One could convincingly argue that, for the next little while, no one will be more affected by the ups and downs of the NHL lockout than Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s senior director of operations.
Salmond oversees Canada’s entry in the 2013 world junior championship this month in Ufa, Russia, and as players arrive for tryout camp Monday, the negotiations could have an impact on the type of team that Canada will put on the ice for the Boxing Day opener against Germany.
If the labour impasse drags on, Canada will have one of its deepest teams in recent memory, especially up front, where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele and Jonathan Huberdeau will be available.
If there is a resolution and NHL training camps open, then Hockey Canada will be obliged to switch to a Plan B. It will still be the usual collection of heart-and-soul teenagers that charms the country every Christmas with their efforts and commitment, but it won’t have nearly the same star power.
“I’ve spoken personally to each NHL general manager with a player on the recall list,” Salmond said. “We haven’t at any time asked for a commitment. We’ve agreed that we’ll continue to talk as things may or may not change with the negotiations and that’s true all the way through. We don’t have to have our roster set until Dec. 25. We’re hopeful that we’re going to leave Canada on Dec. 15 with 23 players who are going to stay with our team, but at this point, we haven’t asked for that commitment.”
Canada did get some good news over the weekend when Nugent-Hopkins announced that he would be joining the world-junior team for its training camp after spending a week in Edmonton getting his left shoulder evaluated. Nugent-Hopkins missed 20 games in his rookie NHL season, 2011-12, recovering from shoulder surgery, an injury that effectively cost him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
He had been playing this season for the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, and wanted to get a clean bill of health before committing to the junior squad.
Nugent-Hopkins tried out for Canada’s world junior team two years ago and didn’t make the cut as a 17-year-old, a not uncommon turn of events. Since then, he’s played for Canada at a senior world championship – last spring – and has padded his résumé to the point where he will now slide in as the team’s No. 1 centre, likely alongside Scheifele and Huberdeau, two other high draft choices who would almost certainly be on their way to NHL training camps if the lockout were to end.
Altogether, there are six returnees from Canada’s 2012 world junior team, which finished with a bronze medal at the event held in Alberta.
There will be new faces in goal, where Canada has had an uneven time of it since Carey Price’s star turn in 2007. For the 2013 team, Canada has invited a quartet of 19-year-olds, or players born in 1993, three from the Ontario Hockey League (Owen Sound’s Jordan Binnington, Saginaw’s Jake Paterson and Belleville’s Malcolm Subban), along with one from the Western Hockey League (Edmonton’s Laurent Brossoit).
Binnington and Brossoit were drafted by the St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames, respectively, in 2011, while Paterson and Subban were 2012 draft choices by the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins, respectively. Subban is the younger brother of Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban and the only first-rounder of the bunch.
For decades, dating back to Roberto Luongo and Marc-André Fleury, goaltenders’ performances – good and bad – have defined these tournaments. Two years ago, with Canada on the verge of a gold medal, Mark Visentin faltered in the third period of the gold-medal game against Russia and Canada finished with the silver. Last year, Scott Wedgewood took the job away from Visentin, but in the semi-final game against Russia, gave up four goals on 14 shots and was pulled.
Teams win and lose for many different reasons, but goaltenders are usually required to answer for those defeats. It is just part of the package of being the last line of defence.
“The pressure’s always huge for a goaltender on this stage,” said Kevin Prendergast, Canada’s chief scout. When asked why they chose the players they did, he noted slyly: “The ability to stop the puck was the first thing we looked at.”
In a more serious vein, Prendergast said: “All four of them have been great. Malcolm is a very athletic goaltender. Jordan Binnington has been on fire now for the last six weeks. Fundamentally, he’s very, very sound. Laurent Broissoit took his team [Edmonton] to the Memorial Cup last year. He’s a big strong kid. Certainly, over the last month, he’s played very, very well. And Jake Paterson, though maybe playing on a bit of a weak team this year, has been the best player on their hockey club. So we felt all four of them have warranted the opportunity and all four of them will give us a good chance.
“It’s going to make the competition level very good for us.”