Following the exhibition game between CIS all-stars and National Junior Team prospects, Hockey Canada made four cuts, none involving Leafs’ prospects Mitch Marner or Travis Dermott. After shutting out the CIS team with a score of 5-0, draft-eligibles Pierre-Luc Dubois and Jakob Chychrun, as well as Spencer Watson and Michael Dal Colle received the news that they were not going to be joining the rest of the u20 hopefuls on their trip to Finland on Monday. While none of these cuts were necessarily a surprise based on camp, it is surprising that certain cuts were made so early.
Highlights from Canada’s 5-0 win Sunday afternoon can be found here
Last year, Michael Dal Colle was among the last cuts for the world junior team that would be playing games near his hometown of Richmond Hill, ON. He was expected to challenge hard for a spot last year, and he did, but, age just wasn’t on his side to make a team filled with outstanding 19-year olds. World Juniors are known to, typically, be a tournament dominated by 19-year old players, making it extremely difficult for draft-eligible, or 18 year olds to make the team. Dal Colle was noticeably motivated by his late cut at camp, and ended up winning the Memorial Cup – being one of the best players on the Oshawa Generals that season. This year, Dal Colle has looked uninspired throughout the first half of the OHL season, severely playing below his potential. I assumed that it was because he had achieved everything he had left to achieve in the OHL and just needed a bigger challenge. World Juniors camp was his tougher challenge and he wasn’t able to rise to the occasion. I expected that he would have been sparked playing on a line with fellow New York Islanders first round pick Mat Barzal, and Spencer Watson but, he just couldn’t get it going. I wasn’t able to watch the first exhibition game against the CIS team but, in the second game, I thought he had played decently well. Not up to the standard I hold him to but, okay. I expected that he would have been among the players brought to Europe to play at least one pre-tournament game but, Hockey Canada management and coaching staff had seen enough, or too little, of him. This has no effect on his stature as one of the Islanders’ best prospects, just shows what the rule of 19-year old CHL-eligible players being unable to play in the AHL can do to a players development. I, personally, am disappointed I won’t get to see what he could do on the bigger ice surface as I’ve always been a fan of his. Although, he could have struggled on the hybrid international ice since his skating isn’t exactly a strength.
Spencer Watson being cut this early was also a surprise for me. He’s had a great start to his season in Kingston, and had a great showing at the summer evaluation camp, as well as the Canada-Russia series. He’s rather small for a player that plays as hard as he does but, like Joe Hicketts, he uses his size to his advantage. He’s the type of player that’ll go into the dirty areas and, surprisingly, come out with the puck on his stick. He finds any way possible to score, and his speed could have been valued on this team. Hockey Canada knows well what he’s able to do on the international ice, in a pressure filled game. He helped Canada win gold at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka u18 tournament, playing a prominent role on the team. I was expecting more from his during the exhibition series against the CIS players but, I don’t think that his performance was worthy of a cut. Like Dal Colle, I thought he’d be making the trip to Europe at least to play a few pre-tournament games but, Hockey Canada saw something I didn’t, and obviously, they weren’t a fan at this point. A really good article on Spencer Watson, and all he’s had to overcome is available here
Under-agers Chychrun and Dubois both have their age working against them at this camp. It’s evident that this team will be younger than Hockey Canada typically sends to World Juniors, and it would take an unreal performance to put a young 17-year old in a roster spot over a more *experienced* 18-year old. Neither player played themselves out of a roster spot during camp in Toronto but, they didn’t necessarily stand out. Chychrun was given the tough task of out-defending players older, more experienced, and overall much stronger on the puck but, that will come with more development. Dubois scored in the second exhibition game but, that wasn’t enough for him. While fellow under-ager Julien Gauthier remains at camp, neither Dubois nor Chychrun played nearly as well. Assuming both are available to the team next year, they will certainly be key pieces to success in Montreal and Toronto. There’s a chance that Chychrun remains in the NHL next season depending on which team drafts him.
So, where does this leave Marner and Dermott?
Hockey Canada has already publicly acknowledged that Marner is a lock to play for Canada on Boxing Day. He was scratched in both exhibition games this weekend along with other known locks, Crouse, Point, Strome, Hicketts and Fleury.
It’s expected that Marner-Strome-Crouse will be the top line against the Americans once the tournament begins but, they will be tested in pre-tournament games late next week.
Dermott doesn’t have the assurance that Marner has but, he played very well this weekend. He and Juulsen showed some strong chemistry as a pairing and, in my opinion, unless he plays horribly and has trouble adapting to the hybrid ice surface, he has a spot on this team. But, that could all change depending on how the other invited defensemen can adapt. In my head, I was trying to imagine what the pairings would look like but, each of the remaining defensemen are so strong that it’s difficult to consider who should/could be cut from the team. If you want to narrow down the main strength of this team, it will be defense. Even most of the forwards are very strong in their own zone, which will be a huge advantage to the team if it translates well in the tournament.
After the first round of cuts were made, it was announced that the Vancouver Canucks were making Jake Virtanen available to Hockey Canada for the tournament. Virtanen, being a returning layer from last years Gold medal winning team will be a huge addition to the leadership core, and provide the strong power-forward presence with an offensive touch. Virtanen had 1 goal and 3 assists last year and he’s hoping to build on those point totals in a few weeks.
“With my experience last year, going to bring the mentality of being a leader on that team and play my power forward type of game” – Jake Virtanen
Virtanen: With my experience last year, going to bring the mentality of being a leader on that team & play my power forward type of game.
— Dave McCarthy (@DaveAMcCarthy) December 13, 2015
This Christmas will be extra special for the Virtanen family, as they have strong roots in Finland. Jake’s father was born, and grew up in Finland before moving to Canada. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Virtanen, and his family, if they choose to join Hockey Canada on the trip. Jake played at the u18s in Finland in 2014, and apparently he received a lot of attention.
“When we were at u18s in Finland, he was pretty popular so I’d imagine he’d be pretty popular again”. –Brayden Point
Brayden Point on Virtanen’s heritage: “When we were at U18s in Finland he was pretty popular so I’d imagine he’d be pretty popular again”
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) December 14, 2015
With Virtanen being made available, one more forward will need to be cut before Boxing Day but, there is no speculation as to who it could be. It isn’t expected that Jared McCann will be loaned by Vancouver, nor will Robby Fabbri by St. Louis. This allows Hockey Canada to really start trying to determine which lines work well, and help the weed out the potential last two forward cuts.