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Friday, December 23, 2016

CANADA GOING FOR GOLD IN 2017 WORLD JUNIORS

MONTREAL - Playing on home ice with a team built for speed and tenacity could be a winning combination for Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

While Canada is missing teenage stars like Connor McDavid and Mitch Marner, who have already graduated to the National Hockey League, their closest rivals will also be without top talent at the tournament, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Toronto and Montreal.

Coach Dominique Ducharme brings a team four lines deep in scoring ability with a decent defence and what they expect will be better goaltending with Carter Hart and Connor Ingram than the Canadian side that was eliminated by Finland in the quarter-finals of last year's world juniors in Helsinki.

Canada has five players back from that team: forwards Dylan Strome, Julien Gauthier, Mitchell Stephens and Mathew Barzal and defenceman Thomas Chabot. Forwards like Quebec league goals leader Mathieu Joseph, 2016 third-overall draft NHL pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, Ontario Hockey League scoring ace Taylor Raddysh and University of North Dakota digger Tyson Jost should give them four lines that can provide offence.

"Our pace and our skill and how hard we work, we put those three things together and it really works well,'' Jost said this week. "We're also a tight group off the ice and that benefits us on the ice.

"One thing you really need in a short competition is for everyone to be close off the ice. You can see that in our dressing room.''

Canada will be the favourite on the NHL-sized rinks at home, where it won two years ago when the event was also held in Toronto and Montreal. It was the only medal Canada has won in the last four world juniors, with the other three played on international-size ice in Europe.

The United States, learning that scoring ace and Vancouver Canucks prospect Brock Boeser will sit out with a wrist injury, should also be in the hunt along with Finland, Russia and Sweden.

Strome, a rangy scorer and faceoff ace picked third overall in 2015 by Arizona, is expected to centre Canada's top line and first power play unit. New York Islanders 2015 first-rounder Barzal will be looked to for scoring, particularly if Ducharme keeps him on a line with Joseph and Raddysh.

Jost's unit with six-foot-four forwards Gauthier and Nicolas Roy could be a menace for opposing teams while Stephens, Anthony Cirelli, Dillon Dube, Blake Speers and Michael McLeod are all proven junior-level scorers.

Rushing rearguard Chabot and Noah Juulsen are expected to lead the defence with Jake Bean and six-foot-four Philippe Myers, while big hitter Jeremy Lauzon, Kale Clague and Dante Fabbro can all move the puck.

But mostly, it will be teamwork and effort that will be Canada's motor rather than the elite skill of any individual.

"We're coming together,'' Strome said this week. "We're close.

"We're all happy when anyone scores. The chemistry's building and that's a good thing for this tournament.''

Much of the pre-tournament talk has been about who will not play, and that list is certainly impressive.

Besides McDavid and Marner, Canadians who are eligible but weren't loaned for the tournament include defenceman Jakob Chychrun and forwards Travis Konecny, Anthony Beauvillier and Lawson Crouse.

But the Americans are missing Auston Matthews, Matt Tkachuk, Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin, while Finland is without the top three scorers from last year's tournament _ Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho. Others out are Russian defenceman Ivan Provorov, Switzerland's Denis Malgin and the Czech Republic's big centre Pavel Zacha.

Even some top draft-eligible prospects like Canada's Nolan Patrick and American Casey Mittelstadt are out with injuries, but there are other 17-year-olds expected to go high in the 2017 draft to watch, such as Nico Hischier of Switzerland, Czech forward Martin Necas, Sweden's Elias Petterson and nine young Finns including Eeli Tolvanen, Miro Heiskanen, Juuso Valimaki and Urho Vaakainen.

There is also 16-year-old Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who some see as the first overall draft pick in 2018.

And there will be some gifted players already drafted to watch, including Sweden's Alexander Nylander and Joel Eriksson Ek, Finland captain Olli Juolevi, big Russian defenceman Mikhail Sergachev and several Canadians.

Canada will play the preliminary round in Group B at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto with the U.S., Russia, Slovakia and Latvia. Group A is at the Bell Centre in Montreal with Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark. The top four in each group advance to the quarter-finals. The semifinals and final will be in Montreal.

Play opens Dec. 26 with Canada against Russia, Denmark vs. Sweden, Finland vs. Czech and Latvia vs. the U.S.

Canada has won the event 16 times since its inception in 1977, but gold has been elusive since losing the 2010 final to the U.S. and blowing a third-period lead to Russia in 2011 championship game. The 2015 gold with a team that included McDavid, Sam Reinhart and Curtis Lazar was their first in six years.

(CP)

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