As someone familiar with the transitional nature of junior hockey, Canadian world junior coach Don Hay knows the dangers of playing the what-if game. But just for fun, let’s do it anyway. What if Canada’s team had access to all the players eligible to play?
In a perfect world, where national team duty would trump everything, including professional hockey commitments, NHL reigning rookie of the year Jeff Skinner would be available to play in the 2012 world junior tournament, alongside the early-season favourite for the Calder Trophy this season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
But it doesn’t end there. The Boston Bruins’ leading scorer, Tyler Seguin, is also eligible, too, thanks to a January of 1992 birthday, as are rising stars Ryan Johansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers). That’s five forwards who would play important roles, offensively and defensively, for Canada along with a defensive anchor, Erik Gudbranson, who is logging about 12 minutes a night for the surprising Florida Panthers.
That’s the mixed blessing of a Canadian development system that has firmly made its way back to the top of the hockey world.
Every year since the 2004-05 NHL lockout ended, more and more high-end talent tumbles out of the junior system, from Sidney Crosby to Steve Stamkos to Taylor Hall (who is 47 days too old to play in the world juniors this year).
The only time this precociousness ever becomes an issue is right now. As the tryout camp for the world junior tournament opened here Sunday, almost a third of the players who could be playing for Canada are off pursuing their NHL dreams.
“As a coach, you think about it for a very short period of time,” Hay said Sunday. “You always want your best players available to you because you know you’re going to be facing other teams’ top players.
“But you can’t dwell on it. You have to move on and work with the guys that are available to you. There is so much depth in Canada that the players here are going to be very excited to have this opportunity.”
Last September, there was a small hope that Nugent-Hopkins’ slight frame might keep him out of the NHL for a year and thus make him available for the junior tournament. But that quickly became a pipe dream, given his performance (32 points through 30 games).
Then there are Seguin, with his 26 points in 27 games for the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins, and Skinner, who is following up his 63-point rookie season with a fine sophomore campaign. All three lead their respective NHL teams in scoring as teenagers and were seventh, 27th and 36th in the league scoring race heading into the NHL’s schedule Sunday.
“It’s tough for NHL teams to let guys go, because they’re paying so much money and the games mean so much,” Skinner acknowledged in an interview last week. “It’s a tough spot and I don’t know the solution. I don’t know if there is one.”
Instead of wearing the Maple Leaf, Skinner is preparing to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in NHL action Tuesday night. And though this is exactly where the Markham, Ont., native wants to be, Skinner will concede that there is a small part of him that wishes, just once, he could have played the world juniors.
“Yeah, definitely,” Skinner said. “Growing up, that’s the biggest thing you do at Christmas time – watch the world juniors, watch Team Canada. I was excited because [last season] at first, I didn’t know if I was going to stick with Carolina, so I was looking forward to maybe trying to make that team. Then I stuck with Carolina and it didn’t happen, but it would have been exciting. Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about it.”
The last time Canada had access to everybody was during the NHL lockout, when the world juniors were played in North Dakota and many players that otherwise would have been in the NHL – Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber to name just six – played on a Canadian team that included Crosby (who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005) and Patrice Bergeron, who had already played a full year in the NHL as an 18-year-old.
The beauty of the world juniors is that no matter who pulls on the sweater for Canada, the effort, the commitment and the try is there for all to see. It is that commitment that makes the event so attractive as a property – Edmonton and Calgary, joint hosts of the tournament this year, will set all kinds of revenue records.
But Hay won’t hide from the thought of Nugent-Hopkins dishing off to Skinner and Seguin.
“A couple of Swedes are going to get released,” Hay said. “The Russians, they release their guys in their top league to come play junior. You want to go best against best and you can’t.
“But again,” Hay said, “I still like the passion and the heart of the Canadian kid. It’s second to none.”