World Junior hockey 2013: Canada helped by NHL's absence

Richard Wolowicz

With no NHL season in the way, Canada can send their absolute best to the 2013 WJCs. And for that reason, optimism is high that the dominant force of the tournament will return to the top of the podium for the first time since 2009.

From a Canadian perspective, the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship goes from periods of utter dominance to long droughts and then back again.

From 1993-97, Canada won five consecutive gold medals, only to be followed by eight years without. Then, during the last NHL lockout, Canada started a run of five consecutive gold medals again. It's been three years without a Canadian gold medal now, and the hope for the nation is that this current NHL lockout will again be the catalyst for another long run at the top of the podium. Last year marked the end of another streak: 10 straight appearances in the Final.

Anything less than a gold will be a loss for Canada, even if they extend their 14-year long medal run. And really, by the team they have picked here, there will be little room for excuses at the end of this tournament should they fall short.

Depth Chart - Forwards
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Jonathan Huberdeau* Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Mark Scheifele*
Jonathan Drouin Ryan Strome* Brett Ritchie
Charles Hudon Boone Jenner* Ty Rattie
Anthony Camara Phillip Danault J.C. Lipon
Nathan MacKinnon

There's no denying it, this is a pretty stellar group of players. In the pre-tournament action, Huberdeau will sit out the games, leaving Ty Rattie a chance to battle with 17-year-old Jonathan Drouin for the final spot in the top six (Charles Hudon is also an option there), but other than that the lineup is pretty much set.

Nathan MacKinnon, the future first overall draft pick who works best as a centre, is currently the odd man out but will certainly feature on the team's PP and when the team needs a goal later in games. Canada has a curious setup this year due to a weak 1994 birth year for forwards, with two 17-year-olds but only Hudon as an 18-year-old.

Considering the likelihood of Drouin and MacKinnon being top five draft selections, it is quite possible that Hudon will be the only returning forward to next year's team. But that's of little concern for Canada, which is all in for the gold on Russian soil.

It's an incredibly skilled group, one we're not used to seeing with such depth in Canada. The selection committee really took advantage of the riches the NHL lockout has afforded it and will be making all other countries try and match up to them as a result. Every line, including the 13th forward, features a top end junior scorer, and they are headlined by a high-end professional player in budding Oilers star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Key Player: It's easy to just say "all of them." Playing behind the top line, however, Ryan Strome should be able to put up some big numbers as he draws secondary defenders. Strome is a NHL quality prospect right now that shouldn't be in the tournament at all, and is the OHL's leading scorer.

For those counting, the 'breakdown' goes like this: QMJHL (5), OHL (5), WHL (2), AHL (1) with Nugent-Hopkins being a WHL graduate.

Depth Chart - Defense
Left Defense Right Defense
Morgan Rielly Dougie Hamilton*
Scott Harrington* Xavier Ouellet
Tyler Wotherspoon Ryan Murphy
Griffin Reinhart

Canada usually has their biggest advantage on the WJC competition at defense, and this year isn't much different in that regard. Dougie Hamilton is the anchor for the Canadian group, a dominant two-way presence that is possibly the only defender in the entire tournament that is of NHL quality right now.

Morgan Rielly was his partner in the Canada-Russia Super Series in August with great success. Scott Harrington is the other returning player from last year's bronze medal winners, and he should play with the lone QMJHL trained defender on this team, Red Wings prospect Xavier Ouellet.

And Ryan Murphy, the freewheeling defender who was a late cut the past two years for Canada, finally gets his shot on the bottom pairing. Tyler Wotherspoon occupies the "who's that guy?" spot on the Canadian roster, while 18-year- old Islanders prospect Griffin Reinhart adds size if needed to the group.

Key Player: The defense will revolve around Hamilton at both even strength and likely on the power play as well. The Bruins prospect is probably the favourite to walk away with top defender honours from the IIHF directorate. The absence of Blue Jackets prospect Ryan Murray due to a shoulder injury makes Hamilton's performance all the more critical.

The breakdown: OHL (3), WHL (3), QMJHL (1).

Goaltenders
Malcolm Subban
Jordan Binnington
Jake Paterson

Subban is the top Canadian goaltending prospect in at least five years, and while he's likely to be the starter, he had the roughest training camp of the three goalies chosen. Subban is an athletic keeper who plies his trade in Belleville of the OHL, which just happens to be the only major junior team to play its home games on an international-sized ice surface.

The angles of the rinks in Ufa will be familiar for Subban, and give Canada a rare head start in that capacity as they venture into Europe, where they have had less success in the past than when the tournament is in North America.

Jordan Binnington won an OHL Championship with Owen Sound and projects as the team's backup, although Jake Paterson had a perfect training camp, not allowing a goal, earning a spot on the team despite having the worst numbers of the group invited during the regular season to date.

All three goaltenders play in the OHL, meaning that the OHL leads the way with 11 representatives, the QMJHL follows with 6, the WHL with 5 and the AHL with 1.

Tournament Outlook

It'd be tough to argue for any other country to be the gold medal favourites heading into the tournament, but that doesn't mean it's a walk in the part for Canada this go around. The last two NHL lockouts produced teams that were better than this edition (1995, 2005), and with the contest being played out in Russia there definitely is a challenge involved this time.

Canada will be well prepared for their main challengers, however, as they appear in the Group of Death with Russia and the Americans in preliminary play. They could place anywhere from 1st to 3rd in the group, and no matter what they do their odds of winning probably don't change significantly. This is a team that should be the favourite in any game they play.

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