Golden for the first time since 2015 last January in Buffalo, Canada’s National Junior Team accomplished its goal and has turned its attention to forming a capable squad for its defence of world junior hockey supremacy on home ice this holiday season.
Canada’s 17th gold medal finish saw 19 players developed by CHL clubs contribute to the ultimate goal as Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia Sting), Sam Steel (Regina Pats), and Drake Batherson (Blainville-Boisbriand Armada) were among the tournament scoring leaders while goaltender Carter Hart (Everett Silvertips) was a rock in the crease.
Turning the page, just three players from last year’s roster are eligible to return, two of which are currently in the National Hockey League. Maxime Comtois (Drummondville Voltigeurs/Anaheim Ducks) and Robert Thomas (Hamilton Bulldogs/St. Louis Blues) would prove valuable as veterans under new head coach Tim Hunter (Moose Jaw Warriors), but there’s no knowing who will and won’t be available come mid-December.
Ottawa Senators prospect Alex Formenton was recently returned to the London Knights.
“If those guys are available come Christmas-time we’ll be ecstatic,” said Hunter of the situation, “but if not we’ve got a big pool of players to pick from across Canada and we’ll move on. There’s not too much you can do with what the NHL has to do with this process.”
Team WHL opens the 2018 CIBC Canada Russia Series that begins with a British Columbia set on Monday in Kamloops and Tuesday in Vancouver.
From there, the OHL takes over in Games 3 and 4 set to take place on Thursday November 8th in Sarnia and Monday November 12th in Oshawa.
The QMJHL will close things out with Game 5 on Tuesday November 13th in Sherbrooke and Game 6 on Thursday November 15th in Drummondville.
“This is a big part of the process,” noted Hunter of the series. “Over the summer we get to know the kids, get a feel for them, what they’re all about, their capabilities and their potential. Then we watch them early on during their start to their junior year. The Russia series really gives us an idea of who’s progressed over the summer to now and we see who’s trending up and who has gotten better from last season.”
While 34 of the players competing in the upcoming series attended Hockey Canada’s National Junior Team Summer Showcase in Kamloops this past August, several others have put themselves on the radar with outstanding starts to 2018-19.
WHL forwards Brett Leason (Prince Albert Raiders) and Trey Fix-Wolansky (Edmonton Oil Kings) are two such examples. The former currently leads the WHL in scoring with 35 points (15-20–35) in just 16 games, guiding the Raiders into top spot in the Kia CHL Top 10 Rankings. Fix-Wolansky, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, trails close behind with 32 points (11-21–32) in 17 contests.
“Both of these guys are good players that are off to great starts and you’ve got to give them an opportunity,” said Hunter. “They weren’t on the radar back in the summer but they’ve put themselves there now.”
The aforementioned Batherson and eventual 2018 WHL Champion Tyler Steenbergen (Swift Current Broncos) are two prominent examples of players who worked their way onto Hockey Canada’s depth chart last year after both were left off the Summer Showcase roster.
Having watched Steenbergen and a tremendous Broncos club across the province last year, Hunter came away admiring the Arizona Coyotes prospect.
“He’s just a guy that wouldn’t be denied,” he remarked. “A goal-scorer, and you can never have enough goals or character and he fit those two bills for sure and really came up big for us.”
While CHL players will leave it all out on the ice during their brief audition, Hunter and his World Junior staff that consists of assistant coaches Brent Kisio (Lethbridge Hurricanes), Jim Hulton (Charlottetown Islanders) and Marc-Andre Dumont (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles) will have a great opportunity to see the always-competitive Russian opposition.
“We’re going to have Russia in our pool this year,” Hunter noted. “So we’ll get a feel for what they’re all about, what kind of players they have and the style of play they’re going to play for sure.”
It all gets started on Monday night in Kamloops as Team WHL looks to get things started on a winning note. The two sides have alternated Game 1 victories in each of the past six years, with Team WHL taking a 7-0 win to open the series last year in Moose Jaw, SK. Tied after six games for the first time ever, last year’s series would ultimately require a shootout to settle the score as Maxime Comtois scored the series-clinching marker.