Working Out The Kinks
Dream Team? Not quite yet.
With lofty standards to meet, Team Canada now knows for certain it has some hard work to do and lessons to learn before it can hope to match the golden accomplishments of its predecessors.
Loaded with the best available teenage talent due to an NHL lockout for the third time in 18 years, the national junior team nonetheless got off to a wobbly start to this year's European adventure today in Finland, dropping a 3-2 decision to the host Finns in a pre-tourney warmup for the world junior hockey championships.
Given that this was Canada's first actual game as a 23-man team, don't read too much into the result. Canada only arrived in Europe on the weekend, had to get their legs, quickly adjust to the Finnish "hybrid" sized ice and start looking for chemistry among forward combinations and defence pairs.
That's no formula for a terrific performance. These kids need a little time to work out the kinks, and this coaching staff needs some time to figure out what's going to work and what won't.
So don't go sounding the alarm, folks.
But, in a familiar refrain from years past, penalty problems (and some soft officiating) cost Canada dearly, with two of the three Finnish goals scored on 5-on-3 situations. Even worse, with the game still separated by only one goal in the dying minutes, Team Canada took no fewer than four minor penalties in the final 2:05 to wreck its chances of pulling goalie Malcolm Subban and going for the equalizer.
That wasn't jet lag. That was teenage irritability. Easily fixable, as long as you jump on the problem right away.
Captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was one of the culprits in the parade to the box in the final minutes, as were returnees Scott Harrington and Ryan Strome. Team discipline and core leadership, particularly in the face of sometimes unusual Euro officiating, will be No. 1 on head coach Steve Spott's priority list heading into Canada's final pre-tournament game against Sweden on Saturday.
By no means did Canada look terrible, but then again, it didn't look sharp, either. To win the ninth gold medal overseas for Canada at this event, this group of players will have to quickly become acclimatized to conditions in Ufa, Russia when they head there on the weekend prior to opening the tournament against Germany on Boxing Day.
Jonathan Huberdeau, expected to be the left winger on the top line beside Nugent-Hopkins, missed the game because he had one game left in a QMJHL suspension incurred while playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs.
This is a team that knows it has history to live up to. In 1995 and 2005, star-studded Canadian teams bolstered by NHL lockout players roared to gold medals at the world juniors. This team may or may not be as powerful as those - Sidney Crosby wasn't even on a first-liner in '05 - and it also has to deal with playing overseas, something the '95 and '05 teams did not have to do.
This tournament is being played in Europe for the first time in five years, don't forget, and for only the third time since 2004. These boys are going to have to get used to being road warriors again.
They'll need strong goaltending, and Subban didn't sizzle today, particularly on a rather soft winning goal. Jordan Binnington, a St. Louis draft pick, will get the start against Sweden on Saturday, and Spott would dearly love one of Subban or Binnington to assert themselves as No. 1 by next week.
Canada struggled to contain Finland's top forward, shifty Buffalo forward Joel Armia, and there was no clear shut-down pair on defence, with Maple Leafs draft pick Morgan Rielly sometimes finding himself with Dougie Hamilton, expected to be the kingpin of the Canadian blueline.
Up front, Canada was anything but explosive, certainly a by-product of all the penalties the Canadians were forced to kill. RNH had some moments, setting up Mark Scheifele for a pretty goal. Griffin Reinhart of the Edmonton Oil Kings also scored, tapping a puck into an open net off a Boone Jenner rebound.
All in all, lots of things to work on, and just a few days to work on them.
There's time for learning and teaching - just not much of it. This has always been a competition for quick learners.