TORONTO, Ontario — The biggest challenge in coaching any national hockey team, says Brent Sutter, is forming an identity quickly.
“What you’re about as a team, how you’re going to play, the accountability has to fall into it right off the bat,” Sutter said. “That always is the case when you’re bringing in players from across the nation to become one.”
And so Sutter said the fact Hockey Canada has named its smallest roster ever — just 25 players — to its national junior selection camp is a “huge advantage.” It allows him to coach and instill that identity from the get-go, he said, rather than spend time evaluating players.
“You can run proper practices, you can just get things implemented and get going more with your team,” said Sutter, head coach of Canada’s world junior team.
“It’s a change, it’s certainly different than in the past where it’s been mid-30s or over, the amount of players that have been invited. But you know what? It’s good. It wouldn’t have been done this way if there wasn’t a real clear direction of path.”
Minnesota Wild defenceman Mathew Dumba was the lone NHL player named Monday to a roster that Sutter called a “moving target.” He’s holding out hope that more NHL teams will release players before the deadline, such as Calgary Flames centre Sean Monahan, who’s out with a fractured left foot. Countries must submit their rosters on Christmas Day, 12 hours before the tournament in Malmo, Sweden, begins.
“(The Flames) will make the decision that’s right for their organization and for (Monahan). And if they feel its right for them to keep him, they’ll keep him, and if they feel it’s right for him to come to world juniors and have this experience for the first time, and go through this experience. . . almost every player who’s gone through this experience, it has enhanced or helped them at some point in their career,” Sutter said.
Two goaltenders — Zachary Fucale and Jake Paterson — plus eight defenceman and 15 forwards have been invited to the selection camp which opens Dec. 12 in Toronto.
This national junior team shoulders perhaps more pressure than any team before, since last year marked the first time in 15 years the Canadians didn’t bring home a medal. Canada hasn’t won world junior gold since 2009.
“There’s no question the pressure is out there all the time, just the way it is in our country, with any major hockey event,” Sutter said. “But we’re not concerned about a gold medal right now, our concentration here is focusing on Day 1 when the kids get in. There’s a process you have to go through to get to where we want to get to, but that can’t be a focal point. The focal point is take care of the day to day things and get better each and every day and give ourselves the best chance we can.”
The camp will be one of the youngest junior groups ever assembled — Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid, at 16, is the youngest player invited. But Sutter isn’t too concerned, saying Canada has some phenomenal young players, and he believes he has a good mix.
“It gives us a little bit of everything at every position, it gives us some older guys, a bit of experience, it gives us speed, it gives us size, it gives us skill, and now its how we mesh together to give us our best team,” he said. “I’m not too worried about ages, because it is what it is, you can’t dwell on it or worried about it. To be honest, I’m excited about the group we have here.”
Sutter downplayed McDavid’s potential role on the roster, saying: “He’s one of 15 forwards and again we still don’t know what will happen at the NHL level.
“Lets see how it unfolds, he’s a young player, he’s 16 years of age, let’s see how it works itself out, and see if there’s a role there. I’m not going to go into who for sure is on the team and who isn’t, that still has to work itself out to some degree.”
Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman Griffin Reinhart was named to the roster, despite the fact he still has three games remaining on a suspension from last year’s world junior tournament.
Reinhart didn’t play in Canada’s 6-5 loss to Russia in last year’s bronze-medal game, as he served the first of his four-game suspension for hitting American Vince Trocheck in the head with his stick in the semifinals.
“We’ll weather through it for the first three games of the tournament and then go from there with Griffin,” Sutter said. “You’ve got to think players who played in the tournament last year, their experience is huge. You need their experience, and he’s got experience. Just his past history with the program, players that have played before, it’s tough not to have them because it’s a unique tournament, and you’ve got to have experience.”
Canada opens versus Germany on Boxing Day. The tournament runs through Jan. 4.