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Canada could be missing top players this winter

by Chris Stevenson /

BROSSARD, Quebec  -- Come Christmas, Canada national junior team coach Benoit Groulx knows what he would like to find under the tree.

The presence of some blue-chip prospects to help boost Canada's chances of ending a five-year gold medal drought (and two years without a medal) would be at the top of his list, but whether he gets them has nothing to do with naughty or nice.

It's going to depend on how top picks like forwards Sam Reinhart, Curtis Lazar, Max Domi and Bo Horvat and defensemen like Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers, and Darnell Nurse fare with their NHL teams and where their general managers think it is best for them to play.

If they're good enough to contribute at the NHL level and benefit from playing and practicing there on a daily basis, Groulx and Canada will be out of luck.

Such is the lot of the coaches for the big hockey nations.

"I don't think it's tough, but sometimes when you look at your lineup, you see guys like Reinhart and Ekblad and the other guys you realize when you're on the ice with them how good they are. The person they are also off the ice. You're like, 'I know, we want them to be in the show,' but in a selfish way a little bit, you'd like to have them with you at Christmas time," Groulx said. "It's always the same thing. We're not the only team who might miss players at Christmas. Other teams are in the same boat. We have to deal with that. I still feel we have a good team without those guys if they're not back with us."

The center position at Hockey Canada's summer development camp is a good example of the kind of uncertainty that is certain in the world of junior hockey.

Will Reinhart, the second pick in the 2014 draft by the Buffalo Sabres, stick with the rebuilding team? Can Horvat, taken ninth in 2013 by the Vancouver Canucks, crack their retooled lineup? Ditto for Lazar, who was selected eight spots after Horvat by the Ottawa Senators.

"It's crazy. The talent here is really amazing. There are a lot of great players, a lot of great centermen," Horvat said. "Come Christmas time, I think we are going to have a really good team. If I'm fortunate enough to be back and playing in the world juniors, it's going to be a tough team to crack. We're going to have a strong team down the middle this year."

The Canadians have great potential depth at the center position, but simply don't know what they'll have come Christmas.

"I think that's a Canadian problem that we have at any level," said Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski. "Whether it's the Olympics, the under-18s we just went through this week or under-20s. We have some flexibility that some guys can play on the wing. That's part of this camp is give everybody a chance to show their stuff. As we watch the players, as we know the players a little bit more, who can play outside their position, who is comfortable on the wings. This year again with the NHL, you never know. You just make sure you have the right reads on everyone from this camp, from the scouting we've done in the past and also as we get into the season.

"They're important players for us and we'd love to have them, but that's not really going to be talked about until the middle of December. We keep waiting and hoping we can get those guys."

One of the players Canada should be able to count on is center Connor McDavid, the favorite to be the top pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. He played for Canada last year as a 16-year-old and will be playing for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League this season.

"It's huge for us and the experience he went through last year, he'll be better off as a result," Jankowski said. "Obviously this is his draft year, so there will be a lot of emphasis on him being in Canada as well. The thing about Connor that struck me since day one is how much more professional he is, how great of a kid he is and how he can handle that. He's going to be a better player too."

Horvat's goal is to make the Canucks, but if that's not in the cards, a return to junior hockey with the London Knights of the OHL for what would be a fourth season can still have its benefits and would be a potential boost for Canada.

"It would be nice to play in the world juniors again if I'm fortunate enough to make this team," he said. "If I do get a chance to go back to the Memorial Cup, I'd like to win it this time. I've had a good junior career so far, but I feel like I'm ready to move on and take the next step. If I had to go back, it's definitely not a bad thing."

For now, Groulx can enjoy this week's practices and exhibition games, and the luxury of watching players like Reinhart and the rest.

"Sam Reinhart is the kind of player when everything is disorganized on the ice, when he touches the puck, everything gets organized again," Groulx said. "That's a sign he knows what he's doing. That's a sign of maturity. That's a sign of a very good hockey player. There are not many players in the CHL that can have that kind of [ability]. Sam is doing everything right.

"I know how good he is, obviously. We'll see how he does in Buffalo. We'll see at Christmas."

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