The thing about tournament play is that it's all about progression in the early stages. Sure, winning is important, but given Canada's pedigree and its record against Germany in previous world junior tournaments, winning wasn't really going to be the issue in Wednesday's opener, a predictable 9-3 Canadian victory.
No, what mattered – and what matters still – is where they go from here. The value of winning a medal last year, even just the bronze, leaves Canada with a favorable schedule, a chance to work out the kinks before they face the big boys later in the round robin, Russia and the United States. So the Germans were a de facto sacrificial lamb – a little nervous, a team that sometimes looked intimidated and other times made you think, why aren't they more intimidated?
But ultimately Canada will win or lose this tournament on the strength of its goaltending and the steadiness of its overall team defence – and both have a ways to go at this stage of the game. Call them works in progress for now.
Coach Steve Spott indicated that he will sink or swim with Malcolm Subban in goal.
Subban will get the nod Friday against the Slovaks too and there's a risk involved in that strategy because if Subban falters at all, when can you reasonably switch to Jordan Binnington if he hasn't played at all in the tournament? Decisions like these are why coaches get paid the medium dollars and intellectually you can certainly support Spott's decision to go with Subban. Subban has the most international experience among the four goalies who tried out for the team. The fact that he had weak moments during the tryout camp and again during the exhibition against Finland didn't trump the overall sense that the job was his from the get-go, something many of us wrote early and Spott sort of disputed back in the Calgary tryout camp.
If these had been open auditions, then likely Jake Paterson of the Saginaw Spirit would be seeing some real game action instead just working with goalie coach Ron Tugnutt as the spare netminder, ready to go only in case of injury. There just wasn't enough pressure put on Subban at key moments in the game to know or even suspect how he will handle pressure at key moments in the game.
All Spott can go by is Subban's remarkable rise – from something of an afterthought entering his major junior career to a No. 1 draft choice of the Boston Bruins. Presumably, Subban's mannerisms and his whole body language – he comes across as cool under fire, a valuable asset when the pressure ramps up on teenagers – may well be why he is on the hot seat that Mark Visentin and Scott Wedgewood kept warm last year, during the team's third-place finish. Canada rolled in the opener that time as well, in what was – in many ways – a carbon copy of this year's first-game performance.
A year ago, they steamrolled a nervous Finnish team, winning by an 8-1 score. That day – in Edmonton – it was 2-1 at one point, before Canada flexed its scoring muscles and pulled away. Jonathan Huberdeau had the five-point performance against the Finns, in the same way Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had a five-point performance against the Germans. And Visentin got a passing grade in goal from coach Don Hay who noted that he did what he was asked to do – make saves when the game was close. In the end, it mattered little when they lost in the semis to Russia.
Maybe the best thing that can be said about the win over the Germans was that finally, this talented team – far more experienced and mature than it would be, had it not been for the NHL lockout – finally got its scoring act together. There weren't a lot of goals scored in the Calgary camp and there weren't a lot of goals scored in the pre-tournament swing through Scandinavia. No one is going to confuse the German minnows with the Russian bear, but an outburst of scoring that followed Canada's critical second-period shorthanded goal – Nugent Hopkins to Mark Scheifele – can be good for the soul and the confidence. Spott couldn't have been happy to see 6-1 become 6-3, not the way collapses have figured into the world junior equation in the recent past, but realistically, this was not getting away from Canada under any circumstances at that juncture.
So as a dress rehearsal, the game passed muster, and if it was a lot of people's introduction to Jonathan Drouin, then maybe that'll be the lasting memory from what was a necessary first step, but little else. Drouin, the Halifax Mooseheads linemate of projected No. 1 overall draft choice Nathan MacKinnon, is one of those players that just catch your eye because of his shiftiness and one-on-one skills. The decision to include the 17-year-old Drouin in the roster wasn't a sure thing going into the tryout camp and the proof of that is Spott had him in all the preliminary games to see how he'd do against older players.
Passed with flying colour then.
Looks as if he's doing the same thing now.
He'll be fun to watch for a long time.