In the 2000s, Canada had an incredible run of dominance at the World Junior Championships.
They had a streak of five gold medals in a row between 2005 and 2009, featuring spectacular moments like Jordan Eberle’s last-second tying goal against Russia in 2009, Jonathan Toews’ shootout magic against the United States in 2007, and Matt Halischuk’s surprising overtime goal against Sweden to win gold in 2008.
Between 2000 and 2010, Canada medaled in every single tournament, winning gold five times, silver three times, and bronze twice. But since the turn of the decade, Canada’s run of dominance has dried up.
Last year, Canada dropped a heartbreaking gold medal game in Montreal to their bitter rivals from below the 49th parallel. Canada blew two different two-goals leads and ended up losing in a shootout to the Americans, who have dominated the rivalry over the past couple years. With the United States beating Canada in a World Junior Summer Showcase game back in August, the Americans have now beaten Canada in five-consecutive full-squad U20 games dating back to a Boxing Day victory at the 2016 tournament in Helsinki.
That tournament in Helsinki was a nightmare for the Canadians. Canada went 1-1-2 in the group stage, losing games to both Sweden and the United States before getting dropped in the quarterfinal by Finland, who went on to win the tournament in front of their home fans. Canada’s sixth-place finish in Helsinki was the country’s worst result since 1998 when the team finished eighth. That was the year the team suffered its infamous, embarrassing loss to a Kazakstan team in which players were apparently wearing skates that didn’t match in the placement game.
The 2016 sixth-place finish is certainly the low point for Team Canada recently, but the 2010s have been nowhere near as kind to them as the previous decade. After their aforementioned streak in the 2000s in which they medalled in every single tournament, Canada has won just four medals, one gold, two silvers, and one bronze, in the last seven tournaments.
Connor McDavid celebrates in 2015. Photo: Bildbyrån/Joel Marklund
This year in Buffalo, Canada will look for its first gold medal win since 2015, when the team featured a generational talent in Connor McDavid and a loaded roster of first-round picks like Sam Reinhart, Max Domi, Josh Morrissey, and Darnell Nurse.
The team rolling into Buffalo will be built around a decent yet unspectacular core of returning players. Carter Hart is set to play in goal again, Jake Bean, Kale Clague, and Dante Fabbro are poised to man the blueline, while only Taylor Raddysh and Dillon Dubé appear to be the team’s only returning forwards. Of course, there are a also handful of Canadians from last year’s squad currently on NHL rosters who could add some major firepower to the roster.
Nolan Patrick, 2017’s second-overall pick by the Philadelphia Flyers, certainly won’t be back at the tournament this winter. Pierre-Luc Dubois, the third overall pick from the 2016 draft, has had a strong rookie season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. While general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has advocated for the use the tournament has in a player’s development, it seems unlikely the Jackets will let Dubois go for a few weeks in the middle of a contending season. Victor Mete is enjoying a breakout season with the Montreal Canadiens and, like with Dubois, it seems unlikely the team will let him go.
The Colorado Avalanche have both Tyson Jost and Samuel Girard as possibilities for Canada’s roster. Jost turned pro this season from the NCAA and has only played nine games this year for Colorado due largely to a couple of knee injuries. Girard, a defenceman drafted by the Nashville Predators involved in the blockbuster Matt Duchene trade, has played in 11 games with the Avalanche. Given that Colorado isn’t on any kind of playoff push this season, it seems sensible to send both players to the tournament.
Samuel Girard. Photo: Getty Images/Matthew Stockman
The list is rounded out by Michael McLeod and Gabe Vilardi. McLeod had off-season surgery on his knee and has only played eight games with the Mississauga Steelheads. Vilardi has yet to play this season as he underwent surgery to fix multiple ailments he played through at last year’s Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires. McLeod is a strong bet to be on the team, while Vilardi will almost certainly be forced to sit out.
Canada also has a strong crop of players who weren’t on last year’s team to choose from. 2017 top NHL draft picks like Cale Makar, Owen Tippett, Michael Rasmussen, Nick Suzuki, and Cal Foote seem poised to crack the roster for the first time, giving Canada a strong blend of talent.
We won’t know yet who will ultimately make Canada’s roster for a couple of weeks, but there’s definitely the framework for a competitive team that should again challenge for a gold medal. As we’ve seen the past few years, Canada is no longer a surefire bet to take home gold at this tournament. Still, what we also know from the past few years of mediocrity, anything short of a gold for the Canadians will be viewed as a failure.