VANCOUVER — There’s always next year.
As Hockey Canada digests defeat from its most disappointing showing on home ice in the history of the IIHF World Junior Championship — failing to medal for the first time in 14 tournaments as the host country — the sun came up the next day following their quarterfinal exit to Finland and the bright side revealed six of 22 players are eligible to return for the 2020 event in the Czech Republic.
Three forwards and three defencemen could make that trip to wear the Maple Leaf a second time and attempt to avenge the devastation endured from an overtime loss that was 46 seconds away from a semifinal berth and a chance to continue that medal streak.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but you just reflect on what you felt you could have done better as a player or a coach and what you felt you did well as a player and a coach, and you move on. That’s how you get better,” said Team Canada head coach Tim Hunter, who was an assistant under Dominique Ducharme on the 2018 gold medal-winning team from Buffalo.
“It’s about learning from your experience.”
Max Comtois, the lone returnee saddled with captaining the defending champions, was also asked about his message for those who might get another shot at representing Canada in this under-20 tournament.
“They just have to take it as a motivation,” said Comtois, who led Canada in goals with five but was stopped on a penalty shot in overtime a few minutes before Finland prevailed. “We always want to win and now they have the feeling of losing, and they won’t want to repeat that next year. They know what it feels like, and I think they will be ready to attack every game next year.”
They being forwards Barrett Hayton (OHL, Sault Ste. Marie), Joe Veleno (QMJHL, Drummondville) and Alexis Lafreniere (QMJHL, Rimouski), plus defencemen Jared McIsaac (QMJHL, Halifax), Noah Dobson (QMJHL, Acadie-Bathurst) and Ty Smith (WHL, Spokane). Five of them will be 19 for 2020, while Lafreniere just turned 17 in November and could technically play in two more tournaments but is expected to be a top NHL draft pick in 2020.
The NHL could come calling sooner than later for the others, with Hayton and Smith nearly sticking with Arizona and New Jersey this season. It would seem unlikely that those two will be available for Canada next year, while Veleno (Detroit) and Dobson (New York Islanders) could also crack their NHL rosters as first-round picks from 2018 — similar to Robert Thomas (St. Louis) and Michael Rasmussen (Detroit) this time around.
That would only leave McIsaac, who will also get the experience of playing for the Memorial Cup host team this May, and Lafreniere, who should be a dominant force in his draft year — projected by many to go first overall.
“Hockey Canada does a great job picking their world-class players and hopefully I’ll be back and have a bigger influence next year — be a go-to guy, hopefully, there,” said McIsaac, a second-round pick (36th overall) for Detroit in 2018.
“If all of us are back, we’ll have a bigger cast to build off,” he added.
Bouncing back from suspension
McIsaac had to overcome the adversity of returning to the lineup for that pressure-packed quarterfinal after serving a one-game suspension for a check to the head. That hit went uncalled on the ice against the Czech Republic, but IIHF officials flagged the foul after the fact and forced McIsaac to watch Canada’s round-robin finale against Russia — another 2-1 setback with first place in Group A at stake, along with an easier matchup to begin the medal round. Russia routed Slovakia 8-3 in their quarterfinal.
“It’s tough, obviously, watching your team lose against Russia,” said McIsaac, who stood out for the right reasons against Finland, continuing to be a physical presence and making a few nice defensive plays to prevent earlier equalizers. He wasn’t on the ice for either goal against.
“If you can’t ramp yourself up for Team Canada, you shouldn’t be here,” McIsaac said of the challenge he faced in stepping back into the battle. “It’s too easy, you’re playing for Team Canada, you should be fired up to play and I know I definitely was.
“Any chance you get to wear the jersey, obviously it’s a huge honour.”
Defence was good, but offence was lacking
At the end of the day, one goal wasn’t enough and the lack of scoring over Canada’s last two games — after starting the tournament with a 14-0 demolition of Denmark — was the downfall.
Nobody could blame the defence, nor the goaltending. The officiating wasn’t an issue either. In years past, the finger was often pointed at the latter two, but not this year. Not even a little bit.
It was the offence that let Canada down and left everybody wanting more.
“It was tough, for sure, to get that second goal,” said defenceman Ian Mitchell, who netted Canada’s lone goal against Finland — opening the scoring in the second period. “Had we done that, maybe the game ends a different way. . . .
[miptheme_quote author=”Ian Mitchell” style=”text-center”]Other teams are defending well, it’s hard to generate offence, and it’s a hard tournament to win every year.[/miptheme_quote]
There was a letdown in Canada’s play against Russia, but not against Finland. Canada kept pressing for that elusive 2-0 goal, but the Finns prevented Canada from getting “inside offence”, as described by Mitchell, who noted “they kept us to the outside pretty well.”
They being a group of defenders that included two with NHL experience this season in Henri Jokiharju, who has played some top-pairing minutes with Duncan Keith in Chicago, and Urho Vaakanainen from Boston.
And Finland’s goaltender, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, had the game of his life to this point in outduelling Mike DiPietro and stoning Comtois on a penalty shot in overtime.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 3, 2019
“A little bit tonight and the other night (against Russia), we passed up shooting opportunities,” McIsaac admitted after Canada mustered only 24 shots on Luukkonen over 65-plus minutes — getting outshot in every period and 34-25 overall (11-7, 12-9, 8-7 and 3-2 by frame). “Especially in this tournament, in this environment, any shot is a good shot. But that’s another easy thing to say now, looking back. . . .
“You try to do whatever you can, as much as possible, when you’re on the ice,” he added. “It’s a game of inches and obviously that’s what it was tonight. The more you push, the more you play the right way, the bounces usually come. Unfortunate tonight that one or two didn’t slip in there. But it’s the game of hockey, that stuff is going to happen.”
Canada keeping heads held high
As crushing as the loss to Finland was in the moment and the immediate aftermath, Hunter and his players still expect to take away fond memories from their time together in Vancouver.
“We told them we’re proud of them,” said Hunter. “They came together and competed as hard as they could. Our guys bought into the way we wanted to play.”
“We played a really good tournament and I’m proud of those guys,” echoed Comtois. “They gave everything for the logo, and for some guys it’s their last chance.”
For McIsaac, there’s a good chance that he’ll get another opportunity at gold next year. There’s also a decent chance that he’ll be wearing a letter for Canada in the Czech Republic, depending how many of the six potential returnees make the leap to the NHL next season.
If that’s the case, McIsaac will certainly take some lessons from Comtois into the 2020 tournament.
“Max did a great job of being the only returnee and leading the way for us,” said McIsaac. “It’s not easy wearing the ‘C’, especially for Team Canada, and he did a great job.”
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.