Canada is going to have to play bigger and harder as a team for the rest of the world junior hockey championship after losing Devante Smith-Pelly.
The head of steam the host country had coming out of an 8-1 tournament-opening win Monday had evaporated somewhat a day later with the news the Anaheim Ducks forward suffered a broken bone in his left foot after blocking a shot.
It’s a significant loss for Canada because of the kind of player Smith-Pelly and also means that more will be required of the remaining forwards.
When the Ducks made Smith-Pelly available to the Canadian junior team just prior to selection camp, what had been billed as a smaller and skilled group of forwards had an unexpected injection of size and muscle.
The five-foot-11, 210-pound winger from Toronto makes any line he plays on better. Smith-Pelly opens up space for linemates with his punishing checks and also has the skills to contribute offensively.
“Everybody’s got to step up and play the body more,” Canadian head coach Don Hay said Tuesday. “Devo was a guy that when hit somebody, it was usually a big hit.
“We might not get the big hits that he supplied but we should get more guys contributing as far as finishing their checks. Whenever you lose a player it’s a hole in your lineup, but I don’t think it is something we can’t recover from.”
Smith-Pelly played the right wing of Canada’s checking line with centre Freddie Hamilton and winger Quinton Howden. The trio helped shut down Finland’s top scoring line centred by Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund.
In Tuesday’s practice, Hay moved Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brett Connolly, the other NHL player on Canada’s roster, onto that line.
Tanner Pearson, the Ontario Hockey League’s leading scorer, will see more ice time on the right wing with Michael Bournival and Boone Jenner.
Hay feels Connolly’s NHL experience should give him an edge against the world’s elite juniors.
“We’re really counting on Brett to step up and play with a lot more determination and a lot more speed in his game and a lot more physical play in his game,” Hay said.
Jenner threw a couple of thunderous checks against Finland. Canada will need more of that from the Oshawa Generals forward now the Smith-Pelly is on the sidelines.
“Everyone’s got to finish checks and hit guys,” defenceman Dougie Hamilton said. “(Smith-Pelly) was definitely, probably the hardest hitter in the tournament. I think a lot of the opposing defencemen are going to be pretty happy with him being out.”
Canada faces the Czech Republic on Wednesday followed by another Pool B game against Denmark on Thursday. Canada and the United States, both 1-0, conclude the preliminary round Saturday.
The Czechs and Denmark were to meet in the lone Pool B game Tuesday in Edmonton while the hosts, Americans and Finland had the day off.
Russia and Sweden both opened with wins Monday in Pool A in Calgary. Those two teams rested Tuesday along with Switzerland, while Slovakia and Latvia were the lone Pool A game scheduled.
The top team in each pool earns a bye to the semifinals. The second and third seeds cross over and meet in the quarter-finals.
As is his practice, Hay did not reveal his starting goaltender for the Czech game because he informs them after the team’s meeting at night.
Mark Visentin of the Niagara IceDogs made 24 saves against Finland. Hay has said he wants to play both Visentin and Scott Wedgewood of the Plymouth Whalers during the tournament.
It’s the second straight year Canada has lost a key player to injury early in the world junior championship.
This year’s captain, Jaden Schwartz, fractured his ankle in the second game of the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. Canada lost 5-3 in the final after giving up five unanswered goals to Russia in the third period.
Smith-Pelly blocked a shot by Teemu Pulkkinen just inside the blue-line during the second period of Monday’s game. He took another faceoff, but then hobbled to the bench.
“I’ve blocked shots before and as soon as it hit me I knew right away that something was wrong,” he said. “I tried to go again and I just couldn’t even stand on it. I was pretty upset right away because I sort of knew.”
Smith-Pelly, who needs four-to-six weeks to heal, will remain with the Canadian team for the duration of the tournament. He was one of four assistant captains along with Connolly, Howden and defenceman Brandon Gormley.
“It’s bad timing. It really is, but I’m glad to hear he’s sticking around the team,” Schwartz said. “I know he knows this, but there’s worse things in life than an injury. I know he’s going to get through it.
“We’re going to miss him, but we have character guys and guys who can step up and play different roles and we’re going to have to. Guys are going to have to be more of a physical presence and step up for him. The best way we can honour him is to win games.
Smith-Pelly was on crutches during Tuesday’s practice, smiling as much as he could on the bench.
“It’s pretty disappointing, but I’m not going sit here and pout and be a distraction to the guys,” Smith-Pelly said. “I’m here to support them.”
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