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Golden hopes for Team Canada

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Brad Marchand (above) and Karl Alzner are the only two remaining players from last year's gold-medal team.
The World Junior Championships tournament is an annual rite of passage for hockey’s top prospects. For young Canadian players, the honor of wearing the maple leaf crest of Team Canada always has come with a lot of pressure.

Nothing but a gold medal will satisfy in a land where hockey is a way of life and Team Canada has won 10 gold medals in the last 17 Under-20 world championship tournaments, including the last three in a row.

Coach Craig Hartsburg’s squad enters the 2008 tournament, to be held in Pardubice and Liberec in the Czech Republic, as the overwhelming favorite to win another gold medal. The expectations have been raised even further by Team Canada’s dominance over Russia in the Super Series prior to the season.

But the coach and his players seem to be taking it all in stride.

“There’s always pressure, but you can’t get caught up in that,” said Hartsburg. “We have to embrace the challenge and come ready to work each game. Nothing is a given, especially in a short tournament. Attention to detail is crucial. I’ve been privileged to work with some outstanding groups of young players.”

As usual, the Canadian roster is stacked with talent at every position. Hartsburg faced some enviable problems paring down the preliminary roster. The most notable cuts included 2007 Pittsburgh Penguins first-round NHL Entry Draft pick Angelo Esposito and Calgary Flames goaltending prospect Leland Irving.

Leadership

A former NHL head coach with Chicago and Anaheim, Hartsburg, the Sault Ste. Marie coach, returns for his second year at the helm of Canada’s U-20 team. Prior to running the bench himself, Hartsburg served as Brent Sutter’s assistant.

Hartsburg is known as a demanding coach, but also a good teacher and a stickler for preparation. In interviews, he frequently stresses that the biggest challenge of meeting high expectations at the WJC is to quickly forge a bond of trust within the team – both between the players and him and also amongst the players themselves.

The nucleus of players that spearheaded Canada’s last two gold-medal squads has graduated. Only two players from last year’s team remain -- defenseman Karl Alzner and center Brad Marchand. With potential top WJC-eligible players such as 2007 participants Jonathan Toews and Sam Gagner, as well as high-scoring David Perron, playing in the NHL, the Canadian team will need other players to pick up the slack.

The WJC often is dominated by 19-year-old players, but this year’s Canadian roster features a greater number of younger players than a “typical” year.

The kiddie crop, which includes Kyle Turris (third overall pick of the 2007 Entry Draft), Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty (the likely first and second picks of the 2008 Draft) and 2009-eligible wunderkind John Tavares is exceptionally talented and mature.

The poised and articulate Alzner, who turned 19 in September, has been named captain of this year’s squad. Marchand, Brandon Sutter and defenseman Logan Pyett have been named alternates.

Forwards

The sum of individual talent on a team doesn’t necessarily correlate to its chemistry on the ice. But this version of Team Canada should have plenty of skill, grit and players with two-way ability. It has been constructed to be a team, not just a collection of the highest scorers on their respective junior teams.

If the Canada forwards perform up to the level shown in the Super Series, they likely will play with the lead in most games. As always, patience is a must. Opponents such as Sweden likely will take a defensive posture against Canada and attempt to frustrate the Canadians into mistakes that lead to counter-attacking opportunities.

Flyers' prospect, Claude Giroux, makes up one-third of Team Canada's top forward line.

The top forward line for Canada heading into the tournament consists of Turris, Marchand and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Claude Giroux. While that trio may give up a bit of size (Marchand and Giroux) and muscle (Turris) if and when Canada runs into Team USA in the medal round, the unit also is extremely skilled, creative and tenacious when they sense a scoring opportunity.

Behind the top unit, offensive support should come from the likes of recently signed Florida Panthers prospect Shawn Matthias, the sublimely skilled Stamkos, Tavares and small, speedy Zach Boychuk, 2007 Columbus Blue Jackets draftee Stefan Legein and Los Angeles Kings selection Wayne Simmonds (who is having a breakthrough junior season offensively, as well as adding some feistiness).

On the checking lines, Brandon Sutter will be called upon to shut down the oppositions’ top forward units, while Colton Gillies will throw his weight around and stir the pot.

Defense

Last year, Canada came into the tournament knowing it could rely on experienced juniors such as Luc Bourdon, Ryan Parent and Kris Letang to play heavy minutes. This year’s starting defense is a little younger in general, but just as deep and arguably a little better offensively.

Alzner will serve as Canada’s top shut-down defenseman going into the tournament, while Logan Pyett will be a key trigger man on the power play. Top Los Angeles Kings selection Thomas Hickey is expected to provide mobility and a two-way game. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds backliner Josh Godfrey has played well all season and clearly has won Hartsburg’s trust. Offensive-minded Montreal Canadiens prospect P.K. Subban should contribute on the power play.

Among the youngsters on the Canadian blue line, many NHL scouts have said that Super Series participant Doughty (who recently turned 18), with his combination of skating ability, physical play, breakout passing and heavy shot, has franchise-defenseman potential.

Doughty played with Alzner at the Super Series and once again could wind up logging heavy ice time. Likewise, Luke Schenn impressed at the Super Series and is ticketed as a high-end first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.

Goaltending

Team Canada has a legacy of outstanding WJC goaltending, and this year’s tandem of Jonathan Bernier and Steve Mason have an especially tough act to follow. Last year, Carey Price (now with the Montreal Canadiens) was nothing short of sensational in goal.

Thus far, Hartsburg has been noncommittal about publicly naming a No. 1 goaltender. He also has raised the possibility of Bernier and Mason splitting time.

Bernier, who opened the season with the Los Angeles Kings before returning to the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the QMJHL, would seem to be the favorite to grab the starting spot and run with it. He’s known for his strong positioning, fast reflexes and poise under pressure. Last year, he lost out on a roster spot to Irving. This year, Bernier sent Irving packing.

But don’t count out Mason. The Columbus prospect is regarded as the stronger puckhandler of the two, and covers more net in close because he has a larger frame. The London Knights goalie arguably has had the more consistent junior season of the two.

Intangibles

The unavailability of players like Toews and Gagner, as well as the more youthful look to the Canadian lineup, has slightly elevated the anxiety level in Canada. But most observers, within and beyond the Great White North, still expect Team Canada to leave the Czech Republic with the gold.

Canada’s preliminary-round bracket is a little less difficult this year than last, at least on paper. This year, Team USA is in the other preliminary pool while Sweden’s roster does not seem quite as good as the 2007 version. Like the Canadians, the Swedes feature a younger look this year.

But the Canadians will face a tough challenge right to start, playing the Czechs on their home turf. Last year in Sweden, Team Canada handled a similar challenge with aplomb, dispatching the host team despite being outplayed in stretches.

Ultimately, however, Canada’s fate will be determined by what happens in the medal round.

While the Canadians clearly will be favored against any of their likely medal-round foes, including Team USA and Team Russia, anything can happen in a one-game playoff, especially if a shootout comes into play. It’s easy to forget that Canada needed a shootout victory last year to squeak past Team USA and into the gold-medal game.

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