Hold your horses.
Canada’s follow-up to its explosive win in the opening game of the 2021 world juniors was something far more reserved. The Canadians babysat a one-goal lead nearly wire-to-wire on Sunday versus Slovakia, before eventually authoring a 3-1 win.
Jordan Spence provided that early advantage, Philip Tomasino provided some valuable insurance with a beauty late in the game, and Jack Quinn iced it into an empty net for the Canadians, who saw another brilliant performance from netminder Devon Levi.
Canada has the day off on Monday before returning to Group A action on Tuesday versus Switzerland.
Well, which is it?
It was easy to forget about some of the potential issues for Team Canada while it was thrashing the Germans on Boxing Day. Now 24 hours later after struggling to look the part of a dominant force against one of the lesser teams in the tournament, those seem worth revisiting.
For all intents and purposes, there were were three main questions for the Canadians coming in — one of which has been answered by Levi, who has coolly commanded the crease through two competition games and one warm-up contest. What’s left now is to wonder, how quickly can it come together for a group of players that may not be completely competition ready after months of inaction? And, do they have enough scoring in the absence of true game breakers up front?
Admittedly, the latter is a little strange to ask one day after Canada sprung for 16 goals in its opener, and convenient given its struggles to repeat the performance. But the loss of Kirby Dach, who could have potentially been the most dominant force in the entire tournament before his injury, has significantly changed the dynamic up front for Canada. Now there’s a considerable focus and need for the top line of Connor McMichael, Peyton Krebs and Cole Perfetti to produce offensively, and together they just don’t seem to have the same influence that we’ve seen from other marquee stars and top-end combinations at the tournament. Does Canada have a player that can dominate like the United States’ Trevor Zegras? Is there a duo that can match Rodion Amirov and Vasili Podkolzin in Russia, or Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz in Sweden? With Dach, yes. Without him, uh, maybe not.
And the other important factor seems to boil down to competition shape. There was significantly less offensive pop for this Canadian team on the second half of a back-to-back, which is understandable given how few games these players have been involved in. Can they find that form — or will any team really have it over the course of the tournament? It’s not going to get any easier.
What this team really is falls somewhere in between the explosive opener and lacklustre encore. To demonstrate that they can be that dominant offensive team, working combinations at even strength and significant improvements on the power play are two essentials.
What works so well for TSN when packaging the world juniors as a television product is that players that arrive on the stage are connected to the fabric of Canadian culture at a moment when it’s being celebrated. Backyard rink to the television, television back on out to the backyard rink — perhaps while gripping a new piece of equipment throughout — holiday traditions clear the way for this tournament to sustain itself, because it’s easy to connect what’s happening on the frozen sheets across the country to the competition between nations on the U-20 stage. Kids dream of participating in the tournament, partly because it is associated with some of the best memories they will ever make. It’s this shared experience that connects each world junior team from year to year, from decade to decade, and from generation to generation.
But there is one player on this winter’s squad who didn’t quite have the same experience. Entering the lineup for the suspended Braden Schneider, defenseman Jordan Spence completed one of the more unique paths to the Canadian world junior team when cracking Hockey Canada’s lineup versus Slovakia. Spence was born in Australia in 2001 and began his hockey career in Japan after his family re-located there at a very young age. Spence’s family didn’t move to Canada — and more specifically Prince Edward Island — until he turned 13. Despite dealing with a language barrier and everything else associated with adopting a new culture at such a young age, Spence continued to excel on the ice, quickly ascending from elite-level minor hockey, to Junior A, and finally the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL. Six years after first arriving in North America, Spence was named the QMJHL’s defenseman of the year and earned a fourth-round draft selection from the Los Angeles Kings. Pretty remarkable.
The lowest-drafted skater on the team and a player that spent most of his minor hockey career in a country that not produced high-end talent, Spence quite literally had the lowest pedigree among skaters entering the tournament, and wasn’t expected to be a major factor. But well-travelled defender seized the opportunity to live the sort of dream he might have realized several years behind the majority of his teammates, scoring with on his first shift as a Canadian world junior.
It didn’t seem like much at the time, but Spence’s goal held until the 17th minute of the third period when Tomasino finally extended the Canada lead.
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