TORONTO — In their first practice on Sunday, Erik Gudbranson found himself teamed up with returning veteran Ryan Ellis in what could be a dynamic defence pair at the selection camp for Canada’s world junior championship team.
It wasn’t one of the pairings listed by the team, but players sorted themselves into duos for drills in the opening day of the three-day camp as they prepared for their first intrasquad game Sunday night at the Mastercard Centre, the practice facility for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies.
And so what if both are right-handed shots and that the rangy Gudbranson was playing on the left side?
“They put themselves together,” assistant coach Andre Tourigny said. “It was a message to the coaches, I think.”
Later on Sunday, Team Red beat Team White 4-1 in their first intersquad game. Red Deer Rebel Ryan Nugent-Hopkins picked up an assist on a Jayden Schwartz goal for Team Red.
Ellis, a stocky Nashville Predators prospect with the Windsor Spitfires who likes to rush the puck, is vying to play in a third straight world junior championship after wining gold in 2009 and silver last year.
Gudbranson, selected third overall by the Florida Panthers in June, is hoping to play in his first when the world under-20 tournament begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo, N.Y.
The six-foot-four, 211-pound Gudbranson is expected to be one of the 22 players from the 40 in camp to make the team. Tourigny, who handles the defencemen for head coach Dave Cameron, said they hope to use the Orleans, Ont., native’s size, skill and physical style against some of the top players from other countries.
“He’s very strong defensively, he moves the puck quickly and he keeps the game simple,” said Tourigny. “He could be a good asset.
“I think he has to go toward being a shut down defenceman rather than offensive. We talked to him and he’s happy with that. That’s what he wants to do, so we’ll evaluate him in that role.”
The team is fortunate to have Gudbranson in camp.
Taken just after scoring stars Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin in the NHL draft, Gudbranson showed enough in training camp to make the Panthers, but returned to the junior Kingston Frontenacs when the two sides failed to agree on an entry-level contract.
Hall and Seguin are among seven players now in the NHL who are still eligible to play for Canada at the world juniors, but won’t be there. The others are Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly of Colorado, Evander Kane of Atlanta, Jeff Skinner of Carolina and Kyle Clifford of Los Angeles.
“It was tough, but I looked at it from a business perspective and it just didn’t make sense,” Gudbranson said of the Panthers’ reportedly low-ball offer. “It’s unfortunate I had to walk away from it.
“I was extremely happy with what I did there. I think I left on good terms with them and left a mark for myself for next year, hopefully.”
With the Frontenacs, he gets to play with his younger brother Alex, a first-round pick in the OHL draft, and he gets a chance to play at a world junior championship.
“I feel I made the right decision, but it was bittersweet,” he added. “I pride myself on saying that I did make that team and unfortunately the business side got in the way, but I’ve come to terms with that. I’m excited to play in this world juniors.”
Finding a spot on the Canadian defence shouldn’t be easy this year, even though one of the favourites, Brandon Gormley of the Moncton Wildcats, will miss the tournament with a knee injury.
Three of the four players returning from the squad that finished second to the United States last year in Saskatoon are defencemen — Ellis, Calvin de Haan and Jared Cowen.
If they make it as expected, it leaves four spots open — or five if the coaches opt to go with eight defencemen and only 12 forwards.
Those in the running include 17-year-olds Ryan Murphy and Ryan Murray, as well as Mark Pysyk, Dylen Olsen, Tyson Barrie, Simon Despres, Jesse Blacker and Brayden McNabb.
Barrie, of the Kelowna Rockets, said much will depend on how players do in intrasquad games Sunday and Monday nights. Some cuts may be made before a third game Tuesday night against a team of university players.
“All you can do is go out and play your game and do what you’ve done to get this far,” the 19-year-old said. “Hopefully the chips will fall into place and you earn a spot on the roster.”