HELSINKI — A day before the quarter-final at the world junior championship, Canada and Finland played the game within the game.
Namely, who exactly was the underdog?
As Team Canada head coach Dave Lowry saw it, it was not even up for debate. Canada, which had already lost to the United States and Sweden and needed an overtime shootout to defeat Switzerland, headed into the elimination round with the third-worst record of the eight survivors. And now, the Canadians were playing against the host country, which had the third-best record.
“They would definitely be the favourites,” Lowry said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
But Canada as the underdog? Finland head coach Jukka Jalonen could barely contain his laughter.
While Canada had sputtered in the preliminary round, this was still the same team that won the championship last year and had reached the gold-medal final in 11 of the last 14 tournaments.
“I would say that Canada is never an underdog in these tournaments,” said Jalonen, whose team was 3-1 in the preliminary round, losing only to Russia. “They are always favourites. It’s the same situation now. I think we are underdogs and they are world champions the last season.”
Whether Canada is an underdog or not, the reality is that the team has not played its best hockey. Here are five areas of concerns from the preliminary round:
A year ago, Canada averaged 5.57 goals per game — the 39 goals it scored was 15 more than the next best team — and had the top four scorers in the tournament. This year, the team is averaging 3.25 goals per game (13 goals in four games). Dylan Strome, their top scorer with three goals and five points, is tied for ninth in tournament scoring. The numbers are surprising when you consider the firepower on the roster. While Strome and Mitch Marner (two goals and four points) have led the offence, the top two scorers in the OHL scoring last season have not dominated. And from Julien Gauthier and Rourke Chartier to Travis Konecny and Brandon Perlini, too many players are still searching for their first goal.
When the Vancouver Canucks decided to loan Virtanen to Canada’s world junior team, it was considered a huge bonus. NHL players have a history of dominating at these events. A year ago, the Ottawa Senators’ Curtis Lazar had five goals and nine points in seven games and Anthony Duclair, who was on loan from the New York Rangers, finished with four goals and eight points. But Virtanen, who is still without a point, has not had that same type of success. “The chances will happen. And when the time comes, it will come,” said Virtanen, who has 10 shots. “Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later.”
While Canada’s defence is where you will find the oldest players on the team, it is not necessarily a particular strength. Only Joe Hicketts, who was undrafted by the NHL, is a returnee from last year. That essentially means that 19-year-olds Haydn Fleury, Travis Sanheim, Brandon Hickey and Roland McKeown were not good enough to play on the 2015 team as 18-year-olds. This year, the defence has looked fine in its own end. But considering the scouting staff specifically chose puck-moving defenders rather than shutdown types, you would expect them to chip in with more than just one goal so far.
This was a concern heading into the tournament, mainly because Mackenzie Blackwood had to miss the first two games because of a suspension that carried over from the OHL. Since returning, the New Jersey Devils prospect has not taken over the net like some had hoped. He allowed two quick goals to Switzerland, forcing Canada to dig itself out of a 2-0 hole. And he allowed four goals against Sweden, although three of them were scored on the power play. Still, with a team that is having difficulty scoring, Canada needs Blackwood to steal a game. Or at the very least, to get his .893 save percentage to a respectable level. Mason McDonald has a better goals-against average from his two games (2.52) but a worse save percentage (.861).
It was during the midway point of the first period when Konecny, John Quenneville and Mitchell Stevens started to bounce off defenders like a pinball machine that has activated the multi-ball. It was the first time in the tournament that Canada showed any real physicality. But is hitting the path to success for this team? With so many players who are 5-foot-11 or shorter, Canada’s game seems more situated towards skill and speed. And yet, on the bigger European ice, Canada’s skaters have not shown an ability to create space or show off their creativity as other countries have.
Coaching a Canadian hockey team is a thankless job. You’re supposed to win, so when the team struggles, it’s because the coach is an idiot. That seems to be the perception surrounding Dave Lowry, who has been criticized for second-guessing his decisions and over-coaching. Some of it is fair. In an attempt to find four balanced lines that can score, Lowry has split up long-time national team linemates Strome and Marner and tried every combination imaginable. But four games in, no one knows has any idea who he is playing with. And the result is an obvious lack of chemistry and familiarity.