A feast of Canadian storylines ahead of world juniors opener | CBC Sports

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A feast of Canadian storylines ahead of world juniors opener | CBC Sports

Canada opens its world junior hockey championship Thursday against the United States in the Czech Republic. Here’s a look at some of the team’s storylines heading into this year’s under-20 tournament.

Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending

Olivier Rodrigue looked like the odds-on favourite to be Canada’s No. 1 netminder back in the summer, but the country’s crease landscape changed drastically this fall. Nico Daws of the Guelph Storm and Joel Hofer of the Portland Winterhawks were outstanding through the first three months of the season to force their way into the conversation at selection camp.

Daws, who had never realistically been on Hockey Canada’s radar before 2019-20, has a record of 13-3-4 and leads the Ontario Hockey League with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage.

Hofer, who has also never played for Canada, is 20-4-2 with a WHL-leading 1.81 GAA and the league’s second-best save percentage at .937. Sporting a 15-6-0 mark, a 2.79 GAA and a .907 save percentage with the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats, Rodrigue also made the team — the only goalie of the five invited to the national team’s summer camp to get the nod — but it appears either Daws or Hofer will get the call to start the tournament.

Top prospects look to make mark

Alexis Lafreniere of the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic has been projected as the No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft for some time, but Quinton Byfield of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves is closing the gap. And that’s great news for Canada. The 13th forward on last year’s team that finished a disappointing sixth on home soil, the 18-year-old Lafreniere will be counted on to lead his country offensively up front and provide leadership in the locker room as one of five returning players. A hulking centre with speed to burn and soft hands, the 17-year-old Byfield is expected to play out of position on the wing, but this could be the moment he introduces himself to a wider audience on the international stage.

The Hunter factor

Despite their dominance in junior hockey, Dale and Mark Hunter’s international resumes are incredibly thin. Dale Hunter is getting his first crack at coaching the world junior team after leading Canada to gold at an under-18 tournament in 2013. Mark Hunter, the former assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is the focal point of Canada’s brain trust as the country looks to rebound following a disappointing sixth-place showing in Vancouver and Victoria. The Hunters have won four OHL titles and two Memorial Cups with the London Knights, but will that success translate to the national team?

Red, white…and green

Canada is set to ice a younger roster than usual at a tournament that often features 19-year-old players. Lafreniere and Byfield will be counted on up front, while Jamie Drysdale — another projected top-10 pick at the 2020 NHL draft — is set to become just the seventh 17-year-old to play defence for Canada at the world juniors. Lafreniere, Joe Veleno, Barrett Hayton, Jared McIsaac and Ty Smith are back from last year’s squad, but this group is greener than many past iterations.

Early tests

Getting bounced in last year’s quarterfinals at the hands of Finland, which would go onto win gold, means that Canada will have to hit the ground running in Ostrava and Trinec. The Canadians thumped Denmark 14-0 in the 2019 tournament opener, but face that tough test against the Americans on Boxing Day before a meeting with Russia just 48 hours later. “Where we finished last year and the schedule we’re presented, it is what it is, so let’s be ready to play,” Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen said. “I don’t have any doubt we’ll be excited and the coaches will put us in a good spot.”

WATCH | Canada bests Switzerland in world juniors exhibition:

Dawson Mercer, Liam Foudy and Bowen Byram scored as Canada blanked Switzerland 3-0 in their first warm-up game ahead of the upcoming World Junior Championship. 1:07

Shootout acumen

Canada had failed to score in its last nine shootout attempts at the world juniors before Max Comtois also missed the mark on a penalty shot in last year’s quarters. The Canadians know it’s been one of their Achilles heels, but will do everything possible to be ready if the scenario presents itself in the medal round. “It’s part of the game,” Dale Hunter said. “It’s [something] you can practice.”

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