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An autopsy of Team Canada’s World Junior Hockey Championship performance

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A look back at some of the decisions that may have contributed to the sixth-place finish of the host nation.

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Team Canada had the talent to win it all. Like every year, they showed up with a stacked lineup of NHL first-round picks. They had skilled forwards, a mobile defence, and were backed by a strong goalie proving to the world what he could be. The ingredients were all there for a gold medal run. Unfortunately the end result didn’t fulfill the ever-present high expectations of Canadians.

We take a look back at some of the choices made by the coaching staff of Team Canada that may have contributed to the disappointing showing.

Alexis Lafrenière and the bottom-six forwards

Every team at the under-20 tournament has to prepare for potentially major pieces of their lineup not being available for them. Finland’s national team was missing what would have been their first-line center in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and their top defender in Miro Heiskanen. Sweden had to make due without Rasmus Dahlin. Team Canada had to enter the tournament without top forwards Gabriel Vilardi (injured) and Robert Thomas, who stayed with the St. Louis Blues. That said, contrary to many other teams, Canada can often replace their missing talent with very dynamic, albeit younger, players.

That was the case with Alexis Lafrenière this year. He will still be eligible next season, and the one after, although, like many of the players listed above, he will probably be playing in the NHL full-time at that point. For this 2019 tournament, Lafrenière became Canada’s extra forward, but due to his talent, the projected 2020 first overall pick didn’t start the tournament in the bottom of the lineup. He was immediately placed in a middle-six role, on a line with Nick Suzuki and Jarret-Anderson Dolan; two defensively responsible players.

The first game went well for Canada, but not for Lafrenière, who ended the night with no points in a 14-0 victory. And head coach Tim Hunter really didn’t like his play away from the puck.

”We showed him some video from the Denmark game and he was out there skating around like it was a free skate, lots of circles in his game and we weren’t happy with that,” Hunter revealed afterward.

This wasn’t a wrong assessment. Lafrenière had mental lapses in that game. Canada could have dominated the opposition without the need for solid play in their own end, but there was still a need for Hunter to have his team start the tournament on the right foot and establish good defensive habits.

Take a look at this sequence from Lafrenière. He was backchecking, but stopped striding as he reached the neutral zone and glided to support the breakout. He arrived late and didn’t see the forechecking opponent behind him, who lifted his stick and took possession. Lafrenière, surprised, turned and didn’t engage in a battle, didn’t put his stick down to cut the pass that follows, and Denmark was able to start an offensive-zone presence.

Alexis Lafrenière wore #22.

Due to a lack of urgency and awareness from the young player, it transformed what should have been a clean breakout for Team Canada into a defensive-zone sequence, forcing their defenders to fight on the boards.

Still, calling out the young star-in-the-making publicly was a step further than just showing him video privately. Lafrenière spent most of the following game against Switzerland on the bench when the team struggled to impose themselves against a weaker opponent.

After playing 14 minutes versus Denmark, Lafrenière never touched the ice for more than seven in the rest of the tournament. For a player who has been relied upon every night since he was little, his usage made it hard for him to get in the rhythm of the hyper-competitive games.

It’s very possible that he could have made a difference latter in the tournament for Team Canada when they were in great need of dynamic forwards, and dynamic describes what Lafrenière can do with the puck perfectly. He has incredible hands, puck-protection skills beyond what we usually see from a 17-year-old, and the vision and scoring ability that was not matched by many of the older players in the Canadian formation. The team carried a lot of talented forwards, but many who were seeing a lot of minutes were not high-end offensive talents, and those who were didn’t necessarily click.

The team lost two one-goal games to end the tournament. The skill of Lafrenière — his ability to separate from traffic, stickhandle through it, and find soft spots to release — that was on display in his only goal of the tournament could have made a difference.

Teaching a lesson about defensive play is important even to future top players. But like the head-coach said himself, the tournament is about results, and winning games. That’s something Lafrenière could have probably helped the team do.

Chemistry between forwards

It might have been a curse that Canada started the tournament versus Danmark, and not in the way that Don Cherry suggested. Maybe hockey gods are a thing, and they punish you for running up the score on a weaker team, but a much more tangible factor is that it doesn’t give you much information on the chemistry of your lines, to know what your lineup should look like.

The line of Maxime Comtois, Cody Glass, and Owen Tippett combined for 10 points against Denmark. Was it because they knew how to find each other on the ice, or just because they were so much more talented than their counterpart that it didn’t matter? It’s hard to answer such a question.

But in the last three games of the tournament, when the trio failed to get going at key moments, gives us an indication that trying other setups could have been beneficial.

The news of Comtois’s injury — he played the tournament with a separated shoulder — gives more weight to that argument. He was a diminished player. Yes, the captain of the team should have a big role, but the number-one objective is running effective lines with players who can play at their full potential together.

Suzuki spent much of the tournament with Jaret-Anderson Dolan and a few different wingers. The combination didn’t manufacture many goals for Canada, despite the chances they were getting. His chemistry was better with Morgan Frost, but a struggling Barrett Hayton, didn’t complement the line as well.

Frost and Suzuki, or even Brett Leason, whose effort helped Canada turn defence into offence many times over, could have been good candidates to bring some fresh talent up to the first line with Glass. Then impact players Tipett and Comtois could have also benefited from playing against lesser competition, at times, to use their skills.

Rewarding performance

Evan Bouchard might have been a high-first-round pick last June, but he didn’t have a great tournament. His pairing with Ian Mitchell, a defensively-oriented player, wasn’t solid enough in its own zone for the limited offence they generated for the team. Once again, it might have been a case of chemistry, or the World Juniors setting not fitting the style of Bouchard, a player who is used to having the play run through him. Still, there is questions as to why he was used so much.

The duo of Josh Brook and Mitchell, despite the oddity of both being right-handed defencemen, had more dynamic qualities, with Mitchell especially providing some great offensive looks, and the two were more solid in the shifts they got together. They probably deserved to be leaned on for more minutes.

The power play

The first power-play unit for Team Canada was the less effective of the two deployed. The five-man formation of Bouchard, Tippett, Glass, Hayton, and Jack Studnicka struggled for a good part of the tournament. They didn’t move around, and seemed to create few scoring chances that didn’t come off the rush after getting into the zone.

In the clip below, Bouchard, who seemed lost as to how to quarterback the unit with everyone almost standing still at their position, simply fired two shots on net from the blue line that posed little threat to Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. It caused two successive stoppages in play, leading the coaching staff to yank them 25 seconds in to be replaced by the much more dynamic second unit.

This alternative fivesome created a great scoring chance a handful of seconds after being placed on the ice, thanks to a deceptive play from Suzuki.

After this sequence, it was too late at this point to make adjustments to the first unit despite their obvious problems. It was the last opportunity Team Canada would get to have a man advantage.

A dominant power play is a key factor in winning games at the World Junior Hockey Championship. It’s not essential, as Finland proved, but it can definitely help a team pull ahead of the competition, or score the insurance goal needed to escape out of tough matchups.

The tournament is a short event. Sometimes leaving units together to form chemistry works. They can figure it out and start producing. But there is an equally strong argument for trying to find immediately successful combinations and run with them. There is a chance that the magic doesn’t leave until the final night.

All in all, the recipe that Team Canada concocted was probably good enough to win as it was. The talent was there, and with a little more luck, we could be talking about a gold medal for the team today, the lack of adjustments never having the opportunity to hurt the team on their route to victory. But that scenario didn’t happen, and it’s therefore very possible that the management and coaching staff changes next year.

If not, it remains a learning experience as the program strives to get better and stay ahead of the competition, something that becomes harder and harder with the rise of other nations as hockey superpowers.