Canada's junior hockey team is shaping up to be another young one.
The country won a fourth consecutive world junior hockey championship in January with one of the youngest in the tournament's history. The average age was 18 years 11 months. Only three others since 1982 have been under 19.
The Canadian team chasing a fifth title starting Dec. 26 in Ottawa will look similarly youthful.
A selection camp roster of about 35 players, invited by Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray, will be announced the first week of December. Twenty-two players will be chosen by head coach Pat Quinn and his assistants by Dec. 15 to represent Canada in the world under-20 men's championship.
Eight 19-year-olds eligible to play for Canada are currently toiling in the NHL. Few or none of them will be available to the junior team. So while Murray is evaluating the rest of Canada's players born in 1989, he's mining for talent in the classes of 1990 and even 1991.
"I think there's depth in the 1989 age group, but when you take away eight guys to the NHL and add in a couple of injuries, all of a sudden that depth disappears," Murray said.
"Last year's team will probably be similar in structure in age to this year's team."
Those eight NHL players - Sam Gagner, Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Kyle Turris, Colton Gillies, Josh Bailey, Brandon Sutter and Steven Stamkos - would be virtual shoo-ins for the Canadian team if they were available. Without them, Murray's player pool expands exponentially because he's looking at two or three to take one of those jobs.
"You'd think there's just 10 guys to replace 10 guys, but there's really about 20 guys to replace those 10 and several of them are younger players," he explained.
"It opens up a lot more spots for a lot more players and it takes a little longer to figure out who should be coming (to selection camp) and what attributes you're looking for in the players, what you're missing from the team and what you're trying to fill in when you invited guys to camp."
Murray is currently scouting players in the six-game ADT Canada-Russia Challenge. Game 3 was Thursday in Guelph, Ont., and Game 4 is Monday in St. Catharines before the series heads west.
Murray had a say in selecting players from the Western, Ontario and Quebec major junior leagues for the series because their performance will help him decide who gets an invitation to selection camp in Ottawa. The majority of players on the QMJHL and OHL squads were 18 or under.
There are players in the series who won a world under-18 championship under Quinn in April and the annual under-18 summer tournament in the Czech Republic in August: Windsor defenceman Ryan Ellis and forward Taylor Hall, Brandon forward Brayden Schenn and Brampton forward Matthew Duchene.
Forwards Zach Boychuk of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and John Tavares of the Oshawa Generals, and defencemen Thomas Hickey of the Seattle Thunderbirds and P.K. Subban of the Belleville Bulls are 19-year-olds who won gold with the previous Canadian team. They would have to play themselves off the squad at selection camp not to represent their country again.
Youth isn't a hindrance to winning a gold medal, as Canada proved in Pardubice, Czech Republic, "as long as you have the right players," Murray said.
"I think this group of players that we're evaluating, if they're not 19, they've had great experiences as 18-and 17-year olds," Murray said. "The early steps are huge and I think it's going to show more and more that early prep can really get guys ready to be good players at a younger age."
The NHL's economy has a hand in the age of Canada's junior team. Teenagers are considered indispensable to their NHL clubs, not only on the ice, but also on the payroll because they are relatively cheap labour.
The most recent collective bargaining agreement forged after the lockout of 2004-05 reduced a rookie's annual salary to less than US$1 million per year, slashed signing bonuses and capped performance bonuses on their three-year contracts.
While signing and playing a teenager starts him early on the road to unrestricted free agency after seven years of service, an emerging trend in the NHL is to sign him to a lucrative and long-term second contract that keeps him in the fold into their late 20s.
Philadelphia's Mike Richards, Canada's junior team captain in 2005, and Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who also played on that team, are examples of that.
Phaneuf signed a six-year, US$39-million deal at age 21 and Richards was locked in for a whopping 12 years for $69 million at the same age.