Steve Spott didn't feel like he had a choice. Jonathan Drouin was just too good, too skilled not to at least get a shot at winning a top-six forward job on Team Canada. So, there he was, the 17-year-old Halifax Moosehead, lining up beside Niagara IceDogs teammates Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie on the second line during the team's first practice on Saturday.
Only Jonathan Huberdeau is ahead of him on the depth chart at left wing and, for now, he's ahead of Charles Hudon, a Spott favourite, who excelled during the summer's Canada-Russia Challenge.
"We have to give him a chance to play there," Spott, Canada's head coach, said. "He's a world-class player, a top-six forward and he's a left shot. Ryan Strome has tremendous vision so hopefully it works. These things always look great in practice, but you don't know how they'll translate to game time, but [we'll see what happens in] Finland with the two exhibition games."
"I think we'll find good chemistry," said Strome, who leads the CHL with 62 points, including 40 assists. "I know he's a good passer so I might need to shoot a little more than I'm used to. I know he'll be able to find me."
Drouin and Halifax teammate Nate MacKinnon bucked the odds by making the team. Previously only Sidney Crosby had made the Canadian squad as a first-time draft-eligible player in a lockout year.
And while MacKinnon, who appears slotted in as the 13th forward at the moment, is the more highly-touted prospect placing second on TSN scout Craig Button's December rankings behind only American defenceman Seth Jones, it is clear Drouin's stock is rising and fast. He catapulted from 13th to fourth on Button's list this month and now has a chance to move up even more with a strong performance on the world stage.
"Obviously he's got an unbelievable skill level," said Strome. "It's always fun to play with world-class talent. During practice, with the five-on-five drill, we were moving the puck pretty well so it's definitely exciting. I'm looking forward to playing with him. I feel pretty lucky."
But it is not Drouin's skill that impresses Strome, one of six returning players on the team, the most.
"I think it's just his poise," said the Islanders fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft. "He's really calm out there. He's been composed the whole camp and in practice. He skates like a pro, he works like a pro, he's got skill like a pro."
Drouin is trying to stay humble despite having the inside track for a top-six role.
"It's a great honour," he said. "I think we have a great line with Stromer and Ritchie. Ritchie's a big boy so I think it's going to be good."
And while Ritchie (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) is much bigger than Drouin (5-foot-10.5, 185), the kid from Huberdeau, Que. has proven he can deal with the crashers and bangers at this level.
"I had to show I could win battles in corners even though I'm not the biggest guy," said Drouin, reflecting on the just completed selection camp. "I proved that by not getting pushed away from the puck."
Drouin also believes his speed will be an asset on the larger ice surface in Europe.
"Big ice means more space, more space in the corners, more space along the boards and stuff and maybe give me a little boost and maybe a little advantage," he said.