Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Canada-Russia Challenge: Looking at the Canadians

Canada and Russia put on a great show in their four game series over a span of five days. It was a thrilling series with some exciting hockey, especially considering it's August. Yes, Canada did end up winning the series, but that's not what we're here to focus on today.

Instead, now is a good time to look at the game within the game. Some of the intricacies of hockey that was played with an eye toward the upcoming World Junior Championship that will take place, like it always does, in December.

- Canada had some interesting tactics against Russia, to say the least. To me, the most interesting was that coach Steve Spott was trying to establish five man units. Ironically, that's something the Russians have done for decades. Here are some thoughts on both sides of the spectrum:

- More than anything this series should probably be viewed at as another opportunity to evaluate players ahead of time for Team Canada selections (especially with the tournament being in Russia, and Canada not getting the result they desired over the last few years). You would think with that in mind, that players would be tried in as many combinations as possible. There are a few reasons for this line of thinking. First off, not everyone who played this August is going to be available for team Canada come December, so what's the point of building a five man unit that is inevitably going to lose pieces? Secondly, games don't go according to plan. Adjustments are made, injuries happen, guys struggle, others excel. You're constantly changing your roster on the go mid-game as you roll with the punches. With that in mind it serves teams best to have players who are interchangeable and know how to play with everyone on the roster because these situations arise every game. Thirdly, well Canada did take the game to Russia generally speaking, at no point did it really feel as if they were sending out five man unit, after five man unit, that resulted in domination and strong chemistry. Kind of makes it seem like a fruitless exercise in that sense.

- That all said, there are some potential benefits to what Spott and his staff were trying to do. Most notably, five man units breed role's for each player, or rather, unit. Instead of mixing and matching players and simply throwing out lines, it does make some sense to throw players out with specific game plans and unit assignments, then evaluate how they perform based on those parameters. It's not as if Canada didn't change their lines from game-to-game.  They also probably hope to have built some chemistry this way to look forward to come December. Rattie-Huberdeau is one tandem in particular that Spott would most likely love to have for the WJC.

- Was interesting that after Canada's first game the coaching staff was upset with Canada's discipline as they got six penalties. Then the players responded by getting eight penalties in game two. To their credit they did have three and four penalties respectively in the last two games.

- Thought Canada played into Russia's game plan a little bit. The Russians clearly had little respect for Canadian goaltenders (can you blame them?), and they played as if they were content for Canada to cycle them as they simply waited to pounce on the fast-break and Canadian mishaps. When a team is playing like that against you, you usually make sure your D-men play it safe and not giveaway anything cheap but Canada gave up more than a few odd-man rushes throughout each game.

- Conversely, Russia made the biggest error of all by trapping Canada in the third period when they were down 3-2 and only needed a tie to win the series. The Canadians were like sharks smelling blood in the water once that happened. What a slap in the face that is to the goalies by the way. Russia genuinely believed they could just wait on an opportunity and score at random.

- Goaltending will obviously be Canada's weakness yet again. Subban is an upgrade over what they've had the last few years, but he's not exactly a superstar in the making. Really, Canada hasn't had a stud in their net since Carey Price, and that was in the 2006-2007 season. Five years ago. It's not groundbreaking at this time, but at one point do we say Canada's development program as a whole has a current problem producing goalies? This is a topic all on it's own, we'll save it for another time (but if Canada's serious about fixing goaltending, maybe the CHL should stop importing so many goalies...).

- Barring something unforeseen Subban should be starting for the WJC. Who his backup will be remains to be seen though.

- The defense is a whole different animal, though. The main question right off the bat is who will be able to play for Canada, and who will be in the NHL?

- Keeping in mind Griffin Reinhart was not playing, there was a clear top five ahead of the pact, with the others behind. Ryan Murray was the horse, followed closely by the foursome of Harrington, Dumba, Hamilton and Rielly. Harrington was the defensive work horse, well the others were looked on for mobility and puck movement up ice. Murray was kind of the go-between as an offensive and defensive work-horse.  Canada played to its strength on the back end, but they will need to tighten things up defensively when the tournament games start. Was interesting to see Canada constantly matching guys like Dumba-Rielly and Rielly-Hamilton together.

- Hamilton is a good bet to be in the NHL during the WJC, but the rest of the core could conceivably be there. Murphy (Carolina) and Murray (Columbus) could also both be in the NHL, but they both have to crack some pretty set D-cores. Considering Murphy was their prime offensive defenseman and Murray is their number one (in my eyes), that could change the look of their defense considerably come December.

- My best guess at this point when it comes to what their top six will look like when the tourny starts is this:

- One thing about the Canadian defense is when it comes to the power play they have some deadly options when it comes to walking the blue line and creating space. Whatever forward gets to hang around the top of the circle is going to look great because the defensemen are all fantastic at skating across the blue line, sucking in penalty killers, and then dishing it off. Almost every Canadian goal on the power play started with some variation of that happening.

- Speaking of being at the top of the circle on the PP, it was nice to see Ty Rattie hanging around the net and cashing in on some rebounds. Whenever I've seen him play with Portland he is usually at the top of the circle shooting and Brad Ross is the guy at the net screening the goalie and banking in rebounds. The best goal scorers are the ones who can score in a variety of ways, and Rattie is showing he can do that.

- On that note, the Rattie hype needs to settle down a little bit. A winger with some skill is one of the easiest things to acquire in the NHL. Don't believe me? Look at this years extremely weak UFA crop and some of the names on it: Wolski, Sullivan, Semin, Parenteau, Hudler, etc. All wingers with some skill. Yeah Rattie is a pretty good player, but unless we're talking about dominating wingers (Kovalchuk, Kessel, Ovechkin, etc.), let's not go crazy over a winger with some skill who puts up good numbers but is still relatively small and not terribly faster.

- Maybe you could have that conversation when it comes to Huberdeau, but the Rattie love needs to settle down a bit. NHL future aside though, Rattie will be very good for team Canada.

- Another prospect that praise needs to be stopped for? Dougie Hamilton. Good player, and maybe I hear more hype about him because I'm from Toronto, but you would think he's the second coming of Zdeno Chara in Boston. The truth is though, he's much more comparable to Brent Burns. Big, has some skill, can play both ways, and probably doesn't use his frame as much as he could. Is Burns a good defenseman and should Boston be happy if he turns out to be a similar player to Burns? Yes. But he's not a superstar in the making.

- One player to get excited about though, is Mark Scheifele. Yes, he didn't score in the tournament, but he was creating chances, using his size, and even had a few rushes where he dangled some D-men (one play in the third period of game 4 was particularly electric, where he somewhat split the D and lost the handle). If the WJC started tomorrow, Canada's top two lines would probably look something like: Rattie-Scheifele-Huberdeau, Monahan-Strome-Lessio (the wingers on this line would rotate, there's a lot of candidates to play here). Nathan MacKinnon will have something to say about this roster before it's all set and done, too.

- My inclusion of Lessio in that top six might surprise some, but he really showed some of that promise many of us have always known he's had over the series. At 6'1 and nearly 200 pounds, he's a load to handle. On top of that though, he has silky smooth hands. What was most impressive about Lessio in this series, though, was how he was going in the dirty areas, battling in front of the net, and driving D-men hard and wide. When a player with his length, weight, and skill drives hard around you to get to the net, that is very tough to handle. He doesn't do it consistently, and that's generally been the knock against him, but if he's giving it like that then he's going to play a lot for Canada this year.

- Two other players to lookout for to potentially make Canada that weren't in this series: Brendan Gaunce and Scott Laughton.

- Tom Wilson was the big body that the team definitely wanted him to be, but he didn't do a great job toeing the proverbial line as he took some undisciplined penalties. People watch players like him all the time and write him off for being a "goon," type and it's such a big mistake. People said the same thing about Ryan Getzlaf way back when.

- Canada will have to go through some really tough and mean teams in USA and even Sweden, plus a jacked up Russia team playing in front of their home crowd. In a short tournament especially, Canada will need guys like Wilson to shift momentum, create space for teammates, and set the tone.

- Conversely, the listed 5'10, 171 pounds, Charles Hudon definitely made a good impression over the course of the series. He finished with a goal and two assists overall, but he was consistently dangerous especially in one-on-one situations. Hudon is a player that has a knack for getting shots off no matter where he is and he's the type of guy who people like to describe as "slippery." Opportunities like this series allow players who are on the bubble to either sink or swim, and Hudon swam.

- Didn't think Ryan Strome had a very good series. He's going to get a lot of love for his goal, but he has a lot more to give then what he showed. Strome is at his best when he's a little more on the selfish side and takes the initiative himself. When that happens he's skilled enough to recognize that he's sucking in more than one defender and when that happens he dishes it off and creates for his linemates beautifully. Strome seemed a little pass happy to me though as he was trying to get everybody involved. There's nothing wrong with that, but when you're the most talented guy on the ice, people need to follow you and work with you, instead of you trying to mesh with them. His series winner was a glimpse into how he has the ability to make the big play himself and take charge. Players like Strome are called "game-breakers," for a reason -- even if they aren't playing their best, in mere seconds they are capable of making a game changing play.

Overall though, let's not lose sight of what this was: A reminder of a great series 40 years ago, a tribute to a tragic accident from a year ago, and some damn good hockey. Canada and Russia should both be very proud of the efforts they put into these four games, and we would all be so lucky to see them meet yet again in only a few months time.

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