Not Just About The Goalies
Let's start with the facts.
For two straight years, Russia has been better than Canada in the big junior game that mattered.
And the Russians have done it far from home. Give them credit. Big dollops of it.
But not all losses are created equally.
And before we go too far down that path, let's remember the Canadian national junior team still has a chance to WIN a bronze medal.
Yes, yes, I know, only gold glitters in Canada when it comes to hockey. Blah, blah, blah.
This is not to say critical analysis of Canada's wild 6-5 loss - that score! again! - to the Russians on Tuesday night is somehow unfair because these are teenagers playing for their country and don't deserve anything but praise for being lovely Canadian boys as some would suggest.
But any suggestion from the other extreme, that Canada was outclassed and embarrassed by Russia, would be equally misleading.
That's the difference the final 20 minutes made.
If not for that, we'd be looking at this Don Hay-coached group as one that behaved petulantly and all but ran itself out of the sudden death semifinal contest.
But fighting back almost all the way from a five-goal, third period deficit while firing 56 shots as the opposing net is no reason for disgrace.
It's a helluva try.
Still, that's three straight years of no gold. Do we have a crisis on our hands similar to 1998?
Don't make me laugh. A hockey system that has produced in rapid succession gifts to the game like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Taylor Hall, Jeff Skinner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has nothing to apologize for.
What was wrong back in '98, so wrong that Canada called a national forum on the matter, was largely fixed by a re-emphasis on skill development. Go watch minor hockey today. You'll see amazing stuff.
Back then, we weren't playing for bronze. We were losing to Kazakhstan and letting the rest of the world do skill while we supplied goons, goalies and grinders.
That has changed dramatically. So no crisis. No national inquiry.
What happened on Tuesday was that a good Canadian junior national team - not a great one - had it's vulnerabilities exposed by a Russian team that did the opposite of Canada.
Canada started terribly and ended strongly. Russia started brilliantly and finished barely hanging on, needing a goalpost and a huge save by a relief goalkeeper to avoid a bigger collapse than Canada's the year before in Buffalo.
Some years Team Canada's juniors will be excellent. Some years they'll just be good, and just good generally won't win this event. Ask Sweden, still hoping for its first gold since 1981.
Teenage talent is cyclical, even in talent-packed Canada, and the absence of high-end talent on this Canadian team - or its presence on NHL rosters - left this group a little short.
Russia, meanwhile, may be at the peak of a cycle. It had enough to win gold at the world juniors last year, and this year has come with a team armed with two dynamic teenagers, Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, who could go 1-2 in next June's NHL entry draft like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin once did.
So next year in Ufa we may be talking about how good the Russians might be if Yakupov and Grigorenko weren't playing in Columbus and Anaheim, or something like that.
Many Canadians, of course, will want to pin this one on the goalies, and certainly 17 goals allowed by our masked men in three decisive games over the past three world juniors is deserving of scrutiny.
You can't hide the fact that when it mattered in 2010, 2011 and this year, Canada's goalkeeping wasn't good enough, or more accurately, not spectacular enough.
But a country that won gold in the past decade with the likes of Jeff Glass, Justin Pogge and Dustin Tokarski in net can't say that it has only recently hit a lull in the goaltending department.
We've been covering up this vulnerable area for a little while now, usually with sturdy, reliable team play, which is the way you're supposed to do it.
This year, Scott Wedgewood and Mark Visentin were powerless to halt the collapsing team around them, just as Visentin, with Olivier Roy helplessly looking on, couldn't do it on his own in the final 20 minutes last year against the Russians.
In Saskatoon against the Americans, Jake Allen and Martin Jones combined to give up six. Of these five goalies - Wedgewood, Visentin, Roy, Allen and Jones - it's unlikely, although not impossible, that any will be NHL all-stars.
They were top-end junior goalies thrust into a boiling cauldron of national expectations.
That said, Canada did win gold with Tokarski and Chet Pickard, and before that with Jonathan Bernier and Steve Mason. Indeed, Carey Price was the last truly world-class goalie to lead Canada to gold.
Before him, it was Pogge, and before him, Glass.
That's eight years of Canadian junior goalies and one legitimate star. Amidst a huge assortment of brilliant offensive and defensive talent, plus some very good forwards and blueliners who didn't even make the team, the parade of goalies hasn't been quite at the same level.
That said, understand this; the U.S. pulled it's starter to win overtime gold in 2010. Russia, lest we forget, pulled its starting goalie in the gold medal game last year and in last night's semifinals.
So its not like the countries beating Canada of late have had all the answers in goal, either.
EVERYBODY in hockey is guessing with goalies these days, whether it's Owen Sound winning the OHL last year rotating three goalies or Philly starting sophomore Sergei Bobrovsky ahead of $51 million man Ilya Bryzgalov in the Winter Classic or the Maple Leafs suddenly finding more success with Jonas Gustavsson between the pipes than James Reimer.
Maybe it's a commentary on the current state of the position. With 99 per cent of goalies playing the same style, none seem able to establish excellence for long period of time or at multiple levels.
For Canada, the same quality of goalies as it had this year has been good enough before. What wasn't good enough this year was team play - too many penalties, poor defensive coverage, inconsistent forecheck - and the absence of anything equivalent to Yakupov and Evgeny Kuznetsov to dominate up front.
Perhaps if Tyler Seguin wasn't in Boston and Jeff Skinner wasn't in Carolina, that equation would be different.
Coaches - Hay this year, Dave Cameron last year - have to shoulder some of the weight for being unable to get panicking teenagers to re-focus in the middle of an important international game.
Last night, if Boone Jenner hadn't got himself tossed for a silly spear and Jonathan Huberdeau hadn't removed himself from the game for 12 critical minutes, the big comeback might have started earlier. We haven't seen that absence of discipline from a Canadian junior team for a long time.
Two other factors come into play. Canada cruised into the semifinals without really being tested, while Russia had tough jousts against Sweden and then the Czechs.
In a short tournament, Russia seemed more ready for battle last night. It was the same last year.
Second, this tourney ended a long run of world junior tourneys that had Canada mostly enjoying home ice advantage. That includes gatherings in Grand Forks and Buffalo that saw the stands filled with Canadians.
That comes with expectations. The Canadian-based events have also come with skyrocketing profits, maybe $20 million this year.
The stakes are being raised in Canada in a way they aren't being raised in other countries. Bigger crowds and bigger profits make the days of holding the tourney in Red Deer seem quaint.
So maybe going on the road to Russia next winter isn't a bad thing. Imagine the drama starting to build already for that.
Which is why Tuesday's result was, in a larger sense, good for the world juniors. It certainly adds texture to an event that needed it, perhaps, after 10 straight years of seeing Team Canada in the gold medal game.