Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, arguably the top offensive duo in the country, was notoriously separated for this tournament.

For the fourth consecutive year, Canada will fail to win gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships. That’s not too concerning in itself, since Canada went without a gold in longer stretches between 1977-1981 and 1998-2004. The team lost by a goal in 2010 and thanks to an uncanny collapse in 2011. It’s not as though there’s a long stretch where the team has significantly under-performed.

Even less than ten years ago, Canada could have no problem icing a roster that wasn’t their best simply because there was no guarantee the top rivals in the tournament would be able to put together a team of 23 junior players who were all going to have professional careers at some level. Recently, that aspect has changed. USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program is well established at this point, and Sweden made changes to its coaching and recruitment techniques back in the early part of the last decade, which appear to be paying off for them.

Canada hasn’t particularly lagged. Canada has enough interest and facilities nationwide that a centralized development program isn’t needed. There’s no doubt it my mind that there is a team to be made up of Canadian hockey players under the age of 20 that could have been a surer bet to win the world championship this year.

Some years, Canada faces the challenge of losing some of their best under 20 players to the National Hockey League. The vast majority of below-20 players in the NHL have been Canadian-born and trained, but that’s not an excuse the team can use this year. They’re still 4-1, mind you, they still put together a very impressive showing against the Russians and did beat the vaunted Americans, but they spent two games against the U.S. banking on their goaltender and generating weaker chances in a high-paced game.

There’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that Canadian players aren’t talented enough or speedy enough or skilled enough, but there’s a real question as to why the organization recruits coaches tied up in traditional mindsets, who attempt to select the best first liners, the best second liners, the best third liners and the best fourth liners in the nation rather than the best 12 forwards to make up four lines.

Blaming teenagers for a loss absolves blame for the organization for poor coaching and uncreative systems management. Each year, there seems to be a focus on bringing aboard three or four players who are second or third liners on their individual junior teams, selected because they’re having an uncharacteristically good enough offensive season to cover the fact that pretty well all they can do is bang and crash.

That’s fine when you’re the Kamloops Blazers and you’re competing against the Kelowna Rockets. Having a host of players who can only dump and chase the puck on international ice, who lack the trust of their coach to skate the puck in, go speed-on-speed and create scoring chances. Beyond Canada’s top players at this tournament, the bottom three lines had trouble creating much offence or anything in the way of scoring chances.

To me it seems odd to keep top scoring talent like Hunter Shinkaruk, Sean Monahan, or Seth Griffith at home or the potential No. 1 overall-select in Nathan MacKinnon stapled to the bench while consistently playing players who dump and chase, bang bodies in the corner and generate little in the ways of scoring chances.

Again, this tournament ought not to be an indictment of the whole Canadian hockey system, but there exists somewhat of a complacency when it comes to international tournaments. It doesn’t help the perception of the organization when the coach frequently disagrees with the International Ice Hockey standards of checking.

[Here's a good piece from James Mirtle at the Globe: Americans continue ascent in the hockey world]

What of Yakupov?

“I will have to keep a cool head and ignore provocations,” Yakupov was quoted as saying by R-Sport. “Especially against the Canadians. These guys play dirty. We got used to that, we played a few games in North America, so our team is ready.”

The backlash to these comments in Canada forced Nail Yakupov to trot out in front of a few microphones to reporters in Ufa to explain himself, where he used a translator to clarify his comments.

Don Cherry took exception to the comments that made headlines across all outlets in Canada. A story from Roy MacGregor that actually downplayed the importance of the comments was literally tagged with the headline “Yakupov refuses to elaborate on alleged anti-Canadian slur”. Newspaper reporters don’t get the chance to use their own headlines, but that’s mostly what people take away from a story from a quick glance.

As MacGregor explained,

despite Sprague Cleghorn, despite the Richard Riots, despite Bobby Clarke in the ’72 Summit Series, despite Gordie Howe’s elbows, despite the pregame bench-clearing brawl of the Flyers and Canadiens, despite the headhunting, despite even the two majors and two match penalties assigned Canada in Friday’s 6-3 win over Slovakia – CANNOT BEAR BEING CALLED DIRTY!

Forget the stuff from the past and concentrate on this season. Canada had two majors and two match penalties in a single game against Slovakia. They were already without Boone Jenner who had delivered an absurdly late hit on Jesper Pettersson. Count the four game suspension to Griffin Reinhart for his slash in Canada’s semifinal game and the game Jonathan Huberdeau sat out of pre-tournament competition to honour his suspension for tackling a linesman, and that’s nine games Canadian players lost due to suspension while overseas. I don’t see why Yakupov even had to retract his comments.

After a fairly lax performance against Switzerland in the quarterfinal, Yakupov drew the ire of reporters again for not coming out to face the media, being called a “prima donna” “making people wonder” who “needs a wake-up call”. It didn’t seem like the major issue was whether Yakupov was playing a good tournament otherwise or not, but whether he’d come out to face the media, as if talking with reporters exists as the sporting world’s confessional where a player can be cleansed of his sins.

Talking to reporters doesn’t change anything. The fact that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins came out to talk to reporters after a bad game doesn’t make him any more honourable than Yakupov. He knows the majority of media members already, speaks their language and knows how to work a cliché. Can you find anything useful any of the 11 Canadian players said in TSN’s reaction video?

Let it be known whenever a player says anything remotely interesting or truthful that he will face scrutiny. Then, when he’s wary of saying anything else, call him out for that, too.

Comments (16)

  1. I’m a little confused. This sentiment would apply to many teams of the past. This sentiment would apply to past Olympic teams (Rob Zamuner?). But didn’t this team get built exactly like you ask? Their 4th line featured the top scorers from the Q and the W. Where are these role playing grinders?

    • Anthony Camara and JC Lipon are excellent scorers this year. That doesn’t mean they’re good scorers. In fact, they were notably NOT scorers in years past, which is probably why they didn’t make the summer team. Neither of those players looked suitably dangerous at any point in the tournament.

      Meanwhile, Phillip Danault, Mark McNeill, Boone Jenner and Brett Ritchie, who have offensive talent, played on the lines that required them to dump the puck in. I’m looking at the roster and can’t think of why the team didn’t have three effective scoring lines.

      • I fully expected TC to take a guy like Wilson and leave MacKinnon and Drouin at home. I was pleasantly surprised that they took skill for the most part. I also think that their is some utility in a line of Jenner, Danault and Hudon (before injury). I think we saw this briefly in the Russia game. So are we only talking about the utilization of the 4th line here? MacNeill is really the only guy you list that I agree with.

        I’m completely on board with the unnecessary Canadian fetish with grinders but I’m not so sure that happened here rather than poor overall play in conjunction with some clumsy management by Spott.

  2. Awesome article Cam, couldn’t agree more.

    While I was happy that Canada stayed away from bringing Tom Wilson, in retrospect, they could have still iced a more effective roster.

    As for Yakupov, I don’t see the big deal with his comments. With all due respect to Don Cherry, he has called Russian players much worse.

  3. Cam, can you find something useful after any Interviews ? Always the same questions. I can answer at home before the player do.

    You are right, pick the 12 best forwards and that’s it.
    Good article.

  4. Totally agree. I have always found it strange when a Canadian kid is picked top 10, plays well in the NHL as an 18 year-old but wasn’t deemed good enough for the World Juniors in his draft year.

  5. There is a pretty good reason why he looked for 4th liners to fill the 4th line role.

    1st liners get 20+ minutes a game. 4th liners usually get less than 10 minutes.

    Its very hard when youre used to 20 minutes a game to play your balls off in the 8 minutes you get. Hard to spend so much time on the bench between shifts. Unless youre used to it.

    Worst season of my life was the year I went from a first line D to a third line D.
    I remember literally shivering on the bench after warmup. Hard to play an excellent shift immediately after that.

    • Oddly, none of the 4th liners on the Canadian Olympic team had that problem. Weird how elite hockey players are still able to play elite hockey when called upon to do so.

  6. Good points all around.

    Gretzky looked stupid for leaving Crosby at home in 06 to bring a guy like Draper. TC looks just as bad giving a roster spot that could have been used for McDavid to Lipton, whose only contribution in this tournament was a senseless suspension against a nothing team.

    Also, dumping the puck isn’t a good idea on big ice. More often than not, the D retrieves it easily. If he lets you get it first, he’ll be traveling at a higher speed then he would on a forecheck and just crush the retriever.

    And I don’t see how Canada could think it’s in any way controversial that an assembled team with, what, 5(?) more suspensions than the next highest team might be characterized as playing “dirty.”

  7. Add my hat to the ring of never understanding while grind line guys get spots on the world junior team. Plenty of those players are very talented (and better than me) but when you look at the two Olympic Wins how many 3rd and 4th liners made those teams? In 2010 you had 4 lines of 1st liners, who adapted to the place in the lineup they got and the 4th line wasn’t limited to just 4-6 minutes a game either.

    I thought McKinnon was wasted on this team. I also don’t get why you wouldn’t put him with Drouin and keep that chemistry going that they have in the Q.

  8. The concept of utilizing a “traditional” lineup of top scorers, secondary scorers, grinders and dump-and-chasers is what brought home Olympic gold in 2010. That said, at the junior level it is a different game, and I do agree with much of this post.

    • So which guys were grinders on the 2010 Olympic team again? Rick Nash? Mike Richards? Brendan Morrow? Virtually every player on that roster was a first-liner on their NHL team. There were no Shawn Thornton’s on that team, even though half of Canada apparently thinks he’s a better player than Joe Thornton.

      • Theres something to be said for having guys who can play D. Toews was a checker in Vancouver. But I think the best defensive forwards are likely some of the older players anyway (e.g. huberdeau, RNH)

  9. on the plus side, mcKinnon being stapled to the bench gives TSN enough reason to sell Seth Jones as a possible number one pick to hype the shit out of their draft special, my guess is they’ll probably pull a 2009, Tavares, hedman or duchene, this year it wont be catchy like taylor or Tyler.. but whos it gonna be, Mckinnon, Jones or drouin…also hooray for Yakupov, Canada is dirty Don Cherry knows it, he just likes to yell

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