Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Yesterday in front of raucous crowd in Malmo, Sweden, Finland won the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships, defeating arch rival (and the heavily favourited) Sweden, to win their first gold medal since 1998. In overtime, Buffalo Sabres 2013 first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen scored the golden goal for the Finns, leaving the host team and their fans in shock and dismay.
The Finns received stellar goaltending from Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros, played excellent defence headlined by Ristolainen and was led offensively by the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Artturi Lehkonen and Saku Maenalanen. Known as the Pesky Finns, Finland never gave up throughout the tournament, gelling as a team and believing they deserved to be in the conversation for the gold medal. Finnish coach Karri Kivi was a fiery presence behind the bench and had this team playing a structured game and believing they could win. Finland is a team that never goes away, always pushing and refuses to give up.
On the international stage, they are not quite an afterthought, but rarely the favourite. I extend my congratulations to Team Finland for their gold medal win. They played with discipline, hard work and most of all, heart. They deserved that gold medal for the way they played and for a such a small country, their ability to produce quality hockey players is remarkable.
The other big story of the tournament was for the first time since 1979-81, Canada has gone back to back years without a medal. For a country used to gold medals galore, the Canadian national junior team has gotten further away from the podium with every passing year since their last gold medal in 2009. A lot of it comes from other countries catching up to Canada as five of the past six gold medal winners have been different countries.Teams are making strides as the USA, Russia, Sweden and Finland continue to crank out elite players, Switzerland is starting to produce top quality prospects, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany are slowing climbing their way up. It’s safe to say Canada is no longer the overwhelming favourite to win every tournament anymore.
As for this year, the same problem reared its ugly head again. In the semifinal against Finland, the Canadians looked woefully unprepared for the pesky Finns. It was the same problem the 2013 edition faced as they were dominated by an American squad that wanted it more. Canada has seemed to choke the past three semifinals they have played in and it’s alarming. Is coaching the problem? The last three WJC coaches for Canada include Don Hay, Steve Spott and Brent Sutter, who are all experienced coaches with extensive careers coaching junior hockey. Is the top level management for Hockey Canada the problem? Politics have come into question in recent years as arguments over taking too many or too little players from one league or leaving talented players at home.
This year’s team was one of the youngest Canada has iced at the WJC and post tournament, player selection has been criticized. High first rounders such as defenceman Darnell Nurse and forward Max Domi were left at home as was the OHL’s leading scorer, Connor Brown. Blame was pointed at goaltenders Jake Paterson and Zach Fucale, but they weren’t necessarily the problem. They didn’t steal games or play to the best of their abilities, but that could be said for the entire team not just them. On defence, turnovers and poor passes were an issue. Derrick Pouliot and Aaron Ekblad were good but the others were just okay. Matt Dumba, Griffin Reinhart, Josh Morrissey didn’t live up to their high draft standings while Adam Pelech and Chris Bigras played in limited ice time. Up front, many of the forwards just couldn’t find their game, including captain Scott Laughton, Kerby Rychel, Taylor Leier and Frederik Gauthier. During the big games, too much individual play was an issue as well as dumb penalties. Jonathan Drouin, tried to do too much and took too many penalties including a ten minute misconduct in the semifinal. Anthony Mantha was considered to be on the bubble during camp but emerged as the team’s leading scorer during the tournament.
One of the biggest sources of debate was whether Connor McDavid was ready for this level. The 16 year old phenom had four points in seven points which isn’t bad by any means. But as the play ramped up in certain situations, McDavid appeared overwhelmed. Sutter doesn’t regret taking McDavid and this tournament serves as a good learning experience for him, as he will be heavily counted for next year’s tournament in Montreal and Toronto. People often forget how young McDavid really is, despite his maturity, the exceptional status and his already impressive hockey resume. He was playing against the best players in the world in his age group. Many have tasted the NHL already and have the physical maturity that comes with age.
So what does this fourth place finish mean? It means Hockey Canada will no doubt go back to the drawing board to try and find a solution. It wouldn’t hurt to re-examine player development at the grassroots level or perhaps look to other countries and see what they are doing to understand why they are having so much success. Canada has another year to contemplate what went wrong and unfortunately, there is no definite answer.