World junior development camp a first step in finding right mix

Aaron Ekblad says no one has a right to expect a spot on Canada’s world junior roster, even those players returning for a second tour of duty. The first overall pick in this summer’s NHL entry draft said that a fourth-place finish at least year’s world junior championship means everyone vying for a spot on the Canadian squad to play on home soil later this year is on equal footing — himself included.

BROSSARD, Que. — Aaron Ekblad says no one has a right to expect a spot on Canada’s world junior roster, even those players returning for a second tour of duty.

The first overall pick in this summer’s NHL entry draft said that a fourth-place finish at least year’s world junior championship means everyone vying for a spot on the Canadian squad to play on home soil later this year is on equal footing — himself included.

“There’s something left on the table,” said Ekblad of the opportunity squandered in Malmo, Sweden that ended abruptly with a bronze medal game loss to Russia.

“Obviously we’re coming into this with positivity, but we lost last year,” added Ekblad, a defenceman for the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts. “None of us, I think, have earned the right to say we deserve a spot again.”

Head Coach Benoit Groulx says that’s exactly what he wants to hear.

“That’s the attitude we like — he’s coming here as the first pick overall and he’s first on every drill and he’s probably the hardest working player on the ice,” said Groulx, the Gatineau Olympiques coach who served as an assistant-coach for Canada in Sweden.

Ekblad is among 39 players in suburban Montreal this week taking part in development camp that runs until Aug. 8.

The Canadian players will play in exhibition games in Sherbrooke, Que. and at Concordia University in Montreal against teams from Russia and the Czech Republic.

Groulx says he wants to see how players will adapt to what they’re being taught during practice and how they’ll put those lessons to the test during games. Everyone will get a chance to play.

“We want to be a team, we want to play as a team, we want four lines going hard, playing the same way,” Groulx said. “This is our challenge and this is their challenge to be fitting on this team in a specific role.”

The coach said this week is just the first step in a very long process to decide on who will make up the Canadian squad that will play at the world junior championship in Montreal and Toronto at the end of the year.

Ekblad is among a group of ten players at the camp who are back. The group also includes fellow first-round pick Sam Reinhart and young phenom Connor McDavid, the only draft-eligible player among them.

Groulx had praise for all returnees who have been exhibiting leadership qualities since camp began Sunday night.

“They’re here, you can tell their ready and they don’t take anything for granted,” Groulx said.

For McDavid in particular, it’s expected to a pressure-packed year. The Erie Otters forward is projected to be a top NHL draft pick in 2015. McDavid says he’s got plenty of people around him keeping him grounded and helping him keep the focus on the task at hand.

“At the end of the day, you’re here for the world junior championship and nothing else,” the soft-spoken McDavid said.

“You’re not here for your draft stock or anything like that, you’re just here to represent Team Canada and that’s it.”

Canada hasn’t won a gold medal in since 2009, when it won its last of five straight. The country hasn’t had a medal since 2012 and has back-to-back fourth place finishes in the past two years.

“Even to this day, I know a lot of the returning guys are disappointed and have the drive and fire to improve on last year,” said Reinhart, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres. “If we were all privileged enough to play, I know everyone is going to be motivated to get the best result possible.”

The 11-day tournament in Montreal and Toronto opens on Boxing Day and runs to Jan. 5, with the final at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

It’s up in the air how many of the players at camp this week will still be eligible to play come December. Many, like Ekblad, expect to challenge for NHL spots. In the case of this year’s first overall pick, Ekblad made it clear he wants to secure an everyday spot on the Florida Panthers.

But he assures that he’ll be ready and willing if he ends up suiting up for Canada.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with him (Ekblad) but one thing we know is that if he’s with us at Christmas time, he’ll have the respect of his peers, which is key, and the respect of his coaches,” Groulx said.

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