Admittedly, I haven't watched a Calgary Flames game since before Christmas. Mostly because I had a sweet ticket package to the WJ tournament, but also because, let's face it - I'm not missing much.
For the Flames franchise, the World Junior tourney was a tad bit of a let-down. Outside of Team USA's Bill Arnold, there were no bright spots for the team. Arnold was named one of USA's 3 best players.But, of course, USA - one of the top 4 (I'd argue they were top 2) teams in the tournament, finished a disappointing 7th place
Sven Bartschi was injured in the first period of Switzerland's second game and never returned. And, to be honest, in the little bit he did play - he was average at best.
As for the tourney as a whole, I had an amazing couple of weeks and watched a LOT of hockey. But, I felt Saskatoon did a better job of hosting, so that was a little disappointing. Frankly, the souvenir apparel was terrible and the only decent thing available (Canada's throwback jersey's) was either sold out incredibly early or not even for sale at the 'dome. Following last night's gold medal game, the actual tournament all-stars weren't even announced in front of the crowd, their names were just put on the jumbotron.
After the jump I'll take a closer look at Team Canada, breaking down their finish and their best and worst of the tournament.Canada's 3 tournament all-stars were Mark Stone, Brett Connelly (for real) and Brandon Gormley. Stone and Gormley were givens... and Gormley doubled as the tournament's top defenseman. A well-deserved accolade for the young Coyotes prospect, drafted 13th overall two years ago. (Hey, how did the Coyotes get that pick anyway?) Connelly has an unreal shot and played well in spurts, but the way that kid gets muscled off the puck I found it hard to believe he'd spent any time in the NHL. Add to that he tried to stick or elbow every opposing player he faced behind the play and did a lot of diving, well, he certainly wasn't on my all-star list.
Don Hay brought back a lot of memories. Can someone please tell me what this guy actually did other than help select the team? It's always true that the players have to play the game, but when they're a bunch of immature teenagers, they really need to be COACHED. Canada had two issues heading into the medal round - goaltending and discipline. Then, it was those two things that killed them against the Russians. The only thing that Hay did was shorten his bench. He left an unfocused Wedgewood in the game too long, never called a timeout to jumpstart the team before it was too late and allowed the players to get rattled time after time.
Despite all of that, there were actually players I was impressed with, too. Mark Stone for one. He's excellent at finding the open spots in the slot and he's big and never stops skating. Hard to believe Jonathan Huberdeau hadn't played in weeks before the tourney. I had heard that Mikael Granlund was the player to watch but he's not even in my top 5 and falls way below Huberdeau and Evgeni Kuznetsov. Gormley, as previously mentioned, was a bright spot - as was Scott Harrington. In his brief time with the team, Devante Smith-Pelly showed great bursts and energy and despite his semi-final performance, Ryan Murray was very solid through most of the tournament. When Brendan Gallagher finally turned up his play, he was excellent. Unfortunately, he waited until 10 minutes into the 3rd period of the semi-final to do so.
Dougie Hamilton has to top my list of disappointments. Big, smooth-skating, skilled d-man. He's a dream prospect. But, wow, he's got a long way to go. It's a good thing he's so gifted or he would've been abused much more than he already was. Ryan Strome and Mark Scheifele were apparently on the brink of being NHLers this season. Well, Strome benefited from playing with Huberdeau and Stone most of the time, but other than that, was unable to generate much of anything himself and squandered a lot of scoring chances. Scheifele just looked lost most of the time. We're talking about a guy who led the NHL preseason in scoring and he struggled against the defense of every team. And, last but not least, can't forget the three returning players - Captain Jaden Schwartz, he of the skate it into the offensive zone and pull up... every... single... time; Brett Connelly, a supremely talented kid who just looks like he's always been the best player so he's never had to actually "try"; and, Quinton Howden, whom I forgot was even on the team until the bronze medal game.
I can't write a recap of the tournament without addressing the semi-final and Kuznetsov. First of all, Evgeni Kuznetsov was easily the best player in the tournament. Sure, it took the MSM until the 4-spot he threw on Canada to give him any props, but he's a force every time he steps on the ice. Had he gotten the bounces on NYE against Sweden he'd of had 4 points in that game too, and despite being heavily outshot, Russia would've won handily. And, if I hear one more person complain about his "sportsmanship", I'm going to puke. The only thing he did that I didn't like was slide on the ice after a goal, and that's just a personal preference, it never offended me at all. You don't want him to slide on the ice or chirp to the media? Then don't let him score and don't let them beat you. It's as simple as that. He made it clear before the tournament started that all he wanted to do was beat Canada, and he did. He deserves credit and a lot of it. He wore the 'C' and did what a captain should do, he willed his team to beat their biggest rival... he carried that team on his back and his teammates followed his example. I was surprised he didn't play in Washington this year and all this tournament did was cement my opinion that he's more than ready for the NHL. Kuznetsov is the best player not in the NHL right now.
As for the semi-final, I'm not surprised the team lost. When the coaching staff and players don't address their weaknesses you can only assume a good team will expose them like the Russians did. And, I have a little bit of an unpopular opinion on the "heart" of Team Canada. Yes, the comeback was incredibly exciting. Yes, it took a lot for those boys to get back into that game. But, let's face it, Canada was the only team (well, maybe Sweden) that had more than 2 lines of depth - they're a team of future NHLers, featuring many of the top prospects in the NHL. When a team that lacks that kind of depth goes into full-on prevent defense mode like the Russians did, I fully expect the Canadians to mount a comeback. And as great as it was, it took a couple of timely bounces to get there. So, let's leave the Canadian "heart" stories for those needing to drum up narratives. Did the Chicago Blackhawks use their Canadian "heart" when they came back from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Flames a couple years back? Or did they finally just execute their gameplan while an inferior team stood on their heels? If Team Canada wanted to show me heart, they would've been prepared for that game, and they weren't.
Lucky for many of them, they'll be back next year... in Russia, no less.
In order to win this tournament, you can't just be the most talented team or the best team (and, I'm not even sure Canada WAS either of those) but the winning team always takes their game to a different level. The Russians did it against Canada and the Swedes did it several times throughout the tournament. Team Canada never rose their game when they needed to...
In the end, the gold-medal game featured the two teams who deserved to be there.