Hockey Canada held its annual selection camp in Oakville, Ontario where 31 players competed for a spot Team Canada’s roster for the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic later this month.
This year’s group at the camp is filled with high-end skill and speed with a good number of players who are currently draft eligible. From the beginning, when the camp roster was announced, head scout Brad McEwen and Mark Hunter of the management group for the Program of Excellence already had a vision of what the team was going to look like. They wanted this team to be as fast and competitive as possible. And that’s what it was from the start.
With everyone battling it out for a roster spot, there was no shortage of storylines during the selection process. Here are some of the takeaways from the selection camp.
If there’s one thing to be made clear of this Canadian group, it is its identity as a team. Since camp started, this group was fast and extremely skilled, with loads of talent to boot.
“I think we’re going to be a hard working hockey club,” said Hunter. “I think we’re going to have good speed… I think we’re going to play a high-speed game.”
Based on the practices, and the games against the U Sports, Hunter’s assessment is pretty spot on when describing the make-up of this team. The intensity during the camp and exhibition games was evident. The blueliners were steady in their own zone and extremely effective at playing steady defense while managing to be quick with their puck movement in transition. The offense is highly skilled and will be Canada’s main strength heading into the tournament.
From the very beginning, the players gave everything they had in order to make a lasting impression on management and the coaching staff. As the days progressed, so did the intensity and battle among the players.
Defense a Priority
Team Canada boasts a very solid defense corps heading into the camp, and it’s very evident that this was going to be a major asset when the tournament starts on Dec. 26.
“[Defense] is going to be very solid, very mobile, very skilled,” Hunter said. “It can move pucks out of our own zone quickly which we want to do and get it up to our forwards.
Hunter’s depiction of the defensive corps compared to the on-ice product was a perfect match. All participating defensemen showed the ability to control the puck exiting the zone while being mobile and jumping into the play. In addition, the positional play in their own end was noticeable, providing strong coverage and blocking shots in scrimmages and during the games against the U Sports. Most notable during this time was Kevin Bahl (Ottawa 67’s), Bowen Byram (Vancouver Giants) and Jamie Drysdale (Erie Otters)
2020 Draft Class on Display
This year’s squad isn’t short on exciting young talent either. Team Canada had nine players on the selection camp roster who are draft eligible. This includes of which who were born in 2002 (Drysdale, Quinton Byfield and Cole Perfetti).
While it’s difficult to have one, let alone three underage and draft-eligible players on the roster, they didn’t look out of place. Drysdale had his smarts and puck movement on display while Perfetti and Byfield were both tenacious and showed their offensive potential.
Hunter was surprised to have three players as young as they are on the roster. “I’m sure all the pro scouts are happy about that,” he said jokingly, “but at the end of the day, they deserve to be here. They’ve had good seasons and now it’s another challenge for them.”
As good as it is for the scouts to see such high-end talent possibly attend the tournament, it’s the best time for them and other draft-eligible players to stand out above the rest. Despite their age, they are more than capable of holding their own and playing against players a year or two older. From the dynamic puck-moving defenseman in Drysdale to the top prospects in Byfield and Alexis Lafreniere, this year’s team is built around high-end, elite skill level. They all come as advertised.
Byfield- Cozens- Foote Line Showing Chemistry
From the very start of camp, Byfield was put on a line with Dylan Cozens and Nolan Foote. They seemed to click and find instant chemistry.
While they did well during the practices, their play also carried over into the game against the U Sports. The line was dominant from the opening puck drop to the end, generating great quality scoring chances and scoring with Foote giving Canada the lead heading into the third period. Byfield made a nice pass in front and Foote was able to bury his own rebound.
Assistant coach, Andre Tourigny, spoke about the line after the first game against U Sports. He said he liked how they “made really good plays” and played a really solid game.
“Just moving the puck fast and definitely using the ice as much as you can,” said Foote about the early chemistry with Byfield and Cozens.”I played with Cozens at Team WHL and we connected there and Byfield is a hell of a prospect, he’s really good. Trying to create some chemistry in the first game it was a lot of fun.”
If all goes well and Byfield makes the team, then this line is going to be the one that might be doing some major offensive damage during the tournament.
All Eyes On Lafreniere
Speaking of Lafreniere, there’s no doubt that all eyes are going to be on him during the tournament. He’s been the talk of the hockey world for quite some time now as he’s the projected first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. When a player is pulling off moves like this on a consistent basis, you know that he’s going to be a very special player for years to come.
In 32 games played, Lafreniere has reached 46 assists and 70 points, which takes him over a two point-per-game pace. During the last two seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he has led the team in scoring while increasing his point production each year. Even if he does miss two weeks because of the tournament, the chances are strong that he might be able to break his season point total (108 points) from last year.
However, the top prospect in the 2020 Draft, Lafreniere was visibly absent for the selection camp process. Hunter said he was dealing with some “bumps and bruises” and thought he’d give him more time rest up for the tournament.
It doesn’t sound too serious where his tournament may be in jeopardy, but to keep one of Team Canada’s top players out for precautionary reasons is absolutely critical. His skillset and vision has been a big part of game and his offensive presence will definitely benefit Canada when he’s on the ice. They want him to be 100 percent healthy for when the tournament rolls around, where he’s expected to play a significant role on Team Canada. When he’s healthy, other teams better be aware when he’s on the ice.
With the camp coming to an end and cuts expected to be coming, there was no shortage of storylines during the early stages of the selection process. The next step for Team Canada? Finalizing the roster for their first game against the United States on Dec. 26.