Image via Canucks.com
On Thursday night Team WHL defeated a team of Russian born junior aged players 4-2 to close out the Subway Super Series. The branded Super Series is a friendly tournament played between Russian born players and the best the CHL has to offer and is generally used by Hockey Canada executives to evaluate candidates for Team Canada’s U20 roster. Those are the players, of course, who will participate in the World Junior Hockey Championships, which this December and January will be hosted in Sweden.
Three Canucks prospects (Hunter Shinkaruk, Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce) participated in the series for their respective CHL leagues. This Monday, Hockey Canada will announce the invite list for the U20 Team’s selection camp and according to Hockey Canada executive Scott Salmond, only 28 players will be invited (a relatively meagre number in comparison with years past).
The Canucks haven’t had a prospect on Team Canada’s U20 Team since Cody Hodgson, and Team Canada hasn’t medalled since their U20 entry won Bronze in 2012. So let’s handicap Shinkaruk, Gaunce and Horvat’s chances of breaking that streak ahead of Monday’s announcement from Hockey Canada.
Of the three Canucks prospects and Team Canada World Junior Championship hopefuls we’re discussing today, London Knight’s centre Bo Horvat is probably the closest thing to a slam dunk. Horvat is having a dynamite draft +1 season for the Knights, as the 19-year-old centre has managed 32 points in 22 games while emerging as the Ontario Hockey League’s single most dominant two-way forward not named Scott Laughton.
Horvat had a tough outing in the first of two Super Series games he participated in over the past couple of weeks, going -3 despite playing well overall (plus/minus is a stupid stat, in case you haven’t heard). But he recovered and played well in the second game, managing a goal and playing well in a losing effort for the Ontario Hockey League.
Anyway, I have to think that Horvat’s ticket to Sweden is all but punched thanks to his defensive maturity and complete dominance in the face-off circle. He’s very probably the best junior aged faceoff-man in Canada at the moment, and I’d imagine he’ll be invited to Team Canada’s Selection Camp on the strength of that skill alone.
Whether Team Canada’s WJC coach Brent Sutter uses Horvat as more than a specialist at the tournament remains to be seen, but Sutter did tell News1130Sports that he "really likes Bo as a player," this week. Anyway, expect Horvat to fill a bottom-six role for Team Canada at the very least.
Shinkaruk has had an injury-plagued and inconsistent start to his draft +1 season in Medicine Hat. After a very impressive showing in the preseason for the Canucks, Shinkaruk has battled a variety of injuries and managed only a point-per game for the Tigers so far. That’s not terrible, or anything, but more is expected out of a guy with Shinkaruk’s skill set (and remember, he nearly scored 50 goals in 66 games as a 17 year old a few years back…).
Shinkaruk showed well in the Subway Super Series, however, with Sutter praising his speed, vision, shot and ability to play the game "at a high level." On Thursday night Shinkaruk showed off his high-end skill set and managed the game winning goal early in the third period (you can see that goal in the video embedded above).
Shinkaruk was at Team Canada’s selection camp a year ago though he didn’t make the final U20 roster, and he may have enough of a track record of junior success to outweigh his early season struggles this year. A strong showing in the Super Series was probably critical for him, however. Also working in Shinkaruk’s favour is that his skillset lends itself well to the international ice surface, something Hockey Canada does tend to consider when making roster decisions.
I’d imagine Shinkaruk will get a selection camp invite, but is probably on the bubble to make the final roster for Team Canada.
Photo via OntarioHockeyLeague.com
For whatever reason, Sutter has repeatedly been critical of Gaunce’s play throughout the U20 selection process. Following a series of summer friendly games in Lake Placid this past August, game in which Gaunce was enormously productive in a fourth-line role, Sutter had the following to say about his game:
"He’s a big guy and he’s a ways away from being a pro player yet. He’s a very defensive-oriented guy as far as understanding the game. He knows his limits offensively, but he’s a big power forward who’s a decent skater and he’s got some good skills. But I see him more as a third- or fourth-line player in the National Hockey League, more of a power guy."
Sutter reiterated those criticisms while chatting with News1130 Sports this week:
Sutter on Brendan Gaunce ‘ " I don’t see alot of offensive upside but is responsible defensively. Needs more emotion & be more physical".
— News1130 Sports (@News1130Sports) November 27, 2013
Gaunce, admittedly, doesn’t have a particularly pretty offensive game. He’s a north-south player with below average footspeed and a nose for the garbage goal. But the "lack of upside" thing might be a bit much. Gaunce consistently scores even-strength goals at a promising rate and I’d also describe him as a good playmaker. I’m also not sure what to make about the "emotion" critique, but I’m skeptical of those sorts of claims anyway – even (or maybe especially) from super experienced hockey people like Sutter – and it also doesn’t match with what I’ve seen of Gaunce in the past…
Sometimes talented people don’t mesh with the people responsible for managing them. It can just be a matter of personal taste and chemistry, and that’s fine, and not a knock on Gaunce necessarily. Relationships aside, Gaunce would’ve been on the bubble to make Team Canada’s World Junior Championship roster anyway. His bubble status isn’t a knock on him so much as a reflection of Canada’s absurd forward depth.
Vancouvers first pick at the 2012 entry draft remains a solid prospect and an intelligent young man with good defensive awareness, plus passing ability, and a repeatedly demonstrated skill for producing goals at even-strength. I tend to think there’s a place somewhere for players of that ilk at the NHL level.
Ultimately I don’t really have a handle on whether he’s got a shot at making Team Canada’s U20 roster or not. He’s got the track record, pedigree and experience to earn an invite, but it really wouldn’t be a surprise were Gaunce to be omitted from a selection camp invite this Monday either.
Which Canucks prospects do you think will make Team Canada’s U20 team for the World Junior Championships?