It all comes down to Connor.
McDavid, the 17-year-old phenom and potential No. 1 NHL draft pick, says his broken hand feels fine and he’s looking to lead Canada to its first World Junior gold since 2009.
“It’s fine, I’ve got the cast off and I’ve been practicing with the team and all that, no contact right now,” McDavid said this week from Toronto, where the junior camp is underway. “I’m hopeful to get an exhibition game in or two.”
(NOTE: McDavid’s health is not yet guaranteed, but he’s skating and practicing at the Canadian World Junior camp in Toronto, which runs Dec. 11 to Dec. 15. The tournament starts on Boxing Day, Dec. 26)
“I can take full slapshots and all that so the hand feels good,” he said Thursday. “The wrist is not too stiff at all… my legs feel better than they did before the injury.”
The Erie Otters forward has been out since November 11 with a broken hand, suffered in a fight with Mississauga’s Bryson Cianfrone. But he’s looking like he’s on track to recover in time for the World Juniors, the tournament Canada used to own but is now a spectator of – after five straight golds from 2005 to 2009, Canada has gone five straight years without the top prize and two straight years without a medal of any hue.
But they’re the favourite to win this year, according to oddsmaker Bodog. At 3/2, Canada sits first ahead of the United States (5/2), Russia (4/1), and Sweden (4/1).
And it must all come down to Connor – prior to the injury, he had 51 points in 18 games, a flat-out spectacular start to his most likely last year outside the NHL, and 10 years exactly since Sidney Crosby (the last guy to be called Canada’s next one) was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Crosby too won gold in his final World Junior appearance, and that 2004/05 team also righted the maple syrupy ship – Canada hadn’t won a gold since 1997 before the ’05 dream team topped the podium.
It would be fantastic, wouldn’t it, if McDavid could add a heroic chapter to that juicy narrative? TSN would love it. The script’s already written.
The Odds Game
The fact is, odds in their favour or not, the World Juniors have always been a little bit of a Plinko game. The best teams tend to show their stuff, for sure, but the best teams don’t always win.
While the ’05 Canadian team was heralded before the tournament even began – and they fulfilled their promise, winning the gold with a 6-1 victory over Russia – the champion Canadian team of ’06 wasn’t supposed to scrape the podium. And they ended up riding the goaltending of Justin Pogge, the scrappiness of Steve Downie, and the high-flying offensive defence of Kris Letand and Luc Bourdon all the way to the finish line, and a 5-0 win over Russia (again) in the gold medal game.
In ’07, Carey Price and Jonathan Toews beat the Americans in a semifinal shootout and then won gold over Russia. In ’08, another underdog Canadian squad led by MVP goalie Steve Mason’s MVP and Steven Stamkos upset the Swedes in a 3-2 overtime final. 2009 was the year of Jordan Eberle and a top line filled out by John Tavares, Cody Hodgson, P.K. Subban, and Ryan Ellis, as Canada escape the semifinals and Russia before they beat Victor Hedman and Sweden again for the gold.
But since 2010, it’s been year-after-year of competitive disappointment.
Every Canadian team since the Olympic year has been capable of winning gold and none have. The 2010 team can be excused, losing in overtime to John Carlson and the United States to end one of the better World Junior cappers of all-time. The 2011 team blew a three-goal lead to lose to Russia in the final, and the 2012 team took bronze after falling tragically short of a near-epic five-goal comeback, losing 6-5 in 60 minutes.
But in 2013 and 2014, two highly talented Canadian clubs came up short.
2013 was easily the more disappointing, as a team flush with phenoms like Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, as well as striking NHLer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, went 4-0 in the preliminary round but then lost its final two games to finish fourth.
And last year’s medal-less outing just coated what’s been a disappointing half-decade for the Under-20 group. After going 3-0-1 in the round robin, the 2014 team again fell far short, losing 5-1 to Finland in the semifinal and 2-1 to Russia for the bronze.
McDavid’s certainly the reason for Canada’s lofty ranking this year.
But as the last two years proved, the team needs more than obvious talent to intimidate the rapidly improving – perhaps now superior – teams from the USA, Russia, Sweden, and Finland.
His health is a necessity, but it’s not the trump card it would have been in 2005. Canada needs to be four-line great to win gold, because Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin aren’t afraid of us.