CALGARY – With only a day to go before final cuts at the National Junior selection camp, head coach Steve Spott is looking to squeeze out more from his group.
"You have to take advantage of your opportunity," Spott said, following the first round of cuts on Wednesday evening. "I said from Day 1, I can look every one of those boys in the eye and say 'I'm telling you, with the group that we've got assembled here potentially, you have to play hard' and ultimately, decisions have to be made."
Resting a group of relatively secure prospects on Wednesday afternoon – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele and Jonathan Hueberdeau among the group of 12 – Spott watched in disappointment as the remaining prospects dropped a disappointing 4-1 defeat to the University of Alberta. Underwhelmed with the effort and general air of overconfidence, the Canadian bench boss spoke out following the game.
"Players are given an opportunity to shine," he said. "And I think there's some players in my mind here [today] that didn't take advantage of a very good opportunity because there's jobs to be had…I said from Day 1, 'Don't have any regrets' and I think some players may have some after [today]."
Notably apparent in the exhibition loss were struggles between the pipes and a general lack of finish offensively.
Malcolm Subban started for the Canadians in goal and struggled, yielding three goals on the first seven shots before settling down to stop the next eight he faced.
"We underestimated them a lot and it showed early in the game," Subban said.
Certainly the greatest question mark in the lead-up to the 2013 World Junior Tournament in Ufa, Russia, the goalie battle is far from settled ahead of the final exhibition game on Thursday. While he was the presumed leader of the pack heading into the hurried camp, Subban is being pushed forcefully by the likes of Jordan Binnington (eight shots, seven saves on Wednesday), Laurent Brossoit (19 shots, 18 saves) and Jake Patterson (12 shots, 12 saves) with three of the four earning spots on the roster.
"This battle's going to continue to take place," Spott said. "Whoever starts on the 26th [of December] in my mind is still wide open."
Also still scratching for jobs on the Canadian squad are 17-year-old Halifax Moosehead teammates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, both of whom continue to provide bursts of potential offensively, albeit with little finish so far.
"I want to make this team," said Drouin. "I just don't want to be 17 and come to camp, but we'll see what happens."
"I think that both players did a good job creating offence and we expect that of them," Spott noted, "but ultimately we're going to need guys to create offence and score."
For the more physical elements in the mix, the fine line is considerably more difficult to balance. Tom Wilson, a big, scrappy winger shooting for a gig in the bottom six forward group, took a pair of penalties in the loss to Alberta as he looked to establish his brute presence.
"I was just trying to play my role, make big hits, and obviously I'd like to stay within the rules, but that was unfortunate there," Wilson said of his discipline trouble.
Five players were cut from the selection process on Wednesday night, including Derrick Pouliot, Sean Monahan, Adam Pelech, Tyler Graovac and Francis Beauvillier.
"Never been so nervous in my life," said Pouliot, a Penguins draft pick, following his dismissal from the competition. "You're just sitting there waiting hoping you don't get that phone call. It's pretty tough, nerve-wracking."
31 players now remain with 23 spots up for grabs. Final cuts will be made early Thursday evening.
While the scouting process for Spott, his coaching staff and Team Canada brass begins well in advance of the brief selection camp, the impetus to make some sort of final impression is great. One day remains with an opportunity to represent Canada hanging nervously on the line.