Motto For Canada’s Junior Team? Be Prepared
Dominique Ducharme can’t stress the message enough.
With Canada’s first game of the 2017 world junior championship still months away, the team’s head coach has hammered the point home during the initial days of the summer development camp: Be fully prepared for playoff-style hockey starting on Dec. 26 at the Air Canada Centre when Canada opens the tournament versus Russia.
The group of players that represented Canada in the world junior last winter as a whole appeared to be caught by surprise by the level of competition, and when they lost against Finland in the quarterfinals by one goal, they had to endure the embarrassment of lugging a sixth-place finish across the Atlantic and dragging it around for the rest of the hockey season.
This after Canada’s emotional gold-medal win against Russia at the ACC in January 2015.
Ducharme, an assistant on the coaching staff a year ago, and nine players in this camp were part of the outfit that struggled through the preliminary round before losing to the Finns.
“The key word is short,” Ducharme said of the compact nature of the tournament.
“Most of our guys are going to be playing in the Canadian Hockey League in December and that’s far from the playoffs.
“When they get there, they will need to step up their game and go to (something similar to) an American Hockey League playoff game, within two weeks. There is no buildup to it.
“It’s a short turnaround and having the guys raise their game, the attention to details, the little things that make you win close games is crucial to me.
“We are already talking about those things.”
It’s not only turning up the dial on intensity, and then hoping that positive results come from it, that’s important. The Canadians a year ago had little on-ice chemistry, and Ducharme knows it’s something that has to start developing this week in exhibition games in Plymouth, Mich., versus Finland, Sweden and the United States.
It’s a tricky situation, because there exists the likelihood that a player or two in this camp, whether it’s Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse or someone else, will be in the National Hockey League and not part of the program for Hockey Canada in December. Overcoming that challenge, of course, is something each the Canadian coaching staff must do every year.
The NHL factor aside, those who will return from last winter — the eligibles include defenceman Thomas Chabot and forwards Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Crouse, Julien Gauthier, Travis Konecny, Marner, Mitchell Stephens and Strome — know that, collectively, they have to take the lessons learned and apply them in Toronto and then in the medal round in Montreal.
And, at the same time, spread the word to those who will be world junior rookies.
“It’s a fast transition,” Konecny said. “I don’t know if that was part of the (problem) last year, giving a bunch of young guys an opportunity. Now, we are coming in with a lot of guys who have been through the process and who can lead and be mature about everything.
“Hopefully, we can get everyone to come together as quick as possible and we won’t have to deal with any of those problems.”
Ducharme shares that hope as well. The on-ice collection of players will continue to take shape through the first couple of months of the regular season before it is solidified at the selection camp midway through December, though exhibition games could be played before the final cuts are made.
Through it all, Ducharme steadfastly will remain on point.
“It’s not only Xs and Os, it’s the mindset with which we want to be playing,” Ducharme said. “We are putting in the foundation right now. We will be ready.”
MARNER A ‘TWO-WAY PLAYER’
Kris Knoblauch can’t say for sure whether he has seen the last of Mitch Marner in the Ontario Hockey League, but the coach of the Erie Otters doesn’t doubt what he witnessed in Marner during the 2015-16 season.
Take note, Maple Leafs fans.
“I saw him become a very complete two-way player,” Knoblauch said. “I really saw that in the second half and particularly in the playoffs, where he was a really dominant player, played with a lot more intensity.
“The skill had always been there. But playing with a higher intensity and shorter shifts did not take away from his creativity. He was a very good player and he was a big reason why London went on the run they did.”
The London Knights and Otters entered the 2016 OHL playoffs with 105 points each and met in the Western Conference final. Marner had 12 points in the series as the Knights, who would later win the Memorial Cup, swept the Otters in four games.
Knoblauch, an assistant coach with Canada’s junior team, is getting to know Marner off the ice at the team’s summer camp. If all goes the way Marner hopes, he will play for the Leafs next season, and Knoblauch and the Otters won’t have to worry about him again.