2015 WJC: Habs Represented by Four Prospects

WJC 2015

Pictured (from left to right): Jacob de la Rose, Zach Fucale, Artturi Lehkonen, Martin Reway.

It’s that time of year again! The 2015 World Junior Championship is just days away! The Montreal Canadiens have four representatives at this year’s tournament, all of which were selected in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Hamilton Bulldogs forward Jacob de la Rose and Frolunda HC forward Artturi Lehkonen will both represent their respective countries for the third consecutive year, and both will be wearing the ‘C’. 2014 WJC standout, Martin Reway, will represent Slovakia, also sporting the ‘C’. Zach Fucale will represent Canada for the second straight season, but this time he might not be the starter.

This year, the tournament is split between Montreal and Toronto, with Group A playing in Montreal and Group B playing in Toronto. From the semifinals and on, all the games will be played in Toronto, including all of the medal games. The division of the groups is pictured below:

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 12.11.39 PM

 

Team Canada

Gold. Gold is the only thing that matters to Team Canada.

Since claiming Gold for five consecutive years (2005-2009), Canada has won a measly two silvers and a bronze and has failed to medal for two straight tournaments.

It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly Canada has struggled in recent years. Many point to a changed selection philosophy, as Canada has often passed up skill for players who fit the traditional role of third/fourth liners. Others also bring up the reemergence of Sweden (who has medalled in six of the last seven tournaments after failing to medal for ten consecutive years), and the emergence of USA. Additionally, it simply could be due weaker Canadian squads, which becomes more evident with players struggling to develop chemistry. It’s a short tournament, one where poor play in one game could cost the team the tournament. As is often the case in hockey, goaltending has also been a major area of concern.

Canada simply hasn’t had a Jeff Glass, Steve Mason, Justin Pogge, Carey Price or even a Dustin Tokarski in net since the gold medal run ended in 2010. The top Canadian goaltender in these past five tournaments has arguably been Mark Visentin. In recent years, Malcolm Subban and Zach Fucale didn’t play up to par, nor did they have the scoring support that Visentin did.

Photo: Dave Abel, QMI Agency

Photo: Dave Abel, QMI Agency

Last year, Zach Fucale had a tournament marred with inconsistency–sometimes he was the calming presence that he capable of, and others he simply wasn’t good enough. Coming into this year’s edition of the tournament Fucale has been poor, posting a sub-.900 SV% and a GAA of over 3.00 in 24 games with the Halifax Mooseheads. Although he hasn’t struggled as much as the numbers would indicate, he’s still on track for the worst season of his QMJHL career. In a tournament of seven games, it’s crucial that the goaltender not only arrives in peak form, but stays in peak form.

Enter Eric Comrie of the WHL’s Tri-City Americans. He has represented Canada just one time. His winning pedigree is nonexistent compared to Fucale’s, which contains a QMJHL title, Memorial Cup, and an Ivan Hlinka Gold to name a few. And Comrie certainly doesn’t have the calm, cool, and collected mental game that Fucale has. But what Comrie lacks in hardware and mentality, he makes up for with athleticism unmatched by Fucale. Down low, he seems virtually unbeatable. Up high, he owns an excellent glove hand and a lightning-quick blocker. Few goaltending prospects compare to Comrie’s level of athleticism.

Their records are almost identical–Fucale has a 13-9-2 record in 24 games, while Comrie has a 14-10-0 record in 24 games. However, their performances have been anything but. Fucale’s on pace for the worst season of his QMJHL career, while Comrie’s .921 SV% and 2.50 GAA both sit within the top four among WHL netminders. Comrie certainly has a stronger defence to work with, as well as a league with an higher average SV% than Fucale, but it simply isn’t enough to ignore Comrie’s great year.

Regardless of who starts in goal, Canada will be expected to win gold. The team is headlined by 17-year-old phenom Connor McDavid, Sabres’ second overall pick Sam Reinhart, and a pair of NHLers in Anthony Duclair and Curtis Lazar. There’s tons talent up front, including Robby Fabbri, Nic Petan, Brayden Point, Nick Ritchie, and Jake Virtanen. There’s just as much talent on the blue line, with Madison Bowey, Joe Hicketts, and Shea Theodore providing high-end offensive ability, and Darnell Nurse, Sam Morin, and Josh Morrissey bringing excellent two-way games.

Just like any of other incarnations of Team Canada, this one can win gold. This is arguably the most talented group of players Canada has sent in years. Gold is the only option.

 

Team Finland

Last year, Finland ended a 15-year Gold Medal drought. The top line of Predators’ prospect Saku Mäenalanen, Blackhawks’ draft choice Teuvo Teräväinen, and Canadiens’ prospect Artturi Lehkonen, along with an excellent defensive nucleus and an amazing performance by goaltender Juuse Saros propelled Finland to an overtime victory over Sweden, capturing gold.

Unfortunately for Finland, only two of the their top ten scorers from last year’s Gold Medal team will return. Artturi Lehkonen is one of them. The elusive and hardworking goalscorer made himself known for his “sisu-filled” performance through last year’s tournament. Lehkonen contributed just four points to his line’s combined 30; however, he spent his time being the workhorse. The Finn was essentially the grinder for the line, contributing with gritty performances and acting as a net front presence.

As the captain and the leading returning scorer, Lehkonen will be expected to carry a larger portion of the offence. Blessed with a deadly release and pinpoint accuracy, Lehkonen is a threat to score from both long and short range. He is a more than capable stickhandler, owning quick hands which are really showcased in traffic and along the boards. The 19-year-old will almost certainly be a top line player for his country, and should see time on both the first penalty kill and powerplay unit.

Lehkonen celebrates the winning of the 2014 WJC.

Lehkonen celebrates the winning of the 2014 WJC.

Lehkonen has shown capable of leading an offence throughout his career, most recently last year in Finland’s Liiga, leading KalPa in scoring despite playing just over half of the season. This season, Lehkonen has played a third line role on the SHL’s Frolunda. He got off to a great stat, but has since gone 24 games without a goal. Against players in his age group, it’s expected that Lehkonen not only leads the way for Finland, but is among the tournament’s top players.

This year, with so few returnees, there’s an unknown factor for Finland. Even though they have so little experience in this tournament, they have plenty of experience in the top tiers of men’s hockey. Beyond Lehkonen, Kasperi Kapanen, Juuso Ikonen, and Aleksi Mustonen are both having excellent years in the Liiga. Meanwhile, top 2016 prospect Jesse Puljujärvi and 2015 draft eligibles Sebastian Aho, Roope Hintz, and Mikko Rantanen have all gained experience in the Liiga. On defence, only Julius Honka and Joonas Lyytinen standout. However, with Juuse Saros and Ville Husso in goal–two starters in the Liiga–Finland’s backend is more than capable.

Finland is a member of Group A, a group headlined by Canada and the USA. It will a monumental task for the Finns to advance to the Gold Medal game, but considering last year’s demolition of Canada in the semifinals anything is possible. With a country that always sends a highly-skilled and hardworking team such as Finland, there’s always a chance.

 

Team Slovakia

At time last year, Martin Reway was essentially an unknown to the hockey community. The 2013 fourth round of the Canadiens was quietly racking the points with the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques, earning a spot on Slovakia’s roster for the 2014 WJC. Reway made a name for himself at the tournament, collecting ten points in just five games. It seemed like Reway had instantaneous chemistry with linemates David Griger and Milan Kolena. When it was all over, Reway finished fifth in tournament scoring, making him this year’s leading scorer among returnees.

Photo: info.sk

Reway is the top under-20 Czech Extraliga scorer, owning a 13-point lead over second place. Photo: info.sk

The dynamic Reway comes into the tournament as HC Sparta Praha’s second leading scorer, an incredible feat for a 19-year-old. Attention must be drawn to the fact that 18 of Reway’s 21 points have come on the powerplay, and at even-strength he has been largely ineffective. That aside, Reway is expected to carry the brunt of the offensive load for Slovakia, as his previous linemates, as well as Marko Dano will not return. Peter Cehlárik will return for the country, marking the only prominent name up front beside Reway to make a return to the team.

For draft watchers, Slovakia will certainly be a team to pay close attention to. The highly intelligent defender Erik Cernak will participate in his second WJC at the age of just 17. The 6’3″ defender is a top prospect for the upcoming draft, and already has over 60 games of experience in the Slovakian Extraliga. Radovan Bondra, a hulking 6’5″ winger with excellent hands and all-around offensive ability will make his tournament debut. Bondra has posted 10 points in 14 games with the U18 Slovakian Team, which plays in the second tier of Slovakian men’s hockey.

For Slovakia to have success at this tournament these three must happen: The powerplay must be highly effective, chemistry must form instantly, and goaltending must be beyond excellent. Reway excelled on the powerplay last tournament, and this year it’s where he has been producing. Much of the roster has played together this season for the U20 Slovakian Team which plays in the Slovak Extraliga, meaning that chemistry shouldn’t be hard to find. Finally, goaltending must be lights out. Last year, neither goaltender played up to their capabilities. It appears that Denis Godla will be a shoe-in for the starting position, as he posted a stellar .915 SV% in 16 games with the U20 Slovakian Team.

Considering that Slovakia doesn’t have a strong team on paper and they are grouped with Canada, Finland, and USA, their chances are slim to make noise.

 

Team Sweden

Heartbreak has been the story for Sweden at the last two tournaments. For two straight years, Sweden lost in the Gold Medal game. Jacob de la Rose was on both of those teams. Much like Canada, Sweden’s expectation is Gold. For Swedish captain de la Rose, this year’s tournament is about redemption. However, it won’t be easy. With just four returning players, Sweden has one of the youngest team’s they’ve sent in recent years.

In goal, Sweden has a two-headed monster of sorts, despite neither having played at his tournament before. Linus Soderstrom, a big, technically-sound goaltender from the J20 SuperElit, and Samuel Ward of the Allsvenskan’s (SWE-2) Asplöven HC combine to make a tremendous goaltending duo. Both goaltenders have professional and international experience.

On defence, Sweden is just as deep as always. Robert Hägg is the only returnee, but with a half-year of strong play as a rookie in the AHL, he should be even better than last year. Julius Bergman is currently experiencing tremendous success as a rookie with the London Knights. Sebastian Aho and Gustav Forsling both bring Swedish Hockey League experience and excellent offensive tools. In fact, six of the seven defenders on the roster possess quality SHL or Allsvenskan experience.

Jacob de la Rose celebrates a goal at the Lake Placid Evaluation Camp.

Jacob de la Rose celebrates a goal at the Lake Placid Evaluation Camp.

Up front, Sweden will certainly miss the contributions of Andre Burakovsky, Sebastian Collberg, Filip Forsberg, Andreas Johnson, Elias Lindholm, and Alexander Wennberg. The extremely talented and dynamic William Nylander will undoubtedly amass the points, despite it being his first tournament. Adrian Kempe and Lucas Wallmark, a pair of talented, hardworking players also look like strong candidates to make noise at the tournament. Draft followers will want to keep tabs on 2015 eligible Jens Lööke and 2016 eligible Rasmus Asplund.

Habs fans will definitely be focusing on de la Rose, who had a strong showing last year. The hardworking forward hasn’t had quite the success that was expected in Hamilton. Lack of offence aside, de la Rose is already among the best penalty killers on one of the AHL’s best penalty killing teams. In addition, de la Rose has gradually begun to show more offensive ability as the season has worn on. The WJC could very well be the confidence boost that de la Rose needs.

Like every year, Sweden is a favourite to win it all. Although they enter as a young and inexperienced team, they have just as much depth and talent as ever.

The 2015 WJC kicks off December 26th, 2014 and concludes with the Gold Medal game on January 5th. You can catch the tournament on TSN. 

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