When teams select their roster for the World Junior Hockey Championships, they try to name as many returnees as possible, because of their experience and maturity. Teams tend not to bring on under-age players unless they’re capable of holding their own. However, Hockey Canada had different plans when making their final roster decisions for this year’s tournament.
Canada had nine draft eligible players attend the selection camp. As it stands, there are three on the roster, two of which are 2002 birth dates.
If a player has played extremely well, the coaches and staff try to make a case to put them on the roster, like Alexis Lafreniere last year. This year, Team Canada felt that forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale should be on the roster given the way they played at the selection camp.
“They deserve to be here,” head coach Dale Hunter said. “[They] had great seasons, a great summer camp, Russian Series, they were good.”
The last time Canada had two underage draft eligible players was in 2015 when Connor McDavid and Lawson Crouse (1997 birth dates) helped Canada win a gold medal. With two 17-year-olds this time around, there shouldn’t be any concern about their experience or play heading into the tournament.
Not Worried About the Draft
I had my eye on a number of players during the selection process, but none stood out more than Byfield and Drysdale. Byfield’s speed and aggressiveness to pursue the puck was on display while Drysdale showed his offensive instincts with his passing and rushing abilities. His defensive positioning and awareness were also impressive and he didn’t look out of place in his own end.
While it’s a big step in their career to play in the biggest junior hockey tournament, it’s also one that will have a big impact on their career as they inch closer to hearing their name called at the NHL draft in Montreal.
“Just try and not think about it too much and just play my game,” said Byfield who plays for the Sudbury Wolves. “Every year is my draft year I always say. Just try and go in with the mindset where no pressure is on me.”
For Drysdale it’s just a matter of letting his play do the talking. A pass first player, he’s building off a strong offensive rookie campaign when he tallied 40 points. His confidence with the puck is evident as he’s developing his all-around game and trying to be a strong two-way player.
“It’s just a matter of developing all the aspects of my game, that’s the goal,” said Drysdale, who plays for the Erie Otters. “You keep the draft in the back of your head, but you can only do what you can do.
(I) try not to think about it and try to just focus on my game and what I can do and what I can control and at the end of the day that’s all that I can do, just focus on what’s up to me within my work ethic, how I play on the ice. That’s what I’m working on this year.”
Their main focus is on the tournament, where they will have an opportunity to excel ahead of the draft.
No Shortage of Experience
Even though they’re going up against players who are a year or two older than them, there should be no doubts about Byfield or Drysdale succeeding at this tournament.
The two top prospects are familiar faces in the Hockey Canada circle. Byfield and Drysdale won silver at the Ivan Hlinka Gretzky Cup and Drysdale played for Canada at the U18 World Championship. He is extremely grateful for the opportunity to share this experience with a player who he’s familiar with.
“It’s pretty cool we’re going through this together,” said Drysdale who was Canada’s captain at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. “All the guys here, including the older guys, are great and all supportive. I think it takes away from the pressure a little having that comfortable environment.”
Even though they’re the youngest players on a team that is filled with veterans and experience, they aren’t taking this opportunity for granted.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” said Drysdale. “It’s something that I definitely wasn’t expecting by any means at the start of the year, but to be here now it’s an unbelievable opportunity and I’m just looking to make the most of it.”
Byfield echoed the same sentiment about getting the opportunity to play for his country. “I’d take any role just to play for my country,” Byfield said. “I’ll just take any spot and hopefully I can work my way up through the tournament.”
The Will to Win
While Byfield’s Wolves are a better team and higher in the Ontario Hockey League standings than Drysdale’s Otters, both players are stars who are constantly making something happen on the ice that results in a win.
Drysdale will have to work through the lineup, most likely starting as the seventh defenseman, but Byfield will be relied on heavily and counted on in a top six role for Canada.
“He’s got to play a power forward style,” said head of the Program of Excellence Mark Hunter about Byfield. “Be up and down the ice and finish his checks and play a hard game. He’s got great stick skills and puck skills and he’s a big body that can get to the net.”
No matter where they are in the lineup, their showing at camp, their skill level and impact on the ice was strong enough to earn them spots.
Team Canada was dominant at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup during the summer, but fell short, losing to Russia in the gold medal game. Drysdale recorded four assists, while Byfield was a point per game player. While a gold medal was on their mind, you can expect them to be more motivated this time around.
“I think any time you come out with silver, you want to redeem yourself and get that gold medal,” Drysdale said. “I’d love to get another crack.”
While the result isn’t what Drysdale or Byfield wanted, they have the opportunity to get another chance to give Canada another gold medal.