Before the World Junior Hockey Championship was an annual event, it was a little tournament for which you had to rouse yourself out of bed at ungodly hours to watch. If you can remember those 1990's tournaments in Geneva, Gavle or Ostrava, you know what I'm talking about.
Team Canada was a dominant force in every tournament. From 1993-1997, Canada won five consecutive gold medals. Those teams were littered with stars, too; Wade Redden, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Ryan Smyth and Darcy Tucker were all fixtures during those years.
Then after 1997, something happened. Canada stopped winning. For eight years, Canada couldn't win gold and were kept off the medal table completely in 1998. They took silver in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and won bronze in 2000 and 2001. For most countries, this wouldn't be a bad streak. Canadians don't play for anything but the top of the podium at this tournament though. Never have, never will.
In the 2011 tournament, Team Canada just dropped its second consecutive gold medal game. When they lose this tournament, Team Canada fans revert to old patterns. They question player selection largely because Canadians are, without question, the beneficiaries of the largest talent pool from which to draw. In 2004, it was easy for the entire country to simply shun Marc-Andre Fleury for firing the puck into his own net with an assist to Patrick O'Sullivan's butt. Fans will also question coaching decisions, particularly if the problem seems bigger than just one player. In 2010, Coach Willie Desjardins was hung out to dry for leaving Jake Allen in after he battled the puck all tournament.
Some people will say there is no reason to panic. In 2010, Team Canada was one odd-man rush away from winning the gold medal in overtime. Last night, the team had the game in the bag until an utter collapse in the third period. They're not being outplayed, they're just getting bad bounces.
They're still losing though, no matter which you slice it. You don't do everything right, and still lose. If that's true, it's worth examining two areas where Canada could stand to improve ahead of next year's tournament in Calgary.
There's an argument to be made that Mark Visentin and Olivier Roy took an unecessary amount of heat throughout this tournament. Ask yourself this though, when was the last time Canada's goaltending in this tournament was truly above reproach? For those who answered "Steve Mason at the tournament in Pardubice in 2008," you're correct.
Since that tournament, Dustin Tokarski, Chet Pickard, Jake Allen, Martin Jones, Olivier Roy and Mark Visentin have tended goal for Team Canada. Not one has done so without question marks surrounding them.
What is Canada doing wrong?
Team Canada prioritizes evaluation camp performance over regular season performance. Mark Visentin was the best goaltender in camp, and his regular season numbers support the fact that he made the team.
On the other hand, Olivier Roy's numbers shouldn't have made him a prohibitive favorite for anything. He made this team over Calvin Pickard, a goaltender who vastly outperformed him all season.
Goaltending is like politics; the bigger your sample size, the more reliable your performance projections will be. The reason that's true is because one or two radical outliers can drastically impact small sample data . One bad game sticks with you, especially when all you're talking about is two intrasquad games and a game against the CIS All-Stars.
In terms of goaltending, Team Canada is certainly guilty of trying to out-think itself. Case in point, believing a hot goaltender in camp will carry that performance over the next three weeks. The nature of goaltending is such that goaltenders will often fight to carry one hot performance simply into the next game. In selecting goalies for this year's tournament, one of the best eligible goaltenders for Canada, Denver University's Sam Brittain, wasn't even invited to the evaluation camp. The best eligible Canadian goaltender in Major Junior, Calvin Pickard, was cut.
Calvin Pickard's save percentage this season is .922, and Sam Brittain's is .926. Olivier Roy's, before he left to join Team Canada, was .905. These are not small differences, and they were very much on display in Buffalo.
Many will ask what difference this makes. Visentin, after all, was in net for last night's collapse, not Roy, right?
Okay, that's true.
However, a goaltending change gives you the chance for a slightly elongated play stoppage. Dave Cameron could have used that after burning his timeout last night. He might have too, but there simply wasn't the faith on the bench that Roy could capably relieve Visentin.
Up until the third period of the gold medal game, there was nothing but well-earned praise for Dave Cameron's coaching job, but after one of the most epic collapses in World Junior history, the recriminations have abounded.
If one examines Canada's five years of success, a pattern emerges in terms of coaching. Brent Sutter gets a "gimme" for the 2005 World Juniors because he was at the helm of the most dominant Canadian junior team to ever be iced, but he was brought back for the 2006 tournament in Vancouver. In 2007, Craig Hartsburg took over and inherited a team full of kids for whom he'd been the assistant coach the year before.
The two most recent Canadian gold medals are the result of different circumstances. The summer before the 2008 tournament in Pardubice, Team Canada took part in the Canada/Russia Super Series 35th Anniversary, in which Canada's best U-20s faced off against Russia's for four games in Russia and four in Canada. With the exceptions of Steven Stamkos and Matt Halischuk, the players who suited up in that Series suited up under Hartsburg in Pardubice.
In 2009, Pat Quinn took over behind the bench, but he didn't take over for just the World Juniors; he also coached Team Canada at the 2008 Spring Under-18s in Russia, leading Canada to a gold medal at a tournament not usually won by Canadians. Quinn carried that over into the winter tournament where he took many of the same players he had coached the previous spring.
The last two years, Team Canada has taken coaches of successful Major Junior programs—with some assistant coaching experience from previous Canadian teams—hoping they could repeat junior program success.
What Team Canada needs now is a National Junior coach, like Quinn was in his year with Hockey Canada; Denis Savard is currently available. If he were put in place for the Spring U-18 Tournament, he could carry over to the Summer Ivan Hlinka Tournament and through to 2012's World Juniors.
In the meantime, he could spend the fall helping Hockey Canada's head scout Kevin Prendergast scout the team. That way when the rubber hits the ice in Calgary next year, he will have a solid grasp on everyone of his players, and in quite a few cases, he will have coached them already.
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