TORONTO, Ontario — An eager group of 25 players broke camp Sunday and got ready to head overseas for final preparations for the world junior hockey championship.
But only 22 will still be there when the tournament opens Dec. 26 in Malmo, Sweden.
Coach Brent Sutter said the final cuts — one defenceman and two forwards — will be decided on many factors, including injuries.
“They’re not easy decisions, but the reality is we’ve got a couple-or-three guys banged up and we’re not exactly sure,” said Sutter. “Hopefully they can skate when we get over there.
“Whether they’ll be ready for the first exhibition game, we’re not sure. All these guys deserve to be able to push to get on the team and they’re going to have a few more days to do so.”
The team will play three pre-tournament games — Friday against Finland, Sunday against Sweden and the following day against Switzerland. Sutter hopes to make the cuts after the first exhibition game so he can use the full squad for the last two.
The key question is high-scoring winger Jonathan Drouin, who is recovering from a concussion but who expects to resume skating when the team arrives in Sweden on Monday.
Another is rushing defenceman Josh Morrissey, who has been nagged by an undisclosed injury for a month but who expects to be able to practise this week.
“There’s a long time to Boxing Day and I guess it was nice to have a couple of days here to rest and work with the great staff at Hockey Canada in dealing with that problem,” the Prince Albert Raiders rearguard and Winnipeg Jets prospect said. “I think in the next couple of days I’ll be ready to go and back to 100 per cent.”
It may also be a nervy time for three so-called “underage” players in camp, 16-year-old Connor McDavid and the players listed by some as the top two prospects for the 2014 NHL draft — forward Sam Reinhart and big defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
The Canadian team rarely keeps more than one underager, but if there is ever to be three on one team it would be these ones.
McDavid, a remarkable playmaker and scorer, is considered a shoo-in to go first overall in the 2015 draft. He and Ekblad are among only three players (along with John Tavares) ever to be granted “exceptional” status to enter the OHL at 15, a year earlier than other players.
Reinhart is a scoring centre for the Kootenay Ice who has been captain of Canadian teams at age-group tournaments.
And with the world juniors slated for Toronto and Montreal next year, one might think management will want to give them a taste of the tournament in Sweden to help them get ready to shine on home ice. There are 11 players in camp eligible to return for the Toronto-Montreal event.
Sutter has said players will make the team on merit regardless of their age, although he also values leadership and experience. He also wants a big team.
“We’re certainly going to be a younger team, but it doesn’t bother me at all because they’re good players,” the 51-year-old coach said. “They’re the best.
“But you need to have experience with that, too. It’s nice to have those guys who have been in the tournament, understand it, know how it works — everything that’s involved in a tournament of this magnitude.”
He used all three youngsters liberally in a 3-0 victory over a group of local university players on Saturday. McDavid scored Canada’s first goal.
“I’m not going to think about anything other than making this team,” the Erie Otters star said. “I still have a long way to go.”
Sutter has had McDavid and Reinhart on the same line, as he did during a summer development camp, to build chemistry between them.
“He’s an easy player to play with, so smart out there,” Reinhart said of McDavid. “He creates so much offensively, he’s smart defensively. He makes room for his linemates. It’s definitely nice playing with him.”
Because Reinhart turned 18 in November, he can wear a normal visor instead of the full face cage McDavid and Ekblad are required under international rules to use.
The six-foot-four Ekblad will be going to his ancestral homeland. His great-grandfather was Swedish.
He likes that the coaching staff doesn’t seem to hold his age, 17, against him.
“But I still have to prove myself,” the Barrie Colt rearguard said. “So does Connor and every guy at this camp.
“Everyone has to prove they have some attribute that will help Team Canada win. That’s all that matters. They’re giving everyone a fair chance. There’s a reason everyone is here.”
There remains a slim chance the team will get help from the NHL, although Sutter does not expect the Calgary Flames to free up centre Sean Monahan.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have until the Dec. 19 NHL roster freeze to decide whether to loan defenceman Morgan Rielly.
Either player, both under 20 and therefore eligible for the tournament, would be likely snapped up eagerly by the Canadian squad, even if it means another cut or two from the group in Sweden.
“I’m not putting any money on the table that we’re going to get anybody else,” said Sutter.