Team Canada will have a distinctly western feel at the 2021 World Junior Championship, and it has nothing to do with where the tournament is being played.
The defending WJC gold medalists will feature nine active Western Hockey League players on their 25-player roster in Edmonton, AB, not including former WHL star Kirby Dach and two assistant coaches from the league. Also, Moose Jaw Warriors general manager Alan Millar is part of Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence and is tasked with overseeing the 2021 squad.
This particular haul of WHL talent represents the largest crop to make Team Canada since 2015 and includes returning leaders like the Buffalo Sabres’ Dylan Cozens upfront and Colorado Avalanche’s Bowen Byram on the back end, along with several newcomers who are expected to make an impact. First-time WHL players also make up two-thirds of the host nation’s goaltending equation.
Here is an introduction to the WHL representatives on Team Canada who are going to become household names over the holidays.
The 2021 WJC crop is being heralded as one of Canada’s most talented groups ever sent to the tournament. All 14 forwards are first-round draft picks from the 2019 or 2020 NHL Draft, headlined by Dach (centre) who after starring with the Saskatoon Blades brings with him a full season of NHL experience with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019-20. Here are three of Canada’s other forwards who come by way of the WHL.
The seventh-overall pick by the Sabres in the 2019 NHL Draft, Cozens was a virtual lock to make his way back to the World Junior squad for his second appearance. As an 18-year old in 2020, the Lethbridge Hurricanes star scored twice and added nine points in seven games.
In three WHL seasons (2017-20) in Lethbridge, Cozens has amassed 94 goals and 222 points in 179 games. He debuted with the Hurricanes as a 16-year-old in 2016-17, scoring his first WHL goal in a three-game stint. He remained with the club for the playoffs and quickly became an offensive contributor, netting three goals and eight points in 12 games.
The Whitehorse, Yukon product became a regular with the Hurricanes the following season, totalling 22 goals and 53 points in 57 games, and seven goals and 13 points in 16 postseason contests.
It during the past two seasons that Cozens became the centrepiece of the Lethbridge attack, leading the team with 84 and 85-point campaigns. His 34 goals tied for second on the team in 2018-19 before he led his squad with 38 tallies in 2019-20.
At 6-foot-3 and 185 lbs, Cozens already has the stature and strength to play a physical game. Combined with his speed and shot, Dobber Prospects says that he has “legitimate top-line upside.”
When the WJC is over, Cozens will either need to make the Sabres or return to Lethbridge, as 19-year-olds are not eligible to play in the American Hockey League. However, his elite offensive skillset and physical maturity should give him a good chance to make the NHL.
Mark Masters of TSN wrote about Canada’s potential ‘three-headed monster’, a top line that features Cozens, Dach and Connor McMichael of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. All three players are natural centremen and competition to play in the middle will be intense, with Canada bringing seven natural centres to the tournament.
Before his appearances at the WJC, Cozens starred for Canada at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, scoring four goals and nine points in seven games, and he tallied a goal and seven points at the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
A play-making centre, Krebs has starred with the Kootenay/Winnipeg Ice for the past three WHL seasons (2017-20) and became the 17th-overall pick by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2019.
Krebs led the Ice in scoring in each of the past two seasons (2018-20) while serving as captain. In 175 WHL games, he has notched 49 goals and 188 points, including six games as a 16-year-old in 2016-17 when he put up six points and his first WHL goal.
Also 19, Krebs missed the 2020 WJC after sustaining a partially torn Achilles tendon just weeks before the 2019 NHL Draft. He rehabbed the injury successfully and torched the WHL on his return, racking up 60 points (including 12 goals) in 38 games, good enough to finish third on the Ice during their inaugural 2019-20 season in Winnipeg. He also joined the Golden Knights as part of the NHL’s return-to-play bubble, as did WJC teammates Byram and Thomas Harley.
Dobber Prospects describes Krebs as a “shifty forward with nice puck skills, high-end vision and a mind for creating offense,” as well as a natural leader.
Along with his two brothers, who hail from Okotoks, AB, they all play or played in the WHL. Eldest brother Dakota played 308 games (2015-20) with the Tri City Americans and Calgary Hitmen. Youngest brother Dru played his rookie season with the Medicine Hat Tigers last season and received a ‘C’ rating in NHL Central Scouting’s Preliminary 2020-21 Players to Watch List. All three played in the WHL simultaneously in 2019-20 when Peyton returned from injury.
In his previous experience with Hockey Canada, Krebs was captain at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, scoring six goals and ten points in seven games, and he put up a goal and six points at the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
The third WHL forward to make Team Canada is the Calgary Flames’ 2020 first-rounder Connor Zary.
Another centreman, Zary has played three seasons (2017-20) will the Kamloops Blazers, piling up 73 goals and 182 points in 188 games. He emerged as a game-breaker in his second WHL season and put it all together in 2019-20, lighting the lamp 38 times with 86 points. The Flames targeted Zary at the 2020 Draft, trading down twice to acquire a pair of extra picks before selecting Zary 24th overall.
Sam Cosentino told Mike Johnston of Sportsnet that Zary has a “high compete level and character,” and moved up draft rankings due to higher than expected offensive production. He also describes Zary as a super smart, energetic player who handles pressure well.
Zary previously played for Canada at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, registering four goals and seven points. He also participated in the WHL portion of the 2020 Canada Russia Super Series.
Canada defense in 2021 will be big, physical and capable of lighting the lamp.
Similar to the forward ranks, six of Canada’s eight blueliners are first-round picks from the past two drafts. They will have a distinct western personality with four WHL players patrolling the blue line headlined by Byram, who won gold at the 2020 WJC.
One of two returnees on the blue line, Byram is expected to be a critical piece of the 2021 squad.
Now 19, the Avalanche’s fourth-overall pick in 2019 logged two assists during Canada’s gold medal journey in 2020. He has anchored the defense of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants for the past three seasons (2017-20). In 188 games, which includes 11 as a 15-year-old in 2016-17, Byram has 46 goals and 150 points. He exploded onto the scene during his draft season in 2018-19 when he led all WHL defensemen with 26 goals and sat third with 71 points. That performance earned him the 2018-19 CHL Top Prospect Award.
The Avalanche have added him to their stable of young rearguards that is headlined by 2019-20 NHL Calder Trophy-winner Cale Makar. Dobber Prospects notes Byram as being a “creative defender who skates well and boasts a rocket of a shot.”
In the ensuing WHL campaign, Byram had a slow start by his standards but still finished the season with 14 goals and 52 points in 50 games, while missing time to attend the WJC.
The native of Cranbrook, BC participated in the 2019 Canada Russia Super Series but was unable to crack the final roster for the 2019 WJC. He also played in that season’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup, where he tallied a goal and four points.
The Montreal Canadiens’ first-rounder at the most recent draft, Kaidan Guhle brings plenty of big-game experience from his time with the Prince Albert Raiders.
The Sherwood Park, AB product was a rookie in 2018-19 when the Raiders won the Ed Chynoweth Cup as champions of the WHL and earned a berth in the 2019 Memorial Cup. Guhle played 65 games and chipped in three goals and 17 points in the regular season before adding three assists in 23 postseason encounters.
Guhle became the leader of Prince Albert’s defense unit in his draft season and saw his offensive production spike with increased opportunity. In 64 games in 2019-20, he connected for 11 goals and 40 points, while finishing with a plus-56 rating. He was also an alternate captain at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, recording an assist in five games.
“A big, physical rearguard who’s a strong skater despite his size and tough to knock off the puck because of it,” Emily Sadler of Sportsnet wrote about the 6-foot-2, 185-lb blueliner. “(He is) a reliable rearguard in his own zone, he’s shown more and more that he can jump into offensive play with a booming shot when needed.”
Guhle’s older brother Brendan was a second-round pick by the Sabres in 2015 and has played 59 NHL games in parts of four seasons in Buffalo and with the Anaheim Ducks (2018-20). He too manned the blue line for the Raiders for three-and-a-half seasons (2013-17) before playing his final half-season of junior with the Prince George Cougars.
Another Golden Knights prospect, Kaedan Korczak has been a stalwart on the back end for the Kelowna Rockets for the past three WHL seasons (2017-20).
In 199 WHL games, Korczak has totalled 18 goals and 98 points. The product of Yorkton, SK doubled his production from his rookie to his sophomore seasons – 16 points to 33 – and was subsequently drafted by the Golden Knights in the second round of the 2019 Draft. He became Kelowna’s undisputed number one defenseman in 2019-20 and broke out offensively, scoring 11 goals and 49 points in 60 games. He also participated in the Canada Russia Super Series and he signed his entry-level contract.
“I think a lot of it was confidence,” said Korczak in a Rockets article. “I also think getting drafted was a big part of it. Going to my first NHL camp was a great experience; I came back to Kelowna with a lot of confidence on the ice to be a big player for the team and in the league.”
At 6-foot-4, 190 lbs, Korczak is billed as a physical defender who eats up ice time and possesses the speed to contribute offensively. He has played internationally at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, combining for two assists in 12 games.
Korczak’s young brother Ryder is a draft-eligible centreman with Moose Jaw, who could factor into Canada’s WJC picture in 2022. In 2019-20, the younger Korczak led Moose Jaw with 67 points and was second with 18 goals. That performance helped him earn an ‘A’ rating on Central Scouting’s 2020-21 Preliminary Players to Watch List. He took on even more of a leadership role for his club after the 2019 Anaheim Ducks first-rounder, Brayden Tracey was dealt to the Victoria Royals before last season’s WHL trade deadline.
Another of the three Saskatchewan-born players on Canada’s roster is the New York Rangers’ 2020 first-round pick, Braden Schneider.
The native of Prince Albert, SK comes to Team Canada by way of the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. The 19-year-old has played three seasons for the Wheat Kings, putting up 16 goals and 88 points in 185 games. His breakout season came in 2019-20 when he tallied seven goals and a career-high 42 points before he was selected 19th overall in the draft that June.
At 6-foot-2, 210 lbs, Schneider was described in EliteProspects’ 2020 NHL Draft Guide as “an absolute behemoth at this level,” who is composed and makes good decisions. He has also been known to make good outlet passes and has good speed for his size.
Schneider skated in the 2020 Canada Russia Super Series. Previously, he played in the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup after captaining Canada White at the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Schneider’s younger brother Marek is a 17-year-old defense prospect of Saskatoon.
Canada will feature two WHL goaltenders for the first time since 2017 when they went with Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips and Connor Ingram of the Kamloops Blazers. That duo backstopped Canada to the gold medal game against the United States before they fell 5-4 to settle for silver.
This time around, Dylan Garand of the Blazers and Taylor Gauthier from the Prince George Cougars will each make their first appearance at the WJC. Gauthier is a year older, but Garand has posted better numbers in the WHL while playing behind a superior team.
Garand has played two seasons with Kamloops and assumed the starter’s role last season. As a rookie in 2018-19, he saw action in 27 games while backing up Vegas prospect Dylan Ferguson and the crease then became Garand’s in 2019-20 after Ferguson graduated from junior and turned professional.
The Victoria, BC native was among the league’s top netminders last season, posting a 2.21 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage with four shutouts in 42 games. He placed second in both categories among WHL goaltenders with 40 or more games played. That was enough to convince the Rangers to take Garand with their fourth-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Still just 18, Garand has three seasons of junior eligibility and could be an option to return at the 2022 WJC.
A native of Calgary, AB, Gauthier has played three WHL seasons (2017-20) with Prince George, making 50 or more appearances in each of the past two campaigns.
Gauthier’s WHL stats don’t jump off the page due, in large part, to the fact that the Cougars have struggled during his tenure and often lean on their goalie to face a ton of rubber. His 2019-20 season was his best to date, posting a .917 save percentage and a 2.93 goals-against average with 16 wins in 50 games.
One of five Albertans on the squad, Gauthier won three of his four games at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup and worked up to a .915 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-against average at the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, backstopping his team to victory in the gold medal game.
Playing behind weak teams in the WHL may have made it more difficult for scouts to get an accurate read on Gauthier. He was passed over in the NHL draft twice, but he told The Hockey News that his belief in himself hasn’t been shaken. “I hope people see that I might have gotten passed over, but I still personally think I’m one of the best goalies in Canada,” Gauthier said. “Whether or not I get drafted, I don’t think that defines who I am as a person and a goalie.”
Gauthier has two more seasons of junior eligibility with Prince George, where he will continue to try to showcase himself in hopes of earning future NHL training camp invites and ultimately a free-agent contract.
Dach played 133 games in three WHL seasons (2016-19) with the Saskatoon Blades before sticking with the Blackhawks for the full season in 2019-20 as a 20-year-old.
During his time in Saskatoon, the centreman quickly developed into a strong two-way player. Dach finished third on the Blades in goals (25) and points (73) in his draft season in 2018-19 before Chicago took him with the third-overall pick.
The Blades had to accelerate their transition to their new crop of stars last season after Dach impressed the Blackhawks brass and made the club. In 64 regular-season NHL games, he chipped in eight goals and 23 points before blossoming into a difference-maker in Chicago’s qualifying-round victory over the favoured Edmonton Oilers.
The Blackhawks loaned Dach to Canada’s selection camp, contingent on the promise that he’s returned to Chicago if the new NHL season ends up overlapping with the WJC. The NHL is believed to be targeting a Jan. 13 start date, and the WJC gold medal game is slated for Jan. 5, so it appears that Dach should be available for the duration of the tournament.
Mitch Love & Michael Dyck
A pair of WHL head coaches will stand behind the Canadian bench at the 2021 WJC. Saskatoon head coach Mitch Love returns for a second go-round while Vancouver Giants’ bench boss Michael Dyck is making his first appearance.
A veteran of three WHL teams as a player before he went on to play six professional seasons, Love is set to enter his third season as head coach of the Blades. He took over in Saskatoon after spending six seasons as an assistant with Everett, which is where he enjoyed his best success as a player in the league, helping the expansion Silvertips to the 2003-04 Ed Chynoweth Cup Final.
Love debuted at the WJC in 2020 as an assistant under head coach Dale Hunter. He was the architect of a Canadian power play that scored 14 times with a success rate of 41%. He returns in 2021 to join the staff of head coach Andre Tourigny who was promoted after being an assistant in 2020.
Dyck played four seasons in the WHL (1985-89) for the Calgary Wranglers, Brandon and Regina before he became a long-time coach in the league. He has held a variety of positions for several teams dating back to 1996-97, including ten seasons as an assistant coach and six as a head coach, including the last two (2018-20) in Vancouver.
The Lethbridge, AB native was Canada’s head coach at the 2020 Hlinka Gretzky Cup and he has been a head coach at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge twice (2010-12).
One of Canada’s top decisionmakers for the 2021 WJC is Moose Jaw general manager Alan Millar who was promoted to be advisor of Canada’s Under-20 program this season. Millar oversaw Canada’s Under-18 program for the past two seasons as they earned gold (2018) and silver (2019) medals at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
Millar held general manager or director of hockey operations posts with two clubs in the Ontario Hockey League between 1997-2009 after being the director of hockey operations for the AHL’s Saint John Flames for four seasons (1993-97). He has been with the Warriors in both roles since 2010-11.
The last time Canada featured this many WHL players at the WJC was in 2015 when they won gold with ten players on the roster in Toronto, ON and Montreal, QC. Three players led that team with 11 points, including WHL products Sam Reinhart and Nic Petan.
Reinhart, the Sabres’ second-overall pick in 2014 and captain of the Kootenay Ice at the time, tied for the team-lead with five goals in his second WJC. He has gone on to eclipse the 20-goal mark four times in his five seasons (2015-20) with the Sabres. Petan, captain of the Portland Winterhawks at the time and a 2013 second-round pick by the Winnipeg Jets, scored four goals for the second straight WJC. He has gone on to play in 129 NHL games across six seasons with the Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Canada’s defense featured future Golden Knights blueliner Shea Theodore, then the captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds, as well as Josh Morrissey of the Jets, who was traded from Prince Albert to Kelowna in the WHL that season.
Finally, Tri City Americans goaltender Eric Comrie won both of his starts at the tournament and recorded a shutout to post a 1.50 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. The 2013 Winnipeg second-rounder debuted with the Jets in 2016-17 and has entered eight NHL games in parts of five seasons for Winnipeg and the Detroit Red Wings while playing primarily in the AHL for the past five seasons (2015-20).
Finding An Identity
The roster construction of Canada’s 2021 WJC squad appears to have defined characteristics. They will try to play fast to take advantage of the elite skill they have upfront and will aim to use their size and physicality on the back end to keep opponents off the puck and maximize their own attack time.
Canada’s title defence begins on Christmas Day with a tournament opener against Germany at Rogers Place in Edmonton. Their crew of WHL stars has an opportunity to put a stamp on this squad as Canada ventures to win consecutive gold medals for the first time since their run of five straight from 2005-09.
Jonathan covers the Saskatoon Blades and the Victoria Royals of the WHL. He has extensive experience in hockey and sports journalism and broadcasting. This includes bylines at Sports Spectrum, Toronto Blue Jays, Victoria Grizzlies, DUBNetwork as well as a long-time role with the Canadian Baseball Network.