Following a disappointing and early exit from the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship, the process has now begun for Hockey Canada and their nation of fans to dissect just where things went so wrong this year.
The defending gold medalists looked anything but throughout the entire tournament, dropping their Boxing Day opener against the United States and never really hitting their full stride after that. Even against weaker opponents like Denmark and Switzerland the Canadian team just always seemed…off.
They were officially eliminated from the tournament on Saturday after a dramatic 6-5 quarter-final loss to the host nation of Finland, finishing in 6th place.
There’s been plenty of talk since then about what happened. Jake Virtanen, a forward that took some very ill-advised penalties late in the game against Finland, has been especially singled out and on the receiving end of some particularly harsh criticism.
Unsurprisingly, Tom Renney, the president and chief executive officer of Hockey Canada, spoke to the media on Sunday to discuss the tournament and alleviate some of the criticism being directed towards the team.
What was surprising, however, was just who Renney chose to defend.
“I thought our team was very well prepared, I thought we had as good a coaching staff at the competition as anyone,” Renney said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that our guys put the time and effort in to have the team ready to go.
“There is a point in time where that transfer of responsibility goes from the coach to the player.”
Providing some more detail, he added that special teams and goaltending were specific areas where the group of players had issues.
“At the end of the day, our special teams needed to maybe perform a bit better. When your save percentage is under .900 everyone knows that it’s going to be tough to win. There’s no question about that.”
It’s certainly a puzzling decision.
Naturally, the head of Hockey Canada is going to come out and do some damage control in the media after such a disastrous tournament outcome. But to place the entirety of the blame on the players, while simultaneously absolving head coach Dave Lowry of any wrongdoing, is quite misguided.
This Canadian team, like every year at the world juniors, was stockpiled with individual talent. 12 players were NHL 1st round draft choices, a higher total than any other team at the event can boast.
Simply put, with those kind of resources at your disposal, there’s just no excuse to struggle as much as Canada did, and in the ways that the team did.
Let’s look at the penalty kill specifically, as Renney alluded to with his comment about special teams. Canada’s PK was dead last, dead last, in the entire tournament.
Canada with the worst penalty kill at #WorldJuniors pic.twitter.com/GpYzVA67TA
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 2, 2016
With a defensive group that consists of three first rounders, two second rounders, a third rounder and then the undrafted Joe Hicketts, who was Canada’s best defenseman all tournament, such a dismal result is truly mystifying. They finished behind Denmark, who didn’t have a single defender that’s been drafted by an NHL team.
Canada underperformed offensively as well. The team was led at forward by Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner, who both finished with six points in five games. Yet, it never felt like either player was truly playing to the best of their abilities. Both Strome and Marner have been absolutely terrorizing the Ontario Hockey League this season and could probably be playing and succeeding in the NHL at this very moment, but they were invisible here for large stretches.
None of the other talented forwards behind them in the lineup really stepped up, either. The whole forward group, from the top line to the 13th skater, looked discombobulated. As one anonymous hockey scout told Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce, the coaching staff had trouble getting everyone to gel together.
“There just wasn’t any chemistry there between Strome and Marner, who they opened up with,” the scout said. “Last year the coaching staff had line combinations and roles figured out—Domi, Reinhart and Duclair on the first line, McDavid with Lazar on the second line, Paul as a guy on your heavy line. But when Strome and Marner didn’t find [chemistry] then the line shuffling starts and you’re still experimenting when you’re supposed to be peaking.”
And then there’s the penalties. Momentum-killing penalties were a regular issue for the team throughout the event, but were most crippling in the Finland game, with the Finns going 2-for-8 on the man advantage. There’s no excuse for committing that many minors in a tight elimination game. By around the fourth or fifth penalty the need to calm the team down and refocus was clearly paramount, but it never happened.
While some of the blame for these problems does, indeed, need to fall on the shoulders of the players, Lowry and his staff didn’t do a good enough job of preparing their team for the challenges of the tournament. The team was far too passive in some instances, far too aggressive and undisciplined in others, and as a whole just never looked either confident or comfortable out on the ice.
When an entire team full of talented players underwhelms this badly the natural inclination is to look for the man that’s behind the bench. In this specific instance, despite the assurances of Renney and Hockey Canada, it appears to be the right place to direct the blame.