Just three games into the 2023 World Junior Championship, it’s fair to say that this year’s Team Canada could be one of the most exciting in years. On top of having three players with NHL experience and eight players with World Junior experience – both a rarity for Canada – Connor Bedard, the projected first-overall pick this summer, has already tied Jordan Eberle’s Canadian goal record and now has his sights set on breaking Eric Lindros’ 17 points in a single tournament.
Generally, players with experience are given more prominent roles, as they know what to expect against teams they’ve never faced before and never will again. But there is one player on the Canadian roster who checks all the necessary boxes, yet has still found himself playing regularly on the fourth line. That would be Zack Ostapchuk, who won a gold medal with Canada last year and finished the tournament with three points while primarily playing on the third line.
For many junior stars in Ostapchuk’s situation, the absence of a promotion would be frustrating, but the Ottawa Senators’ second-round pick is taking every game in stride. For those that know him, this is hardly a surprise; he’s gained a reputation as a hard-working, no-maintenance player who can do whatever needs to be done, even if it comes with little recognition. So, while it may be a stretch to say he’s been Canada’s most valuable player, there’s no question that he is exactly what this team needs to win.
Ostapchuk is Back in His Role with Canada
Ostapchuk was never supposed to be at the 2022 World Juniors. He wasn’t one of the 25 players selected for the December tournament, nor was he invited to the 2021-22 Summer Training Camp. Yet, once it had to be rescheduled for the summer of 2022, his name popped up in discussions thanks to Dennis Williams, the head coach of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Everett Silvertips and assistant coach for the 2022 World Juniors.
Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship
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Just a couple of months prior, Williams had some of the best seats in the house as the Silvertips took on the Vancouver Giants in the first round of the WHL Playoffs. In that series, Ostapchuk put up an unbelievable 16 points in six games, leading to a 4-2 series win for the Giants and a massive upset of the top-ranked team in the Western Conference. But it wasn’t just his production that struck the opposing coach. Instead, it was his impact in all areas of the game, and he thought it would be perfect for the World Juniors.
“Zack, what you get from him is what I consider a real honest, 200-foot hockey player. He’s got great details to his game, heaviness to his game, he goes to the tough areas to score goals.”Silvertips’ head coach Dennis Williams to The Athletic (from “How Senators prospect Zack Ostapchuk turns everyone into his biggest fan,” The Athletic – 15/12/22).
Once in Edmonton, Ostapchuk quickly endeared himself to his team and coaching staff with his positive attitude and work ethic off the ice, and on it. James Boyd, Team Canada’s management group lead, said he “was really effective in the games on the forecheck and was kind of the perfect fit for the group that we had” (from “How Senators prospect Zack Ostapchuk turns everyone into his biggest fan,” The Athletic – 15/12/22).
With a team that featured the talents of Kent Johnson, Brennan Othmann, Logan Stankoven, and Mason McTavish up front, Ostapchuk was placed on the third line alongside fellow Senators’ prospect and tough-as-nails competitor Ridly Greig. Together, the pair became Canada’s premier grinders, displaying some incredible chemistry that got fans in Ottawa excited for the future. It truly was exactly what Canada needed, as the team cruised to a gold medal win over Finland.
The Perfect Role Player for Canada
After his success in 2022, Canada had no other choice than to bring Ostapchuk back for 2023. This year, though, the Giants’ captain was undoubtedly eying a prominent position. In 21 games with Vancouver, he had 10 goals and 29 points, making him one of the most productive players in the WHL in 2022-23. Had he not joined the Senators’ rookie camp at the beginning of the season, he likely could have hit 50 points already. “His game has grown immensely and he belongs among the best in his age group,” said Giants general manager Barclay Parneta after his inclusion in Canada’s selection camp.
But Team Canada had different plans for Ostapchuk, which is to say, they wanted him to reprise his role from last year. But that didn’t bother him whatsoever. When asked about how this team and his role differed from last year to this year, he responded, “I think I play somewhat the same role on this team, but I think it’s obviously a new wave of guys coming in. We have a lot of skill on this team, and we did in the summer too, but this year we have a really really skilled team…I think our top six is pretty special.”
That’s a player who perfectly understands his place on the team and knows what he can bring. Ostapchuk knows what he’s good at, and that’s playing a powerful game and, according to him, “get into the hard areas and get our skills guys the puck.” That’s exactly what he’s done, too; after three games, he ranks 11th on the team in scoring but sits at a plus-2, the fifth-highest among Canada’s forwards. Of course, when he has the chance to score, he won’t waste the opportunity.
Still, Ostapchuk has largely been overlooked on the ice, especially as Bedard continues to become one of the greatest junior players Canada has ever seen. But that doesn’t mean his efforts go unnoticed by his teammates, and that’s likely what he prides himself in – doing the dirty work so that his team can succeed.
Ostapchuk’s Hard Work is Paying Off
Just as it was in 2022, his hard work and positive attitude were bound to catch up with him. Ahead of the New Year’s Eve game against Sweden, Williams talked with TSN’s Mark Masters about the plan to move Ostapchuk up to the third line alongside Colton Dach and Zach Dean, saying, “He plays just an honest, workmanlike game, a guy we can trust. He’ll be first on the forecheck, back on the track, he’ll finish all his checks, make sure the puck gets out, so we thought we’d give him a shot on that line.”
The Swedes promise to be Canada’s toughest competition yet, but thanks to Ostapchuk, the team feels prepared to face them. “He’s definitely a true leader with the way he plays out there,” said defenceman Brandt Clarke to Masters. “We do a lot of video where it’s just like, ‘Hey, watch [Ostapchuk] here, watch the way he backcheck, watch the way he tracks.’ That makes it easy for our D because their guys are breaking out the puck and they have him right on their butt right away.”
Yet Ostapchuk isn’t worried too much about what the future brings, instead focusing on each game as it comes. When asked about what he will take away from this tournament, he responded with, “I mean, obviously you get to play in front of a big crowd, it’s Christmas time, and everybody is able to come out and watch, and I think being able to play under pressure in front of the fans and the roaring crowds, and I mean, it’s been really fun but I think that’s something I’ll be able to take away is just being able to handle that pressure.”
From his attitude off the ice to his work ethic on it, Ostapchuk makes those he plays with better. On a team loaded with high-skill players, he’s the perfect fit to ensure that those players can succeed. Sure, it doesn’t get a lot of recognition, nor does he wear a letter on his jersey, but he has established himself as the team’s unofficial leader and will give Canada an excellent chance at winning another gold medal.