MONTREAL -- Canada's biggest weakness at the IIHF World Junior Championship has generally been a lack of discipline, or at least an inability to adjust to the standards of international officials.
Coach Benoit Groulx has been clear throughout Canada's summer development camp this week that no one will make the team or get cut in August, but the final scrimmage of the camp against the Czech Republic on Friday might have hurt the chances of some players because of their inability to maintain discipline.
With the Czechs leading 5-2 in the third period, Canada took 11 minor penalties, one major penalty and four misconducts during the final 13:40 of the game in its only loss of the four-game exhibition tournament that also included Russia.
The parade to the penalty box was triggered by an open-ice hit from Czech defenseman Marek Baranek on Canada forward Robby Fabbri at 6:20 of the third period, one that knocked the St. Louis Blues prospect out of the game and forced him to leave the arena on crutches.
"What we just saw is not the way we want to play," a disappointed Groulx said following the 5-2 loss. "It's a good lesson that we can take from this game, and it taught something to us as coaches from what we saw from certain players."
Groulx didn't name anyone in particular, but one look at the scoresheet gives an idea of who he meant.
Anaheim Ducks prospect Nick Ritchie was given a minor and a misconduct for a hit to the head at 4:04 of the third period, then was assessed a fighting major, an instigating minor and was ejected from the game after he repeatedly punched the head of Czech defenseman Lukas Klok well after the final buzzer. Klok hit Canada defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers, in a game Tuesday and gave him a concussion, ending his camp.
Arizona Coyotes forward prospect Max Domi was given a minor penalty and a misconduct for a check to the head 1:20 after the hit on Fabbri, and Calgary Flames prospect Sam Bennett was assessed a roughing misconduct at 12:40 of the third coming to the defense of center Connor McDavid, the top prospect for the 2015 draft.
"It's too bad the way we responded in the third period," Groulx said. "But it's a training camp, we've learned a lot from our players and I think that's a lesson we have to learn today about how to respond. Even though you're tired and it's tough and the game's not going your way, this is adversity. We wanted to see how some guys would respond in adversity. We're very happy with some guys' response, and disappointed with other guys' response. This is why we're having a training camp."
In a tournament like the WJC, where a loss of concentration in an elimination game can be disastrous, episodes like what Canada showed Friday are something Groulx and Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski will be looking to avoid.
Philadelphia Flyers defense prospect Samuel Morin was another player who spent a lot of time in the penalty box Friday. He was assessed four minors, including one for slashing just after leaving the box for the roughing minor he was assessed for challenging Baranek following his hit on Fabbri.
Morin had an excellent camp by all accounts, showing remarkable mobility for a player who is 6-foot-7, but Groulx was not impressed with what he saw from the defenseman Friday.
"I thought he had a good camp," Groulx said. "But at a certain point, that's not what we want to see. That can't happen on the world stage. It's a lesson for him, and not only for Samuel Morin but for the team and for other guys also."
The problem for Morin, and for several of the Canadian players, is the style of play that gets them in trouble in international tournaments is oftentimes the primary source of their success and the reason they were drafted to begin with. To turn off that aggressive instinct when representing their country at the highest level of junior hockey can sometimes be difficult.
"I got drafted in the NHL, so for some it's a weakness and for others it's a strength. But I need to be careful with that. Sometimes I do the same thing and I'm not in the penalty box, other games I am. I need to be careful," said Morin, who was being watched in the stands by Flyers GM Ron Hextall on Friday. "We need to adjust to the refereeing. We won't see the same calls with European refs; they can be more strict than we are in North America. So we just need to adjust. I think the whole team was frustrated at the end."
In another sense, several of the players felt proud of the way they went after the Czechs following the hit on Fabbri, seeing it as a sign of solidarity and team-building to defend a fallen teammate.
"I thought we came together as a team, we didn't back down and we stuck up for each other really well," said Vancouver Canucks forward prospect Bo Horvat, who wore the captain's "C" in the game. "I thought we came together really well. In a short period of time we were like a family, and everyone stuck up for each other."
Canada enters the 2015 World Junior Championship having gone two years without a medal and five straight years without a gold medal. With the tournament on home ice in Toronto and Montreal, the pressure to snap both those streaks in one swoop will be enormous.
That pressure might force players to snap, just as they did Friday. If Groulx needed an example of what happens when "sticking up for each other" simply turns into a total lack of discipline and composure, he got a great one against the Czechs to close out camp.
"You can't have a better example than that," Groulx said. "As I said all week, this is the beginning of a long [selection] process, but [discipline] is something we're going to look at closely. The reaction of our players tonight, mentally we felt we had pushed in the second to get back in the game, but once it became 5-2 in the third it was more difficult.
"This is why we organized this camp, to have the players face some adversity. Today, we didn't get the response we wanted, that's for sure."
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