Canada gets pair of ‘elite players’ for world juniors after Dylan Strome, Mathew Barzal sent back to CHL; ‘holding out hope’ for other stars
TORONTO — Two down, three more to go.
Well, to be honest, Team Canada scout Ryan Jankowski would be content even if one more NHL player were loaned to the world juniors. As it stands, the decision to send Arizona’s Dylan Strome and New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal back to their respective junior teams is a huge bonus for a team trying to put last year’s sixth-place finish behind them.
It means Canada, which is hosting this year’s holiday tournament, has its No. 1 and No. 2 centres.
Who will join them is still a mystery. You can obviously forget about Toronto’s Mitch Marner, who’s second in rookie scoring with 16 points in 18 games, as well as Philadelphia’s Travis Konecny, who has 11 points in 19 games.
But with less than a month to go before the NHL roster freeze takes effect on Dec. 19, Jankowski is crossing his fingers that as many as three more players could be added from a group that includes New York Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier and Arizona Coyotes winger Lawson Crouse and defenceman Jakob Chychrun.
“We’re holding out hope for those three guys,” said Jankowski. “If you get one that’s good, if you get two that’s great and if you get three you’re ecstatic. But if you get zero, well, you just go to a different pool.”
For now, Canada is lucky to have players of the caliber of Strome and Barzal. Strome, the third-overall pick in 2015, led Canada in scoring at last year’s world juniors with four goals and six points in five games, while Barzal had two goals and three points. Most expected they would be unavailable for this year’s tournament. But even on a young, rebuilding team, Strome struggled to stay in the Coyotes’ lineup and was sent back to the Erie Otters after no goals and one assist in seven games. Barzal, selected 16th overall pick, had no points in two games with the Islanders before getting re-assigned to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“It’s two great pieces to our puzzle,” said Jankowski. “They’re elite players. Barzal had a real good tournament last year and that’s where the shot in the arm comes from — they’re returning players. Bringing those guys in with their experience and with what they went through last year, I’m expecting them to be hungry to have success this year.”
Canada’s sixth-place showing was its worst result since finishing eighth in 1998. The team lost to the U.S. and Sweden and needed a shootout to defeat Switzerland before losing 6-5 in the quarter-final to host Finland, which went on to win the tournament thanks in large part to Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi. With this year’s world juniors in Toronto and Montreal, the pressure is again on Canada to bring back gold.
“I think they should look for us to bounce back,” said Tom Renney, president and CEO of Hockey Canada. “The bottom line is that was a tough experience for everybody.”
Experience could be key for Canada, which had many first-timers in key roles last year, but could have as many as seven returning players this time around — depending on what happens in the next month.
Beauvillier has six points in 13 games with the Islanders, but he’s been a healthy scratch four times already and is averaging just 11 minutes. Crouse has already played in two world juniors, but he has only one goal and no assists, is averaging less than 11 minutes and has been a healthy scratch four times for the Coyotes. And while Chychrun earned rave reviews for his play early on this season, the 18-year-old defenceman was a healthy scratch last week and logged just eight minutes in a 3-2 overtime win against San Jose on Saturday.
“I think it’s easier for teams to lend their support knowing they’re going to get their players back right away,” said Jankowski. “They don’t have to worry about jet lag. They can send them on the 18th. It is easier with it being in North America.”
Of course, getting a player with NHL experience is not always a recipe for success. The Vancouver Canucks loaned Jake Virtanen to Canada’s world junior team last year, but in five games he managed just one assist and picked up 10 costly penalty minutes.
A bigger question might be whether Canada, which had only one draft-eligible player on last year’s team, will have 17-year-old centre Nolan Patrick in the lineup. He’s the consensus No. 1 pick in next year’s draft.
“If we were talking about a healthy Nolan Patrick that had played the whole year, I would say yes, he would be on the team,” Jankowski said of Patrick, who has missed 17 games with an upper-body injury and hasn’t played since mid-October.
“Because he missed our summer camp, because he’s where he’s at with his injury, we’re not talking about a Connor McDavid situation here. We’re hoping and we’re expecting that he’s going to be healthy at camp and he’ll be able to give us an opportunity to see his stuff there.”
Similar injury concerns involve Carolina Hurricanes defence prospect Jake Bean (hand) and New Jersey Devils forward prospect Blake Speers (wrist). In other words, Canada’s lineup is being written in pencil — and there’s an eraser nearby.