If you're like me and live in a town with a really lousy junior hockey team, Monday night was probably your first chance to see the latest Canadian World Junior players in action.
This doesn't mean short clips and highlight videos that you'll typically see in some of the game promos or when TSN is introducing the team, but watching the players play with each other in a game situation, analyzing their mistakes, and where you choose the player you'll pick on all tournament. Last year's was Patrice Cormier.
From the get-go, with talent like Jeff Skinner, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Cam Fowler in the National Hockey League, we sort of knew that this team wasn't going to be as talented in years past, but that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. One comment that struck me early on was somebody noting that this team doesn't have any "Taylor Halls or Jordan Eberles on it," but I disagree. I think that this team is full of Jordan Eberles, but that's because I don't necessarily see Jordan Eberle as a skill player.
Bless that man's beautiful, beautiful soul, he scores goals the way I love a player to score goals, by shooting relentlessly. The guy has super soft hands, but if you think back to his clutch goal against Russia and his two near-miracle goals against the United States, they weren't soft hands goals. They were "put the puck on net and hope" type goals.
If this is the lunchbucket attitude that the Canadian team needs to be successful and beat the Americans, they'll have to score goals like that: gain the zone in any way possible, and, with possession, shoot from all over the ice without prejudice. Taylor Hall-level skill won't help you in a tournament where the skill difference between the top and bottom teams is on par with the difference in quality of Schwartz's and imitation squirrel meat, because you'll eventually run into a team like the Americans who are strong enough defensively to knock you off the puck.
There was one shift in the 8-0 Canadian win over the Swiss that I loved. It came the the late mid-stages of the second period and ended in a goal for Sean Couturier. The team shot, and if they weren't in a shooting position, they kept the puck in behind the net, and won those puck battles.
The Canadians scored all eight goals from different areas of the ice. They scored off the rush, on the powerplay, 5-on-5 and might have shorthanded, had they taken more than one penalty. That's not all a positive, because it could have been more. In the first five minutes, they scored three goals, Marcus Foligno from the left goal mouth, Jaden Schwartz from the right faceoff dot and Casey Czisikas from the front of the net. It took them nearly a full period to score their next one, in part because they took a little bit of pressure off the gas and didn't get to those dirty areas in front.
That's not to say Swiss goalie Benjamin Conz didn't have his hands full, but after losing by a goal last year, you don't want to see players missing rebound opportunities, having passes in the slot hop over their sticks and generally not making Conz work for those second-chance goals. They let Switzerland kill off a long 5-on-3 when they were trying to be a little too pretty.
Canadian goalie Mark Visentin ended up getting a 20-save shutout, but a couple of Swiss players missed empty net opportunities. The team can get away with those ones early against Swiss, Norwegian or Czech players who may feel the pressure of being on the same ice against Canada, but they'll have to make the necessary defensive adjustments.
It's certainly hard to pick at a defense that allowed 20 shots and kept the majority of play in the Swiss zone, so I'll focus on the forwards. Again, Sean Couturier impresses me as a young player. I think he has a terrific shot and was working well with Louis Leblanc. Marcus Foligno, son of Mike, brother of Nick, was getting a lot of scoring chances, and while he only had one goal, it all starts with getting the chances. Jaden Schwartz and Casey Cizikas all had their dangerous moments, moments I would have liked to see a little more out of Zack Kassian offensively. I know he's the big forward and is supposed to fit the mould as front-line checker, but he has 15 goals in 25 games this year with the Spitfires, and a big body needs to put that 226 lb frame in front of the net a little more often.
Other than Kassian, I felt a little dissatisfied by Brayden Schenn who looked dangerous, but there were two moments when I thought he made one too many moves before putting the puck on net, and in both instances he had the puck checked off his stick. I'm thrilled that the Canadians were able to get a guy of his calibre on the team after he spent the early part of the year with the Los Angeles Kings, but shots, not the extra move, is what prevails in these tournaments.
The Canadians have one more tune-up game Tuesday against Sweden at 7:30 EST at the Air Canada Centre. This will be a good test for the Canadians against a real opponent.
Oh, and how are the Americans doing? Well, they lost their tune-up against the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute over the weekend, although that went to a shootout and RPI are probably way better than Switzerland.