LaBarbera breaks down 'wide-open race' for Canada's World Junior crease
Canada's goalie situation at the 2020 World Juniors started off looking complicated, but in the end it was quite simple.
"With Joel Hofer and Nico Daws last year, those were the two guys playing the best," said Hockey Canada goalie coach Jason LaBarbera. "They were at the top of their game."
Daws and Hofer did not have any previous experience in Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence, but they arrived at December's selection camp with the best numbers among the group of candidates. Guelph's Daws led the Ontario Hockey League with a .939 save percentage while Portland's Hofer was second in the Western Hockey League at .937.
Daws started the first two games of the World Juniors before Hofer took over backstopping Canada to gold and being named the tournament's best goalie.
Joel had gotten off to such a great start in Portland so much of camp was just constantly reminding him to keep doing what he was doing and to trust himself and be himself," LaBarbera recalled. "The thing with Joel was his daily approach and his daily process never changed."
This time around no goalie will arrive at Canada's camp with any obvious momentum. None of the five contenders have played a game since March. Starting next week in Red Deer, Alta., Prince George's Taylor Gauthier, Kamloops' Dylan Garand, London's Brett Brochu, Saginaw's Tristan Lennox and Northeastern University's Devon Levi will battle for the three available roster spots and, of course, the starting job.
"It's a wide-open race," LaBarbera said. "It really is and it's exciting. If I was in those guys' shoes I'd be super jacked up."
LaBarbera offered TSN a scouting report on each goalie during a Zoom conversation this week. He also outlined Hockey Canada's plan to get the goalies up to game speed at camp. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
When I spoke with Gauthier this summer he mentioned that he slowed down his game a bit last year and wasn't as erratic, which allowed him to stay fresh and play the most minutes in the WHL. What did you notice?
"He's bang on with that. His game has definitely matured in that sense. He's a lot more calm, a lot more patient on his feet. The one thing with Goats is he's athletic and when he was younger he relied a lot on his athleticism to make saves whether that's doing the splits or those kinds of things. He still has that in his bag, but he doesn't rely on it to make every save. So, that part of his game has improved a lot. He had a really good year on a team that wasn't that great in PG and his numbers [.917 save percentage in 50 games] really speak for themselves. He's the guy with the most experience in the group and we'll see how he does in camp. He's a guy who definitely has a chance."
Garand posted a .921 save percentage with Kamloops. What stands out about him?
"His game really has evolved the last few years. He's played a lot of hockey in Kamloops [42 games last season]. They've given him a lot of opportunities there and he's had two really good years. One thing I've been trying to do with the guys is get them to send me some video of themselves just in their goalie sessions and I got his stuff last night and I was watching it last night and today and his skating has definitely improved. His pace has gotten up and you can tell he's a lot stronger. He's a guy who's very focused and determined on and off the ice. He's a mature guy and every time I talk to him I'm excited by the things he's going to bring."
What are you seeing in his skating?
"He just looks stronger. His foot pushes and his edge work just look sharper and there's not as much excess movement when he's moving around the crease. He looks like he's getting to his spots on his feet a lot better than he had in the past ... you can tell he trusts his feet a lot more."
Knights general manager Mark Hunter said he was surprised Brochu, at age 17, was able to handle the pressure and play consistently well in a big junior market like London where he finished with a .919 save percentage in 42 games. How do you assess his readiness for the international stage?
"Mark's been singing his praises. Even last year at the tournament, I was picking his brain on his goalies in London and he had a lot of good things to say about Brett. The one thing I notice with Brett is he's a gamer. He's a competitive guy. He's not the biggest guy [5-foot-11, 156 pounds], but he's a guy who battles and competes and makes saves and for the Hunters to have a lot of faith in him says a lot. They obviously run a great program in London and they're very high on him so I'm intrigued. I've talked to him over the last little while and we had the virtual goalie camp and the virtual summer camp and all that, but I've never been on the ice with him so I'm excited to get on the ice and see where he's at."
Lennox posted an .876 save percentage in 33 games last season. He has Hockey Canada experience at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. What stands out about him?
"He's a big, athletic guy. There's a lot of raw ability there. He had a great Hlinka Gretzky last summer, but got hurt in the shootout in the semifinal game and it set him back at the start of the season maybe a bit. He's got a ton of raw ability. I remember at the  goalie summer camp I didn't know who he was and I'm like, 'Who's this kid?' He's a guy that you're intrigued to see and talking to him and his goalie coach back home, they've put in a lot of work in slowing his game down and getting to be a little more patient and trusting his feet and his natural ability."
Northeastern freshman Devon Levi, who dominated with a .941 save percentage with the Carleton Place Canadiens last season, wasn't invited to the summer virtual camp. How did he get on the radar?
"If you go back and watch the World Junior A Challenge last year, he was lights out at that tournament. Canada East doesn't always do well in that tournament and he got them to the finals. He was the MVP of [the Canadian Junior Hockey League] last year. There's a ton of ability there. He's a super skilled guy. Not the biggest guy [6-foot, 185 pounds], but his compete level and how he goes about things is really high-end. I've had a lot of really good conversations with him and he's a very mature kid. He hasn't been on the radar in the sense he's been playing junior A, but a lot of the NHL guys I talk to have a lot of good things to say about him. They really like where his game's at. They really like the talent level and, obviously, it showed with Florida taking him in the seventh round."
🏆 CJHL PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEVON LEVI— Hockey Canada (@HockeyCanada) May 7, 2020
League-leading numbers, international success and numerous awards made for an impressive rookie season for the @CPCANADIANS goaltender.@DevonLevi33 | @TheCCHL | @HockeyQuebec | @cjhlhockey
READ FULL STORY ➡️ https://t.co/kj23Yphtwm pic.twitter.com/0wcXxoyeaa
What sort of plan have you created to get the goalies up to speed early in camp?
"A lot of the plan, really, is to try and give them as many game-like situations in practice as possible. I know from my playing days that when you don't play for a long time things like traffic and bodies in front of you and finding pucks through screens, reading plays off the rush, little things like that are hard ... so we'll try to bring that stuff out as much as possible. The guys that are able to get comfortable and adjusted early are the guys that are going to have success."