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December will always be my favorite month of the hockey season. Because, let’s face it: I might be the biggest Spengler Cup fan in the Western Hemisphere.
Oh, and there’s this fun little tournament called the World Junior Championship. It’s been a while since we had a real edition: the 2021 tournament was played without supporters. Then, with full attendance allowed ahead of the original 2022 tournament, it was canceled just days later and played in August. It was weird, the building was empty for most of the tournament and many stars were missing.
Knock on wood, but it looks like things are back to normal for the 2023 edition. Gone are the NHL rinks, make way for the traditional junior barns in Halifax and Moncton. What a welcome sight that will be.
The WJC Canadian camp will take place from December 9 to 12, and the composition of the selection will be announced in the coming days. Here’s a first look at what the roster might look like before heading east:
Once again, Canada’s goaltending situation looks very open – and potentially for all the wrong reasons. Benjamin Gaudreau and Tyler Brennan entered the season as favorites, but both struggled for their respective teams. Granted, neither of them plays for a good team, so it’s not all up to them. Both have experience with Canada’s national junior team programs, with Gaudreau already a starter at the U-17 and U-18 levels. He might get the nod given Canada’s familiarity with him, but New Jersey Devils prospect Brennan has a ton of upside and deserves a shot at No. 1.
And then there’s Thomas Milic, an undrafted wildcard option. He had a great season with the Seattle Thunderbirds going 10-2-1 and also has experience with Canada’s junior team programs. His numbers are the best of the bunch at the moment, but he looks unlikely to start.
It’s the easiest position to project, and it helps Canada bring back a vital part of the summer squad. Olen Zellweger was one of Edmonton’s top defensemen in August and will once again take on the primary power-play duties. He got along well with Canada’s top forwards and basically acted as fourth most of the time, so having him back is a huge bonus.
Interesting would be Brandt Clarke, who is currently with the Los Angeles Kings. He wasn’t named to the 2022 squad, which raised significant eyebrows, but he was good enough to knock the Kings roster out of camp. If the Kings make him available – and given that he’s been left out more often than not, they should – he’ll give the team a major boost at the back. He has professional experience, can contribute on offense and has great chemistry with former Don Mills Flyers teammates Shane Wright and Brennan Othmann. Hockey Canada will have a hard time removing him from the roster if he is available this year, that’s for sure.
The only other returning defenders will be Ethan Del Mastro and Carson Lambos. Del Mastro would fit in well with Clarke, with Del Mastro playing a more grounded defensive game with added physical attributes. Lambos seems to be playing better with more minutes and has a nice combination of speed and skill. With that as the top four, I think Canada would be very happy with what they had.
There is no shortage of talent to make up the third duo, but I like Kevin Korchinski and Corson Ceulemans to start. Korchinski is igniting the WHL, while Ceulemans has looked excellent in the NCAA. I’d be comfortable with either player stepping in if Clarke doesn’t end up going, so that would be a good third group.
Imagine that you are a five-year-old child being taken to visit a candy factory. And you can have anything you want, for free. That’s what coach Dennis Williams has at his disposal with a load of quality talent, including two potential game-changing 2023 draft picks. Connor Bedard is the obvious star of this group after a fantastic performance at the Summer Tournament, followed by an incredible first half of the WHL season with Regina. He looked so developed for his age last year, and a few more months of development should prove magical for the 17-year-old.
Then there is Adam Fantilli. Fantilli is 18, so he’s not your typical underage, but he’s Bedard’s best challenger for the No. 1 draft pick right now. He’s averaging just under two points per game with the University of Michigan – leading ALL players, regardless of age – and has an excellent combination of speed, skill and size to be close to the full set. His only experience with Team Canada allowed him to accumulate six points at the U-18 World Championship last year. No doubt he will be on Canada’s roster.
And what about the two NHL players? Shane Wright’s struggles have been widely publicized, but he’s looking great in the AHL with the Coachella Valley Firebirds. His conditioning stint will end just before Canada’s camp opens and by all accounts he should be in the roster once the team opens the tournament on Dec. 26. before being drafted can’t be ignored, so you have to assume they’ll be together.
The second NHL player is Dylan Guenther, who has nine points in 17 games with the Yotes this season. Still, all signs point to him being on Canada’s WJC roster, which would be a huge boost for an already talented team. He has an incredible shot, attacks the puck like his life depends on it and his professional experience should help him.
If Wright or Guenther don’t end up joining the team, for whatever reason, there’s still not much to worry about. Othmann is ready to take the next step. Joshua Roy, Riley Kidney and Nathan Gaucher could all take more ice time. But Logan Stankoven might stand out the most after establishing himself as one of the tournament’s best centers in August. After finishing last year with a 104-point lead in the WHL, he’s got 37 in 17 games to put him on pace near 140. He’s one of the game’s top prospects for a reason, and he is ready to take control.
An interesting name to watch is Jordan Dumais, the superstar in scoring at just under 150 points in the QMJHL. Having him as an extra striker is no snub against him – there are players better suited for heavier, deeper defensive roles in the lineup. Being the 13th striker gives the coaching staff extra flexibility to kick him anywhere, with anyone. In fact, the extra striker almost always turns out to be one of the most important players.
Brennan Othmann (NYR) – Shane Wright (SEA) – Dylan Guenther (ARI)
Adam Fantilli (2023) – Logan Stankoven (DAL) – Connor Bedard (2023)
Riley Kidney (MTL) – Zach Dean (VGK) – Joshua Roy (MTL)
Zachary Bolduc (STL) – Nathan Gaucher (ANA) – Matthew Savoie (WPG)
Jordan Dumais (CBJ) – Zach Ostapchuk (OTT)
Carson Lambos (MIN) – Olen Zellweger (ANA)
Ethan Del Mastro (CHI) – Brandt Clarke (LAK)
Kevin Korchinski (CHI) – Corson Ceulemans (CBJ)
Nolan Allan (CHI) – Denton Mateychuk (CBJ)
Benjamin Gaudreau (SJS)
Tyler Brennan (NJD)
Thomas Milic (2023)
Notable omissions: Reid Schaefer (F, EDM), Owen Beck (F, MTL), Luca Del Bel Belluz (F, CBJ), Conor Geekie (F, ARI), William Blackburn (G, 2023)
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