World Junior Championship asks a lot of teenage hockey talent
Ironically, Charlie McAvoy had to become a professional hockey player before he felt like a kid at the holidays.
“My first Christmas home — I missed the last two,” said the 20-year-old McAvoy, who spent the three-day holiday break with family in Long Beach, N.Y. “I was in Helsinki, then I was in Canada last year. So it was nice to be home for Christmas for the first time in a while, spend time with my family, get to see my grandma, my cousins, some aunts and uncles. It’s always special to get to see my family and really put everything else aside. You don’t have to think about hockey or anything like that. Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, it’s really just about family and enjoying your time at home. It was fun. It was a great trip home for me. Just like everything else that you want to last a while, it goes like that.”
Before this year, McAvoy had international obligations to fulfill. As one of America’s best 20-and-under representatives, McAvoy was called to represent his country at the two previous installments of the World Junior Championship.
Last year, McAvoy fulfilled his assignment with the best possible prize: gold. On Jan. 5, 2017, McAvoy and the Americans bested Canada on enemy ice. At Montreal’s Bell Centre, the Americans won the title with a 5-4 shootout win. Troy Terry, who scored three shootout goals against Russia in the semifinals, executed his magic again, netting the only strike of the post-overtime skills contest.
“What an awesome tournament,” McAvoy said. “Everyone has a lot of pride in where they’re from. It’s pretty special to make it to the highest level, but you never forget where you came from. It’s a special time of year. It’s my favorite time of year.”
In terms of competition, there are few tournaments that can rival the world juniors. It is a best-on-best event. Aside from a handful of NHL exceptions (Switzerland’s Nico Hischier, Canada’s Nolan Patrick), the 10 federations pull their best 18- and 19-year-olds to the annual get-together.
Even a plucky puck-moving defenseman named Bruce Cassidy earned Canada’s call in 1984. Cassidy played for Brian Kilrea, his junior coach. Cassidy and the Canadians did not medal in Sweden, finishing fourth behind the Soviet Union, Finland, and Czechoslovakia.
“We didn’t win, unfortunately,” Cassidy said, “but it was a great experience for me at that time.”
Despite the praise it draws from its participants, world juniors draws a yearly shrug of the shoulders from American hockey consumers. The tournament’s anonymity in the United States stands in stark contrast to the degree of interest among our northern neighbors. Canadians consider the tournament something of a nationalistic birthright, in the same category as the maple leaf, beaver tails, and the Tragically Hip. This is fitting of a nation that has struck gold 16 times since 1977.
It’s not always a healthy level of fanaticism.
TSN, Canada’s sports powerhouse, covers the tournament with a similar approach of scrutiny, care, and professionalism as it does with the NHL. Sometimes, it’s not fair.
Some of the NHL’s biggest stars remember their world junior experiences for the wrong reasons. Tyler Seguin regarded it a personal failure that he failed to make Canada’s entry in 2010, the year he would be drafted second overall. Seguin, just 17 at the time, did not have the maturity to comprehend the depth and breadth of Team Canada’s talent, which included players who were two years older.
This year, Canada’s Josh Mahura felt the cut of his country twice. The defenseman was a final cut when Canada submitted its original roster. But Mahura, Anaheim’s third-round pick in 2016, was waved back into competition when Boston University defenseman Dante Fabbro was classified as questionable because of an injury. Upon Fabbro’s final clearance, Mahura was cut again.
The timing of world juniors is also not player-friendly. This year’s tournament started in Buffalo on Dec. 26. The puck has traditionally dropped on Boxing Day, which allows Canadians peak viewing opportunities on their national holiday. Fine for TV watchers, but not ideal for players, staff, and their families, who can find themselves occupied from before Christmas until after New Year’s Day.
It is one thing for professionals, such as the Detroit Lions, to play on holidays for fans to enjoy at home. It is another thing for amateurs to report for high-stakes international duty when their peers are unwrapping presents in their pajamas.
Hockey families are used to sacrifice. Parents understand they are on their own when it comes to travel and lodging for world juniors; neither the IIHF nor the federations are responsible for helping with the costs. It is a thrill for parents to watch their teenage sons compete on the biggest stage. But it is also a big ask for them to commit both time and resources to a sport that has few rivals when it comes to expenses.
So it is with a bit of discomfort that the show goes on. In one way, world juniors represents the peak of U-20 international competition. Every player should be proud and honored to be selected. In another, there is a hint of disappointment that they do so when they could otherwise be acting their age and enjoying the holidays at home.
So far, interest in the Buffalo tournament hasn’t been robust. Attendance at KeyBank Center was 7,207 for Team USA’s 9-0 rout of Denmark last Tuesday. In America, TV coverage is TSN’s feed via NHL Network. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing to just let kids be kids.
SHIFT IN DEPLOYMENT
Top line goeson the offensive
The adjustment in job duty has not been radical for Bruins Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. They are still tasked to silence one of the opposing top lines every game. They are committed to turning pucks over and going on the attack.
But a few more starts in the offensive zone and a loosening of hard matches have been enough for Bergeron to feel a difference.
“We do have a little more O-zone starts than it used to be,” Bergeron said. “That’s been something I’ve noticed in the past year. So it’s been a little different that way. But it all depends. Some games, we’ve taken more defensive-zone starts. It’s one of those things that once you’re in a game, you don’t really pay that much attention to it. Once you’re called upon to step on the ice, you step on the ice.”
Through 30 games, according to www.corsica.hockey, Bergeron had started 39.8 percent of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone. It is the highest rate of his career. In comparison, Bergeron started 35.6 percent of such shifts in the offensive zone last year.
Under former coach Claude Julien, Bergeron’s low point was 25.8 percent in 2008-09, when he played 64 games after suffering a career-threatening concussion the previous season. That year, Julien used Marc Savard and David Krejci in offensive situations. In 2012-13, Bergeron started a career-high 38.9 percent shifts in the defensive zone.
They are assignments Bergeron and Marchand embrace. But they can be grinding stretches of puck-chasing against elite offensive players. It’s less taxing and more fun to start with the puck.
The primary reason for the shift is a difference in philosophy. Bruce Cassidy is more offensive-minded than Julien. He is thinking about ways to put pucks in nets. By his estimation, the most efficient way to do so is to feed more offensive shifts to Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak, even though they can be smothering in the defensive zone. Through 36 games, the threesome had not been scored on during five-on-five play.
“Everything,” Cassidy answered when asked what the line can do. “They can play last minute. They can start the game. We can always start them at home. If it’s a checking line, we want them against one of the other team’s good offensive lines. They do everything well. They’re our leading scorers. They can play against the other team’s top line. They usually do, against one or the other. We don’t want them every night, every shift because it wears on you. We’ve allowed them some freedom to take some O-zone starts. That’s where we have the trust in the rest of the group. So any situation. They play overtime in pairs. They play four-on-four. You’d have to ask around the league, but they have to be one of the top five lines.’’
From top down, Senators flailing
Last Wednesday at TD Garden, the Senators confirmed via the eye test (a full-decaf 5-1 loss to the Bruins) what the numbers have said all year: They’re in trouble.
The organization that was one win short of advancing to last year’s Stanley Cup Final is experiencing dark days. Craig Anderson is not a difference-maker in net. Erik Karlsson is not carrying his teammates to the degree that he has in previous seasons. The Matt Duchene trade looks like a dud. Good offensive work by Mark Stone has not been enough to give the Senators life in the standings.
The loss to the Bruins dropped the Senators 15 points south of the team they bested in last year’s first round. Only the lowly Sabres sit between Ottawa and the East’s basement.
This is the least of their problems.
As Ottawa prepared for the NHL 100 Classic, its outdoor game against Montreal, owner Eugene Melnyk pitched a bucket of 93 octane onto his smoldering franchise. The Senators, in a perpetual fight to fill Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa’s outskirts, may have to look elsewhere, according to Melnyk, if financial stability is to be their aim. A sale is not in Melnyk’s plans.
“If it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else,” Melnyk told Ottawa reporters. “But I’m not suggesting that right now. All I’m saying is that I would never sell the team.”
Naturally, the team’s customers did not appreciate Melnyk’s muscle-flexing for support for a downtown facility. The organization was giving its fan base few reasons to turn out to watch the sleepy product before. Melnyk did not help his cause.
An owner under assault leaves GM Pierre Dorion in a terrible position. His deal with Nashville and Colorado, which cost him Kyle Turris, did not do anything to improve his so-so roster. A team under construction could enter the 2018 draft without first- or second-round selections, the cost of acquiring Duchene and Derick Brassard. Stone, the team leader with 14 goals and 18 assists through 35 games, is up for a raise following this season from his $3.5 million average annual value. Dorion is paying Dion Phaneuf and Bobby Ryan a combined $14.25 million per season through 2021.
The biggest dilemma is how to proceed with Karlsson. The best player in the league is scheduled to hit the market after 2019. He could double his $6.5 million annual payday if 30 other teams are eligible to bid.
Dorion is staring at three lousy options: letting Karlsson walk for nothing, trading him for futures, or meeting the defenseman’s cost. The first would leave the Senators empty-handed. The second would signal a rebuild to add to Thomas Chabot, Filip Chlapik, Logan Brown, and Colin White. The third would handcuff the Senators and leave them with limited loonies on roster reinforcements.
These are not good times in Canada’s capital.
Blues reward Armstrong
Over the last two years, the Blues have said goodbye to David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk, Troy Brouwer, Jori Lehtera, and Brian Elliott. Last February, they accelerated Mike Yeo’s ascension by firing Ken Hitchcock. This year, they have survived injuries to Robby Fabbri, Jay Bouwmeester, Jaden Schwartz, and Patrik Berglund. The reason behind their results is their draft-and-develop model. Previous hits include Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson. Vince Dunn, Tage Thompson, Jordan Schmaltz, and Sammy Blais have seen varsity time this year. More are on their way: Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, and Klim Kostin. Last Wednesday, the Blues acknowledged Doug Armstrong’s leadership during their on-the-fly reconstruction by signing the GM to a four-year extension. “Our stable of prospects is among the best in the league even while we’ve had this current success,” chairman Tom Stillman told St. Louis reporters. “I think that says a lot, the way Doug has made decisions that are not maybe decisions some would make in a contract year, looking for long-term success and not necessarily going for it in the near term. He’s just shown tremendous ability to make us successful now and make sure we’ll still be in good position for the future.”
Gallant locks it up
There are more stranger things happening in Las Vegas than on Netflix. Malcolm Subban, once on the fast track toward bust category, looks like a varsity goalie. Castoffs such as Luca Sbisa, Brayden McNabb, and Deryk Engelland are eating minutes on the blue line. Ex-Panthers Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are making their former employer look foolish for letting them go. The man most responsible for the Golden Knights’ startling run toward postseason qualification is fellow ex-Panther Gerard Gallant, who would not have been available had he not been sacked by Florida. Even if the season has yet to reach its halfway marker, the Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s best coach can go to nobody else but Gallant.
Best of luck to Chris Kreider in his recovery from a blood clot. The Boxford native had to duck out of the Rangers’ game last Wednesday when he experienced swelling in his arm. It’s a tough break for the hard-nosed left wing, who has 11 goals and 11 assists . . .
Old friend Blake Wheeler has been one of the top right wings in the league. The Jets, however, are asking their captain to serve as a temporary center between Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine because of Mark Scheifele’s upper-body injury, which will keep him shelved for 6-8 weeks. It’s a big blow to the Jets, who are riding former UMass Lowell puck-stopper Connor Hellebuyck to a top-eight position in the West . . . The Maple Leafs will host a celebration of life on Jan. 3 for Johnny Bower. The beloved 93-year-old died last Tuesday. Bower was the original version of Tim Thomas, getting his best NHL chance as a 34-year-old and extending his excellence for an additional decade . . .Pardon the smile on Anton Khudobin’s face. Khudobin, who lives in Siberia, finally feels at home amid our cold snap.