the team as a result, perhaps because their particular skill-sets don’t seem to translate as readily to the big ice or due to a lack of instant chemistry with teammates during a short late-summer camp.
Noteworthy players not taking the trip to the Czech Republic but who had strong showings in the camp’s scrimmages include puck-moving defender Ian Blacker and two-way blueliners Josh Brook and Walter Flower, along with skilled forwards Antoine Morand and Gabriel Vilardi. Of those not taken, Blacker, Brook and Vilardi are the biggest shockers.
Shocked that Josh Brook didn’t make it. Thought he was 1 of the best defenders at camp. Wasn’t impressed with Smart. https://t.co/CuzrA3AsOQ
— OHL Prospects (@BrockOtten) August 2, 2016
Some camp thoughts…tough to see Vilardi go down with an injury in the final scrimmage. Would’ve been on the team if healthy.
— Aaron Vickers (@AAVickers) August 3, 2016
Vilardi had a superb camp and unfortunately was involved in a collision in the final scrimmage that likely cost him a spot. On a line with Maxime Comtois and Nick Suzuki, Vilardi was poised, determined and creative with the puck. Injury or not, he helped his draft stock with a great showing. Brook was rock-solid but not showy in the scrimmages; unfortunately for him, fellow right-shot defender Evan Bouchard was more physical and Ian Mitchell more poised with the puck during the scrimmages.
An interesting wrinkle in the roster is that Hockey Canada brass broke tradition in two key ways. First, only three roster spots on the 22-man team went to players from the QMJHL (and they’re taking AJHLer Mitchell, CCHLer Greg Meireles and USHLer Shane Bowers), when in the past we’ve seen three-way splits between the Q, the OHL and the WHL. Second, the three smallest players in camp – blueliner Elijah Roberts and forwards Jordy Bellerive and Meireles – were all named to the team, rather than the organization relying on bigger bodies to create space on the international ice.
Canada’s dominated the Hlinka Tournament in recent years, but the team’s brass doesn’t seem to be relying on reputation or tradition this year. Based on the roster they’ve put together, their priority seems to be putting together a 22-man team that can gel on short-notice. If nothing else, the 21 first-time draft eligible players – and 2018 eligible forward Joseph Veleno – will be hungry to make a good first impression.
The marathon season for these NHL hopefuls is just beginning.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.