TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on Team Canada, which held its first practice of the World Juniors selection camp at the Q Centre in Victoria on Tuesday.
Head coach Tim Hunter and the Team Canada staff met individually with all 34 players at the World Juniors selection camp before the on-ice sessions began. Suffice it to say, nobody should be unclear about where they stand as the intense evaluation process gets going.
"We pointed out their identity as a player and told them their strengths and what they had to do to have success and make the World Junior team, added a few things they needed to work on and be more consistent with," Hunter revealed. "Everyone's here because they have an opportunity to make the team and we’re going to give everyone a chance to play to their strengths, play to their identity and play in this environment."
But every player who makes the team will need to move and move quickly.
"One of the prerequisites is speed," Hunter said. "We have a great group of skating players, 31 skaters that can push the pace and that’s the way we're going to play. We're going to be a fast team. We're going to try to be the fastest World Junior team yet. And we have a lot of work cut out for us, but that’s the goal and that’s the identity we’re going to have."
This should be no surprise to those who attended Canada’s summer camp in Kamloops, B.C., where one of the team-bonding activities was a Go-Cart race.
"I know Tim and the coaching staff are looking for players who can play with some pace and not only play with pace but think at that level as well and we have it right through the lineup," said retired NHL defenceman Steve Staios, part of Canada's management group.
"The buzzwords in hockey nowadays are 'fast' and 'speed,' " Hunter said, "but there’s a lot of ways to get there and it’s not just skating fast, it’s being fast in every aspect of the game, with and without the puck, off faceoffs, on your forecheck, tracking back. I’ve studied that really hard over the last two years and talked to some great hockey minds and got some great opinions on it so we’ll implement a lot of the stuff. I’ve used it with my own team in Moose Jaw this year. We’ve had a lot of success with some of the things."
The first chance for the players to really impress at the four-day camp will come on Wednesday when Canada plays the first of three scrimmages against a group of university all-stars.
Things are looking up when it comes to a couple of Los Angeles Kings prospects dealing with injury issues.
Gabe Vilardi has been sidelined for a significant part of the last two seasons due to injury issues, but was officially loaned to Hockey Canada on Monday. He played just 32 regular season games with the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL last season and has been limited to just four games – on a recent AHL conditioning stint – this season.
When healthy, Vilardi has shown the promise that led Los Angeles to select him 11th overall in 2017. He posted 11 goals and 11 assists in 16 playoff games with the Frontenacs last spring.
But a lingering back issue has really set the 19-year-old back and he’s been rehabbing in Los Angeles until finally getting into a few games with the AHL’s Ontario Reign.
"It’s exciting," said Staios, the president and general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs. "I've seen this player in the Ontario Hockey League sort of come through our system there and be an impactful player and maybe one of the most impactful players in the CHL when he’s healthy."
Standing six-foot-three, 207 pounds, Vilardi has proven to be a dominant player below the dots.
"That’s why we like him so much," said Hunter. "He’s dynamic, he’s strong, he’s powerful, he takes the puck to the net and protects the puck really well and creates offence from that big body and range."
Vilardi picked up one assist in his four games in the AHL.
The other injury issue belongs to Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who broke his wrist on Oct. 27 in just his second game back with the Spokane Chiefs. The Kings prospect needed surgery and the initial timeline was that the recovery would take around six to eight weeks.
“We got some really positive feedback (Monday) on Jaret,” said Shawn Bullock, Hockey Canada’s director of men’s national teams.
Hunter certainly doesn’t anticipate having any issues assessing Anderson-Dolan, who was impressive at Canada's summer camp.
"He’s got his cast off and he’s passing and shooting so I don’t see a real problem," he said. "He’s been skating and feeling the puck. He wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe he could make this team and contribute to this team.”
Hunter was an assistant coach with Team Canada at the last two World Juniors. Two years ago, forward Blake Speers cracked the roster despite suffering a broken wrist on Oct. 27 just like Anderson-Dolan. In both situations, the player had just returned to the OHL after getting a brief NHL audition. And last year, the status of defenceman Dante Fabbro remained in doubt until Boxing Day. Initially cut, Josh Mahura was brought back to skate with the group just in case Fabbro wasn’t ready.
"We want the best players and we’re patient," Hunter said. "We went through it with a couple guys last year (Kale) Clague and Fabbro and our training staff and our doctors did a tremendous job. And I learned a new term and that was ’Smart minutes.’ Get a guy in the lineup and play him and let him function, but don’t overplay him and just ease him in and that’s what we did with those scenarios. So, we want the best players available and we’re going to be patient in this process."
Per TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie, Anderson-Dolan is cleared for practice this week, but not to take contact:
It may be a long shot at this point, but there’s still a chance Team Canada could get help from the NHL. Forwards Robert Thomas (St. Louis Blues) and Michael Rasmussen (Detroit Red Wings) are both eligible to play at the World Juniors should their professional teams choose to make them available.
"No doors are completely closed," Bullock said on Monday night. "Obviously, those are players we’d love to have as part of the program. We basically set a deadline, which is the NHL player roster freeze (Dec. 19-28) so we feel we still got over a week to get an answer from the clubs."
DiPietro, Scott, Villalta
Absent: Vilardi, Anderson-Dolan