Coach Brent Sutter likes the idea of facing real competition at the Canadian junior hockey team’s summer camp.
He’ll get that this year as players vying for spots on Canada’s world junior championship team skate together for two days at the Montreal Canadiens practice rink and then head to Lake Placid, N.Y. for exhibition games against Finland, Sweden and the United States.
Sutter says that easily beats holding intra-squad match-ups.
“Change is good,” Sutter said Saturday as the players arrived at the team hotel from across the country. “Talking to some players about it, they’re excited.
“It’s different from going through an evaluation, with red-white games. Now you’re playing Sweden, Finland and the Americans and they’re bringing their best. We’ll get a better sense of where we’re at. And, as a coaching staff, it’s new for us too.”
The camp, which opens with practices Sunday and Monday in Brossard, Que., is the first step in selecting the team that will play at the world junior championship Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Malmo, Sweden.
The players returning from the team that finished fourth in Ufa, Russia last year — forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin and defencemen Morgan Rielly and Griffin Reinhart — will skate the first two days but will not travel to Lake Placid.
Those four have already shown what they can do, and leaving them behind will give more ice time to those the coaches know less about.
“We’re taking 32 guys and it’s a lot of bodies,” said Sutter. “You’ve got to get everybody in at least one game.
“It gives us a better feel for everybody else.”
Jake Paterson was on last year’s team as the third goalie, but didn’t play. He will go to Lake Placid.
Sutter also likes that there are fewer players than the usual 45 or so at summer camp, so he has only what he called “the cream of the crop” to evaluate.
The group includes Erie Otters star Connor McDavid, who has a good shot at becoming a rare 16-year-old to make the squad. The gifted winger is already the favourite to go first overall in the 2015 NHL draft.
Sutter said he’s watched McDavid on video, and is looking forward to seeing what he can do against the world’s top juniors. He said he wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up on the roster when the team is picked in December.
“He’s obviously an elite player,” he sad. “A top player on his club team.
“He dominated at the under-18s, so we’re actually thrilled that he’s part of this and he’s certainly going to get an opportunity to show us what he can do. When you have special players, there are special circumstances and he’s certainly in one of those situations.
“We’ll see how it all unfolds. There’s no guarantee of anything come Christmas time, but the fact is, he has a opportunity here to compete against the best players and play with the best players and we’ll see how he manages that.”
Sutter has had special talent on his teams before. Sidney Crosby played as a 17-year-old at the 2005 world juniors.
Another “underage” player in camp is 17-year-old Kootenay Ice forward Sam Reinhart, who is expected to go high in the 2014 draft.
Before becoming an NHL head coach, Sutter coached the national junior squad for three years, winning gold in 2005 and 2006 and leading Canada to a 7-0-1 record in an eight-game Super-series against Russia in 2007. His record in those events was 19-0-1.
He’s aware that some of the players in camp won’t be available in December because they’ll be playing for NHL clubs.
MacKinnon and Drouin, linemates on the Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads, were top draft picks, with MacKinnon going first overall to Colorado and Drouin third overall to Tampa Bay.
Both have a good shot of staying in the NHL.
Drouin said the camp may be the last time he and MacKinnon will skate together.
“Me and Nate have played together so long,” he said. “I think we’ll enjoy it.
“I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next year, playing in the NHL or in junior, but I don’t choose that. It’s up to Tampa. But it’s not a bad thing to come back and play in Sweden for Team Canada.”
Sutter said he has about a dozen players in camp with a chance to at least start the 2013-14 campaign with NHL clubs. But they still need to meet their teammates and learn the playing system in case they end up going to Malmo.
“You’ve got to accept that there’s a chance you won’t have them for Christmas, but you never know,” said Sutter. “So when they leave here they need to know what this is.
“They have to have that in the back of their heads so that if they come back, it’s not an unknown to them.”
The camp invitees include Winnipeg Jets prospects goalie Eric Comrie, defenceman Josh Morrissey and forward Nicolas Petan. The Toronto Maple Leafs have four — blue-liners Rielly and Matthew Finn and forwards Frederic Gauthier and Ryan Rupert.
“I played in (the under 18s) in Sochi in April and I wanted to get invited to this,” said Gauthier. “It’s a big tournament and you always hope to be there one day and to live that moment. I want to give my best.”
The Calgary Flames have three forwards in camp, Mark Jankowski, Sean Monahan and Emile Poirier, while the Montreal Canadiens have goalie Zachary Fucale and forward Charles Hudon. The Vancouver Canucks have forwards Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce.
The Edmonton Oilers have defenceman Darnell Nurse and forward Curtis Lazar.