Team Canada will look to Comtois to set the tone at World Juniors
TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on Team Canada, which practised on Tuesday a day ahead of its opening game of the World Juniors against Denmark.
When’s the last time Maxime Comtois served as the captain of a hockey team?
"I don't remember," the Drummondville left winger said with a grin. "I've been before, but it's been a long time. I usually wear the 'A.'"
As Canada's only returning player, Comtois was always destined for a leadership role at this year's World Juniors, but it was still emotional on Tuesday when head coach Tim Hunter announced at a team meeting who would wear the letters. Comtois will serve as captain while London Knights defenceman Evan Bouchard, University of Denver defenceman Ian Mitchell and Spokane Chiefs centre Jaret Anderson-Dolan will be the alternates.
"It means everything," Comtois said. "I don’t really have words for it, but just to represent my teammates and the coaching staff and that they believe in me that I can assume this role and be a leader on this team, it’s a huge honour. We have 11 captains on our team from their club teams so it's a huge honour to represent them."
"Known him now for two years and he's a good man," said Hunter, an assistant coach at the last couple World Juniors. "He's a leader in the locker room. He's a leader off the ice. He's led all the way through this on all the little details and the mindset we want and he’s played like a leader on the ice so really felt comfortable with Max. I know him well and have a good relationship with him."
For the second straight year, Canada’s captain will be someone who doesn’t wear the 'C' for his club team. Last year, Dillon Dubé, an alternate in Kelowna, was the captain. And Comtois was watching closely.
"I took notes from that and I'll try to do the same," the Longueuil, Que. native said. "He was one of our best guys every night. He was working hard, he was doing all the little details on the ice and that's the main thing that I learned from him. I have to give my best, try to be the best player out there and compete against the other team and myself to be better every game."
One big difference is Dubé had six other returning players to lean on last year to help insulate the leadership group whereas Comtois stands alone in that regard this time around. But the personable Comtois, who played 10 NHL games with the Ducks at the start of the season, is anything but shy.
"He’s a guy who feels comfortable out there," said Ottawa 67s goalie Mikey DiPietro. "He’s kind of a calming force for us, because he’s been in these situations before."
"He holds guys accountable," observed Mitchell. "I think that's the biggest thing that will make him such a great captain for us. If he sees someone not doing things the right way he’ll tell them about it and that will only make our team better."
Comtois held himself accountable after Sunday's 5-2 loss to Finland calling it his worst performance of the season and he seemed particularly locked in at practice on Tuesday.
"We're ready," Comtois said after the workout. "We had a good practice today. We had good meetings about last game. We turned the page and it’s time to go and we’re going to be ready tomorrow."
Among those named to the leadership group, Mitchell may have been the biggest surprise.
"It was pretty unexpected," he agreed. "I didn’t necessarily think I would be named to wear a letter, but it's such an honour. I came in to try and make the team and just tried to be myself and didn’t really come in with any other expectations."
What was it about the Chicago Blackhawks prospect that earned him the job?
"He's really vocal on the bench and in practice and he follows things along really well," Hunter explained. "He understands, he’s always asking questions and he's relaying all that information to his teammates during the game and in the locker room. And he's played well and he's going to play a lot of big minutes for us. He's just a composed guy back there with the puck."
Mitchell insists he’s not very vocal in the room. So, what makes him such a chatterbox on the ice?
"I guess I'm just a very curious guy," the native of Calahoo, Alb. said. "I try to learn as much as I can about the game. On the ice I like to kind of direct traffic out there and make sure that everyone kind of knows what they’re doing and it helps me. Being vocal helps me get into the game."
Mitchell serves as an assistant captain with the Pioneers in the NCAA and it was there that he learned a great deal from Jim Montgomery, who left this season to become the Dallas Stars head coach.
"He was awesome for me," said Mitchell. "Definitely the best coach I had growing up. He was such a special person and a special coach and he’s going to have great success in Dallas. He was just so huge for me in my development."
The two remain close and Montgomery sent Mitchell a congratulatory text when he was named to Team Canada.
"He always harped on just being a difference maker every time you’re stepping out on the ice," Mitchell recalled. "For me, he was always saying that, 'Every time you're out there try and make a play or do something that will have a positive impact on the game,' and that’s something I’ve carried with me through this year and helped me grow my game."
Mitchell has emerged as one of the go-to defencemen for Hunter, who shuffled a couple of his pairs in the final practice before the World Juniors. Mitchell, who previously skated with Spokane's Ty Smith, moved up to play with Moose Jaw's Josh Brook. Noah Dobson shifted down to play with Smith while the duo of Owen Sound's Markus Phillips and Bouchard remained intact.
What’s Hunter looking for?
"Just a little more close-out ability with the two groups up top," he said. "Phillips-Bouchard and Brook-Mitchell, those guys will be our top four for now and we’ll give those guys the heavy assignments and see how they do and then those other guys, we’ll monitor how they play."
The new formation means the top-four group is comprised entirely of 19-year-olds while the bottom-three group is all 18-year-olds.
Mitchell, meanwhile, noted that he's sparked a fast friendship with Brook this week and believes that chemistry will be solid on the ice as well.
"We're both good skaters and we both see the ice really well so we'll be able to make plays and be able to read off each other really well," he said.
DiPietro will start on Wednesday against Denmark while Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott gets the call on Thursday against Switzerland, Hunter confirmed. DiPietro looked shaky in allowing three goals on 17 shots in a pre-tournament game against the Swiss, but Hunter said that did not play a role in the decision.
"No, no, no, we just wanted to start Mikey in the first game and give him the opportunity to start the tournament," he said. "We're confident in his abilities and we’re looking forward to him starting the tournament."
"I'm definitely excited," the Canucks prospect said. "It's kind of a dream come true. This tournament is something I grew up watching so to start tomorrow is awesome. Obviously, I’m happy with the decision, but there’s a lot of work to do."
DiPietro backstopped Windsor to a Memorial Cup title a couple years ago and was asked if the feeling now was similar to what he went through before that tournament.
"It's kind of the same emotions, the nerves, the excitement are similar, but this is kind of a little bit bigger," he noted. "And, for myself, it’s something that I got to separate from. I had success in the Memorial Cup and my team did, but this is a brand-new tournament and you need to put in the work to be successful."
DiPietro looked a lot more at ease in his second pre-competition game against Finland. In an interview with NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley, the Ottawa 67s goalie explained that a recent conversation with Hockey Canada’s mental performance consultant (Dr. Ryan Hamilton) helped him settle down. He’s now written "ABC" on the back of the blocker.
"ABC: Be Aware, Breathe, Choose," DiPietro told Woodley. "I was talking to our sports psychologist and it stuck out to me. Be aware of your surroundings, be aware your mind is drifting, take a breath and then choose what to focus on. It's just mental."
That advice has DiPietro feeling good heading into the tournament.
"It’s building," he said of his confidence level. "Today in practice was really good. I liked our pace and felt really comfortable in the net, was seeing pucks well. I think as the tournament progresses I’ll become more comfortable."
Getting a chance to play in the building on Sunday also boosted DiPietro's comfort level. He noticed that there was a weird bounce when a puck got rimmed into the zone in the first period against Finland so he's filed that in the memory bank. And the atmosphere shouldn't overwhelm him either.
"We all really agreed in the room it was getting pretty loud and it wasn’t even fully packed so we’re excited to get it going," he said.
After missing the first two pre-tournament games with a hand injury and then bouncing around the line-up in Sunday’s pre-competition finale, Brett Leason finally has a home. The Prince Albert right winger skated alongside Morgan Frost and centre Barrett Hayton at practice.
"Those two guys are really gifted and fast with the puck, skilled playmakers and you need someone on that line who's going to shoot the puck and that’s going to be Brett," said Hunter. "Those guys can use their speed, their small, little-area passes and find Brett. And Brett's a big-body guy, he’s going to win some battles along the boards for them and get some pucks to the net for them to find some second opportunities."
Leason has proven to be a deadly finisher this season potting 28 goals in 31 games in the WHL.
"I think it will work well," he said. "They're both small, skilled guys, who can make great passes so I just have to find open spots and let my shot go and our line will be successful at the tournament. I'm ready to get this thing going. Wish it was right now, but we’ll have to wait for tomorrow and we’ll bring it then."
While Leason is familiar with being the designated shooter on a line, he has basically no experience with his role on the power play. He’s been in the bumper/slot position with the second unit.
"I’ve never been there growing up, but I’m learning and I’m sticking to it and I think it will work."
What’s he focused on?
"Just being in the right position at all times, being there for close support and being ready to crash the net when the pucks go there."
Only four of Leason’s 28 WHL goals have come on the man advantage this season.
With Leason moving to the third line, Oshawa’s Jack Studnicka was bumped to the fourth line and Hamilton’s MacKenzie Entwistle appears likely to start the tournament as the 13th forward. Halifax’s Jared McIsaac is locked in as the seventh defenceman.
"No message to them just yet," said Hunter. "They’re all going to play and we'll find our way through this and starting as the 13th forward or seventh D doesn't mean you’ll end up there. It puts pressure on the guys above: play well or there’s somebody else waiting to move into your spot."
Lines at Tuesday’s practice:
Power play units at Tuesday’s practice: