Backhand Shelf will be running a daily recap of the major stories and events during the World Junior Championship thanks to our man on the ground in Alberta, Jonathan Willis. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There were many questions worth asking at Canada’s Christmas Day practice, but the one at the top of every mind was which goaltender would get the start for the Canadian team.
Don Hay, the head coach of this year’s entry, has already made his decision. But making a decision and making a decision public are two very different things, as Hay proved when he declined to identify which goaltender would get the nod between the pipes for Canada. Hay’s playing his cards very close to the vest – even the goaltenders don’t know who will be starting in net at this point.
What Hay would say is that both goalies should feel they have the confidence of the coaching staff. He also said that he had confidence in the goalie he’d chosen.
Mark Visentin, the incumbent starter, claimed the top job midway through last year’s tournament from Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Olivier Roy. Unfortunately, Visentin is likely best remembered for his part in Team Canada’s third period collapse against Russia in the tournament’s deciding game. Still, last season’s OHL goalie of the year was still expected to be Canada’s go-to player between the pipes. A shaky game against Sweden in pre-tournament action has called into question whether he will in fact get the nod.
The team’s other option is Scott Wedgewood. The unheralded goaltender was praised by Hay prior to Canada’s practice; the head coach said he was “one of the biggest surprises” on the team during both selection camp and in exhibition play. Wedgewood’s “calm and cool demeanor” stood out to the coach, and was as evident off the ice as on it. When introduced with a proclamation of “Scott Wedgewood” by Hockey Canada communications director André Brin, Wedgewood looked around in mock confusion and asked, “Does anyone know who that is?” He spoke repeatedly about his confidence in net, and how he viewed himself as an acrobatic and aggressive goaltender.
Regardless of which player Hay has settled on, the requirement is clear. Asked about Wedgewood’s style, the soft-spoken head coach smiled and after offering that Wedgewood was a fairly typical butterfly goalie made it clear what he expects from his goaltender:
“Just stop the puck,” he said. “That’s the main style.”
Around The Rink
- Injuries have been a source of concern for Canada, a team which took a few banged up players to the tournament with them. It shouldn’t be a concern right now though, as Hay attested that everybody on the team “is 100%.”
- Canada’s first opponent will be Finland, a team boasting some major offensive stars. Nineteen year old center Mikael Granlund is the club’s most potent scorer, and is one of the best non-NHL players in the world right now. He has 16 goals and 38 points in just 30 games playing against men back home in Finland. He missed last year’s tournament because of injury but made up for it in the summer, when he scored at a point-per-game pace to help Finland to a gold medal at the IIHF World Championships. Hay indicated that he knows which line he wants to use against Granlund, saying that he has guys he “trusts on both sides of the puck,” but told the assembled media that they would have to wait until the opening faceoff to see who he actually planned to use against the player who might be the best in the tournament.
- The loss against Sweden certainly showed that Canada is far from a shoe-in to win the World Juniors, but according to Hay that may not be entirely a bad thing. “A loss gets players’ attention,” the coach said, “and gives us an opportunity to teach.” Devante Smith-Pelley, on loan from the Anaheim Ducks for the tournament, was matter-of-fact on the importance of the loss. “In the end, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
- All of the players interviewed were collected and professional, but team captain Jaden Schwartz was probably the most self-possessed. Asked how players were handling the pressure of playing on such a large stage, Schwartz observed that “pressure means you have a chance to do something great.” He came across as rather intense, and certainly focused – though given that he missed the end of last year’s tournament after fracturing his left ankle, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise.
- Hockey Canada’s close relationship with the Edmonton Oilers continues unabated. Not only have they moved into the Oilers’ dressing room, but on Christmas Eve the team dined at Kevin Lowe’s house and bumped shoulders with people like Lowe and Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini.
- Given the nature of this tournament, many of the players participating on different national teams have played with each other in college or junior, or at the very least have some familiarity with each other from playing in prior tournaments, like the under-18’s. Jamie Oleksiak summed up what those sort of relationships mean when the games start for real. “When it comes down to it, you’re here to do a job,” he said, “and you leave friendship aside.”
- As intense as the spotlight is here, and even during a rather up-tempo practice, there were still amusing moments as the players skated. A puck into the bench sent coaches ducking for cover and generated a few smiles, while veteran (for this group at least) Quinton Howden’s tumble to the ice during practice drew whistles and cat-calls from his teammates. That sort of spirit punctuated the entire practice – while Hay kept the players both moving and focused it was abundantly clear that most were enjoying themselves immensely.