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Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Preview: Team Canada looking to make an impact at the 2018 World Juniors

Yes, it may be Christmas Eve, but I have some better news for you: the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championship is almost upon us.

In just two sleeps, we will get to experience some of the most exciting hockey that the IIHF has to offer. The 2018 World Juniors will be taking place in Buffalo, NY., and it’s almost certain that a tsunami of Canadian fans will be heading down to Buffalo to transform the KeyBank Centre into a sea of red and white. After a disappointing loss on home turf to the USA in the 2017 gold medal game, the Canadians will be out for blood this year.  Canada will undoubtedly be aiming to capture gold in 2018 on American soil, and you can expect the Canada/USA rivalry to peak at this year’s tournament.

The 2018 WJC will feature the first outdoor game in the tournament’s history, taking place between, of course, Canada and the US.  The game on December 29th will replace the annual New Year’s Eve classic between the two teams, but the change is an exciting one that only further fuels the rivalry between Canada and the USA.  It is likely that many Canadians (including myself) will be making the trip down to Buffalo to take in the outdoor game at New Era Field.

 

In terms of group distribution, the tournament seems relatively even this year.  Group A will consist of the USA, Canada, Denmark, Slovakia, and Finland, while Group B features Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and the newly-promoted Belarussians.

With that, let’s get to the preview.

RETURNEES

This year’s Canadian team will feature seven returning players: goaltender Carter Hart, defencemen Jake Bean, Kale Clague, and Dante Fabbro, and forwards Dillon Dube, Michael McLeod, and Taylor Raddysh.  The group of 2017 silver medalists will play a crucial role at this year’s tournament, taking on important leadership roles on this relatively inexperienced team.  And, speaking of leadership:

Dillon Dube, the newly-named captain and Calgary draftee, is having quite the year for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets; through 27 games this season, Dube has tallied 18 goals and 27 assists (totaling 39 points).  At the 2017 World Juniors, he had three assists through seven games.

Looking beyond the leadership group, the performance of several other players will be crucial to Canada’s success this year.  Taylor Raddysh, the Tampa Bay prospect and second-round draft pick, is the highest scoring returnee for Canada this year.  With five goals and one assist at last year’s tournament, Raddysh will likely be one of Canada’s best forwards in 2018.

Alternate captains Kale Clague and Dante Fabbro will be important pieces of Canada’s defense core, but one name that particularly stands out amongst this year’s group of blueliners is Jake Bean.  The 2016 first rounder is a goal-scoring machine, tallying 27 points in 25 games this season with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.  Though he was not an impact player in 2017, Bean has improved over the past year and is capable of producing at a high level in the 2018 tournament.

Finally, goaltender Carter Hart will be taking to the Canadian net this year in Buffalo.  Hart is in the midst of a historical season for the Everett Silver Tips, garnering himself a 0.961 save percentage and a 1.32 GAA in 17 WHL games.  He is, undeniably, the best goaltender in the WHL right now, and ideally, his hot streak will carry into the tournament.  Hart’s performance at last year’s World Juniors certainly wasn’t notable; in four games, he had a 0.906 save percentage and a 2.38 GAA, splitting time in net with Connor Ingram.  Hart has improved significantly over the course of the year, and will most likely see the start for Canada through the majority of their games at the tournament.

NEWBIES

Though Canada will definitely feel the loss of last year’s offensive anchors in Dylan Strome and Anthony Cirelli, the new forward group will contain some strong fire-power that will help ease in the transition.  Two of the OHL’s best, Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, will be joining the team in their first WJC tournament.  Kyrou, the St. Louis draft pick and Sarnia Sting forward, currently leads the OHL in scoring with 19 goals and 39 assists in 20 games this season.  The two-way winger will likely play on the team’s first line with the Regina Pats centre Sam Steel and team captain Dillon Dube.  Robert Thomas, another St. Louis draft pick, will likely play the majority of his ice time alongside Taylor Raddysh.  The pairing had visible chemistry in Canada’s pre-tournament games, combining for a total of eight points against the Czech Republic in a 9-0 win on December 20th.  With the London Knights this year, Thomas has 46 points in 26 games.

Among the stand-outs on Canada’s blueline is Victor Mete, the Montreal Canadiens defenceman who will be suiting up for the red and white this year after being cut from the 2017 team.  Mete joined the Canadiens after being drafted in the fourth-round of the 2016 Entry Draft and has gone on to rack up four assists in 27 NHL games this season.   Mete’s NHL experience only enhances the already strong Canadian blueline, and he will likely be one of Canada’s most important players this year.

Three NCAA players will join Team Canada this year alongside the usual CHL majority. Goaltender Colton Point, the second of the two Canadian goalies, will lace up in his first World Juniors tournament in Buffalo.  The North Bay native is partaking in his second NCAA season this year with Colgate University (Div. I).  Through 16 games, Point has a 0.938 save percentage and a 1.90 GAA.

Dante Fabbro, the returning defenceman and Boston University sophomore, will help anchor the blueline for Canada yet again this year.  Cale Makar, another NCAA defenceman out of UMass (Amherst), will suit up for Canada as well.  Makar, Colorado’s fourth overall pick from 2017, has one goal and eight assists through 16 NCAA games this season.  Makar is quite the talent and has an opportunity to step up and contribute amongst Canada’s already solid blueline.

THE X-FACTOR

Canada’s x-factor is undoubtedly their solid back-end – the defense core is capable of winning games for the team this year.  Not only will they be solid in terms of controlling the puck in their own zone, but the defenceman will actively work to create and capitalize on offensive opportunities throughout the tournament.  The mix of talent on Canada’s blueline will help aid in the loss of Thomas Chabot, one of Canada’s highest scorers (and a defenceman) from 2017.

In terms of expectations, I would expect Canada to claim the bronze medal.  Though the team is not as star-studded as it has been in recent years, they are definitely capable of going for gold.  With such a solid back-end, the team’s forwards will need to step up and produce on a consistent basis against the world’s best U20 hockey talent.

Canada will play their first game of the tournament on Boxing Day against Finland at 4:00 pm ET.  The Finns disappointed at last year’s tournament, finishing last in their group and avoiding demotion to Division II in the three-game relegation round against Latvia.

Stay tuned to TLN for more coverage on the World Juniors as the tournament begins!

 



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