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Hay mulling options with Canada's national junior team

Associated Press

8/7/2011 8:00:03 PM

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. -- A final chore of summer camp for the coaches of Canada's junior men's hockey team was posting the names of the 47 invitees on a white board in order of preference.

That doesn't mean head coach Don Hay and his crew are going to get who they want.

The names are on movable cards, so Hay, assistants George Burnett and Ryan Huska and Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast could shuffle according to their opinions. The depth chart was to be assembled following Sunday's intra-squad game in Fort McMurray to conclude the six-day camp.

But once the hockey season starts, those names will circulate around that white board, and NHL club commitments could cause some to disappear.

There was enough talent on display at the summer camp in Edmonton to indicate Canada is capable of winning gold at the 2012 world junior hockey championship starting Dec. 26 in Edmonton and Calgary.

The goaltenders were solid, if unspectacular, and the defencemen were deep in size and talent. The forwards have the skill and smarts to play a shifty brand of offence.

How much of that talent will be available to Hay in December? That depends largely upon NHL teams, which have a tendency to hang onto the top teenagers from all countries.

Hay may be forced to look lower on the white board when he chooses about 35 for his selection camp in Calgary.

"You look at the high draft picks, the second-year players, there's a good possibility they might not be here so you have to evaluate," Hay said. "For us, we have to have a feel for where that depth chart is, what type of players we're looking for to fill in the holes and then watch how they play in September and October."

After a run of five straight gold medals from 2005 to 2009, Canada took silver in 2010 in Saskatoon and was runner-up again this year in Buffalo, N.Y. Canada opens the 2012 tournament against Finland at Edmonton's Rexall Place.

There are seven players eligible to play for Canada a second straight year. They would provide valuable experience in a tournament for 18- and 19-year-olds: goaltender Mark Visentin, defenceman Erik Gudbranson and forwards Brett Connolly, Sean Couturier, Quinton Howden, Ryan Johansen and Jaden Schwartz.

Visentin was a step above the other three goalies at camp and the starter's job is his to lose. The Niagara IceDogs goaltender's confidence doesn't seem shaken after he gave up five goals to Russia in the third period of the championship game in Buffalo.

It was to be expected the six other veterans would also be standouts at camp. Their combination of size and skill make Johansen of the Portland Winterhawks and Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs difficult to contain.

Devante Smith-Pelly of the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors was a camp revelation. The Anaheim Ducks prospect used his big body to punish opposing players while setting up goals and scoring them himself. He was an excellent foil for linemates and playmakers Schwartz and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins during camp.

Smith-Pelly, Saskatoon Blades defenceman Duncan Simens and Oshawa Generals forward Lucas Lessio sat out Sunday's final intra-squad game. A Hockey Canada spokesman said the three had minor injuries and were scratched for "precautionary reasons."

Canada could use the smarts, speed and hockey intuition packaged in Nugent-Hopkins. The first overall pick in this year's NHL draft will get a long look from the Edmonton Oilers in September. The Red Deer Rebels centre has to prove he can physically stand up to the pounding of an 82-game schedule.

Jonathan Huberdeau of the Saint John Sea Dogs was also an impact player. This year's Memorial Cup MVP has quick hands and good instincts around the net.

Moncton Wildcats defenceman Brandon Gormley would be a top-four defenceman for Canada if the Phoenix Coyotes send him back to junior. Six-foot-seven Jamie Oleksiak of the Saginaw Spirit is an imposing presence on the blue-line.

Overall, the defence looks excellent and will be even deeper if Gudbranson of the Kingston Frontenacs is available to play for his country again. Both he and Huberdeau are first-round picks of the Florida Panthers.

Defencemen Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers and Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips are also mobile defenceman who move the puck well.

Hay, his assistants and Prendergast plan weekly conference calls starting in October to discuss their prospects' performances during the first half of the season.

Prendergast doesn't expect to spend much time at home in Edmonton while he crisscrosses the country scouting Canadian Hockey League games.

Players will be evaluated on their performances with their club teams and also during the CHL's annual six-game series versus Russia in November.

For those players born in 1992 and 1993 and not invited to summer camp, Prendergast says there's still time for them to earn an invitation to December's selection camp.

"Everybody is back in the game," he said. "At this tournament, we're going to take the players who are playing really well going into it."