Canada still has holes to fill in its potential Olympic roster

HELSINKI – These are early days, but not easy days for head coach Willie Desjardins and general manager Sean Burke and the rest of the Canadian men’s Olympic team staff.

Desjardins and Burke spent the past week with 25 Canadian national team hopefuls, evaluating them in a bunch of practices and three games in the Karjala Cup, the first three days in Biel, Switzerland and then finishing up in Finland.

What did they learn in the 3-2 win over Switzerland and the 2-0 and 4-3 losses to Sweden and Finland, respectively?

The special teams play is a big concern. Canada went a combined 1-for-17 with the man advantage and surrendered four power-play goals in the final two games, going 11-for-14 in total in the three outings.

There is a need for a big shot on the power play.

Plenty of holes to fill

Ben Scrivens of Spruce Grove, Alta., was given an opportunity to seize the No. 1 goal position by making all three starts. While spectacular at times during flurries from the opposition in all three games, he did surrender weak goals and only put up a .894 save percentage (68 saves from 76 shots) in the three matches.

There are still plenty of holes to fill on this roster and about two months to solve the roster riddle in time for the mid-January team announcement.

Expect Burke to name six to 10 new faces for the next audition at the Channel One Cup in Moscow, Dec. 13 and 17. Some of the newcomers will be players who were unable to perform in the Karjala Cup because of injury, players like Matt Frattin, Max Talbot, Derek Roy, Mat Robinson and 22-year-old Dylan Sikura, a skilled forward from Aurora, Ont., who has six goals and 14 points in eight games for Northeastern University.

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Canada’s Simon Despres, left, is an example of a player who should perform better as the season gets older. (Peter Schneider/The Associated Press)

There is also the possibility of former Kitchener Rangers centre Justin Azevedo being added. The 2007-08 OHL scoring champion from West Lorne, Ont., checked in with 12 goals in 19 games with Ak-Bars Kazan of the Russian Kontinental Hockey League before suffering a lower-body injury that required surgery in October.

Meanwhile, Burke will remain in Europe on a scouting mission to watch games involving possible new faces. He also won’t rule out inviting one or two Canadian junior players for the Moscow tournament.

Competitiveness a positive

Desjardins and his assistants, Dave King, Craig Woodcroft and Scott Walker, will study the game video and have input.

One of the positives was the competitiveness of the Canadian players. For example, down 3-2 to the Finns in the third period, Canadian forward Christian Thomas stripped 18-year-old Finnish defenceman Miro Heiskanen and lifted a shot over the left catching hand of goalie Eero Kilpelainen for the tying goal.

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Sweden’s Robert Nilsson skates in on Canada’s goalie Ben Scrivens. (Jussi Nukari/The Associated Press)

Another positive was the practice time to teach the up-tempo style of play the coaching staff wants this Canadian team to adopt. Against Finland, during the times the Canadians played well, the defencemen were engaged in the play, carried the puck, jumped into scoring situations when warranted and were aggressive on pinches along the boards in the offensive zone.

“The first couple of days we were bombarded with meetings about our systems,” defenceman Simon Despres of Laval, Que., said. “There were guys in and out of the lineup. You’re playing with new guys and getting used to their tendencies.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the loss, but we expect to win when it counts at the Olympics.”

Forward Teddy Purcell of St. John’s and Despres are examples of players who should perform better as the season gets older.

More tests to follow

Despres missed last season with the Anaheim Ducks due to concussion problems and then broke a rib early this season, forcing him to miss two and a half weeks in the KHL with HC Slovan Bratislava.

After being cut from Boston Bruins training camp in early October, almost a month went by until Purcell landed a gig with Avangard Omsk in the KHL. He only had played in four games prior to the Karjala Cup.

After the tournament in Moscow, Burke will put together another Canadian team, this time for the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland at Christmas time. Even though KHL players won’t be available for this tournament, Burke will use the event for further evaluations.

The Canadian Olympic team will then gather in Riga, Latvia in late January for a training camp. There, the Canadians will play in two exhibition games and then one final test against Sweden in Pyeongchang prior to their Olympic tournament opener against Switzerland on Feb. 15.

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