Canada has the man advantage over rivals at world juniors
There were two dominant eras for Canada at the Junior World Championship. The nation first got its start in competition in the early 1990s, winning seven of the first eight gold medals awarded earlier in the decade. Canada placed soon after, finishing either first or second for 10 consecutive championships from 2002 - a stretch that included a record of five consecutive junior gold medals.
It has largely been hit or missed since then, and the country will likely never be as dominant as it is at certain checkpoints in its history. Rival power nations are now simply too strong, while others once considered inferior have closed the void, removing the advantage of making the preliminary round.
Given how difficult it is now to tie together junior world titles, Hockey Canada, winner of two of the last three tournaments, has the opportunity to establish a more modern version of a U20 dynasty with a triumph on home ice next year Weeks under the first-time head coach and longtime assistant Andre Tourigny.
Can Canada repeat in the Junior Ice Hockey World Championship? Peter Kovalev / TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev \ TASS via Getty Images)
Canada is the clear favorite for the tournament to be played in the most unique of conditions in the Edmonton Bubble - the hockey fortress that will have to deny COVID-19 virus entry for a second event after successfully qualifying for the NHL prevailed the summer.
Here's a look at how Canada is building, how it got here, and what to expect.
Loaded for bears
It seems that Canada is not very similar to either of its past two gold medalists. Where it was a seedy outsider unit three years ago, it was a group that largely revolved around one of the most precious prospects in recent history, Alexis Lafreniere, last time around. This winter, the team is characterized by its depth of top-end, but perhaps not exactly elite talent.
This Canadian team is the product of two incredibly strong proposals from the potential pipeline. The final roster featured an astonishing 20 NHL first-round blue chips (chosen from a total of 32), including 10 top picks from each of the last two drafts. Only two skaters - defenders Kaedan Korczak and Jordan Spence - don't have this pedigree among skaters, which means that more than 90 percent of the non-goalkeepers on the team have first-round prospects.
While all of these players - including Korczak and Spence, selected in the second and fourth rounds, respectively - are expected to be considered at the next level, the team may not necessarily share a common trait many successful Canadian teams have in common. Between Quinton Byfield and Dylan Cozens and an incredible top pair of Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale, the Canadians may have the unique talent or dominant combination to draw upon to change games and accommodate big moments - much like Lafreniere Did it in the last tournament John Tavares and Carter Hart did it like Connor McDavid in the past. What seems more likely of this group, however, is that they will win on volume, not by relying on excellence - which is only underscored by the fact that NHL established striker Kirby Dach entered the tournament after an injury in Canada Lone will miss tuning game, a win against Russia.
But how's that for the deep? Returning Byfield, who was ranked 2nd overall in the last NHL draft and will be the youngest player on the roster for a second straight year, is expected to be lifted from the center slot on the fourth row to fill the void to leave roof to fill.
The talent is very rich for Canada this winter. Because of this, this team is becoming one of the better versions of what Canada has done in the past, which is to win international events with the strength and depth of its program.
This one weakness?
Another common issue for Canada is a lack of star power on the web. Sure, Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carter Hart are some of the net miners who have emerged as the undisputed number 1 for Canada in previous juniors, but most of the time Canadians seem to play hunches and choose their "guy". from a selection of unannounced options.
This will also be the case in Canada. Devon Levi, a seventh-round selection of the Florida Panthers, appears to have an edge over Taylor Gauthier and Dylan Garand, a fourth-round selection of the New York Rangers.
While at the moment it looks like Levi is about to lose the wrinkle, let's not forget what happened last winter when Joel Hofer took the job from Nico Daws and topped an outstanding goal class that matched the outstanding round one talent, Spencer Knight and Yaroslav Askarov. It is entirely possible that Levi will stall, that either Gauthier or Garand will be needed, and that Canada will require one of them to rise above the returning start netminders for the US and Russia respectively.
The bumpy road
As rosy as things may seem to the Canadians, there are certain downsides for the team that should be considered the strongest on paper. The first is the fact that the Junior World Championship will be the first competitive event that almost the entire squad has seen in many months.
Major potential pipelines for Canadian talent have essentially been closed as the country continues to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in conflict with much of what is happening in Europe. Many top leagues are trudging forward, allowing many prospects to continue their on-ice development.
Hockey Canada's plans to compensate for this inaction were to host a month-long mega training camp that begins six weeks before the tournament begins on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, those plans were quickly thrown out when positive COVID-19 tests were discovered in the warehouse, forcing players into emergency quarantine. Rather than simulating the high-level competition they had foregone, players were now limited to the confines of their hotel rooms and their workouts were reduced to those organized through Zoom.
Team Canada has since been back on the ice to speed up its preparations. Only time will tell if it will be enough.
Which teams to worry about
It's the usual list of candidates for the Junior World Crown, but Canada has the luxury of avoiding most of them as clear Group A favorites until the knockout stage.
On the flip side, Russia and the US are right behind Canada in terms of favorites, while Sweden, despite being hard hit by the COVID-19 virus in the lead-up to the event, remains strong - even if it's a whopping 51 - an unbeaten game run in the preliminary round of the tournament seems to be in danger in the loaded group B.
Russia has quite a bit of firepower led by an exciting top line that is expected to see Rodion Amirov and Vasili Podkolzin. The Russians also have one of the best scoring opportunities in recent history, the aforementioned Askarov, who should be motivated to perform after a memorable tournament last winter.
The Americans are a little snakebite entering the competition, losing a trio from Boston University as well as a returnable striker with a pedigree in the first round in John Beecher. That said, there's a ton of talent on the roster, which includes five lottery selections from the 2019 NHL draft for strikers Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield and Matthew Boldy, as well as Knight. Draft-ready striker Matthew Beniers is also featured.
After all, Sweden has lost both on-ice and coaching talents. Tre Kroner will be without a handful of incredibly important players, including William Eklund, who is a candidate for the best draft, as well as several members of his coaching staff after testing positive at their camp. Nevertheless, the Swedes have great talent between Lukas Raymond and Alexander Holtz.
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