Canada’s mobile defenders up for task
Key rests in adapting to larger ice surface
UFA, Russia • The defensive corps was never designed to bump and bash its way through games Team Canada plays at the world junior hockey championship — not with the puck-moving defencemen who are populating the back end.
But assistant coach Andre Tourigny, who is again tutoring Canada’s blue-liners, said his group will be just fine as the tournament rolls along and the likes of the U.S. and Russia are on the other side of the ice at Ufa Arena.
Tourigny was certain there would be the requisite amount of physical play.
“We try to insist our group be a bit more physical but we selected those guys for what they are not what we want them to be,” he said. “We’re comfortable with what they can give. They’re not overly physical but they’re really tough to beat one-on-one and they’re really good with the puck in transition.”
Tourigny said it’s almost become an annual rite of passage for his players to emerge from the early days with a much keener sense of what’s required to succeed.
That the tournament is on a larger international ice surface has only added to the learning curve for the seven defencemen, a group led by returning players Scott Harrington of the London Knights and Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara IceDogs.
Morgan Rielly (Moose Jaw Warriors), Ryan Murphy (Kitchener Rangers), Xavier Ouellet (Blainville-Brois-briand Armada), Griffin Reinhart (Edmonton Oil Kings) and Tyler Wotherspoon (Portland Winterhawks) round out the defensive corps.
“This is my third world junior and every year you need adjustment on the toughness without taking penalties,” Tourigny continued. “We took a lot in the two pre-tournament games — guys like Harrington and Hamilton when they were trying to play a tougher game, a more physical game. But it was like that in 2010. It was like that in 2011. You always need that time to adjust. You need time to figure out what the stick penalties will be.”
Hamilton said there was definitely some hesitancy in the opening game against Germany, given the team mandate to keep the penalties at four or under but he, too, was certain they’d play a tighter checking game as the tournament rolled along.
“We will have to tighten up when we play the U.S and Russia,” Hamilton said, “but with the penalties, we’re still not sure what we can do and I think it’s tougher with the bigger ice.
“Guys can get out of the way easier. It’s not as easy to pin guys ... There’s definitely more room in the corners and things like that. In Niagara, you’re basically pushing the guy right against the boards when he’s in the corner.
“Here there’s that extra space so it’s harder to be physical that way. We’re just trying to focus on that and not take penalties.”
“Canadian hockey is all about physicality and getting in opponents faces,” Murphy concurred, “and maybe we got away from that. Moving forward we want to get back to that.”
The makeup of the defence changed when Ryan Murray had to undergo shoulder surgery. Selected second overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2012 draft, Murray was injured in November in a game with the Everett Silvertips, putting in motion a different game plan.
When the team left Calgary following the selection camp, there wasn’t a definitive shutdown pair in the mix. Hamilton, for starters, is now playing alongside Harrington against many of the top lines but he’s also playing the point on the power play.
“When you look at teams in the past, maybe you had those two guys who were designated (as shutdown guys),” said head coach Steve Spott. “Maybe if Ryan Murray was here, things would be different but now it’s a group.
“Dougie Hamilton is versatile and we’re using him both offensively and defensively, but Scott Harrington is really the captain when it comes down to our shutdown group.
“We just need to have more bite in the defensive zone and that includes our centremen, too, who are generally low. Yeah, it’s a concern. We have to get to guys quicker. We have to eliminate guys quicker because if you give European teams time to cycle the puck, you’re going to spend a lot of time in your own end.
“When you look at the ice surface we’re playing on, you have to be able to shake off a defender and throw quick passes and activate into the rush, and we feel the guys we can do that,” Spott continued. “That includes Scott Harrington. He can jump in the play and activate the offence, too. Skating, puck movement, mobility, those are all key factors when we look at those seven guys.”
That balance is what sets this group apart from the group that defended Canada’s zone last year said Tourigny.
“If I have to rank one-to-seven every night, we wouldn’t have a lot of difference,” he said. “With the group I had in 2011, we knew pretty much before the game who would be our best defenceman and who would be our seventh.”
“What makes our group special is our ability to move the puck,” said Harrington. “They’re all big point guys on their club teams but, at the same time, they can play defence. That’s all you can ask for, guys who can play that two-way game. We’re all focused on taking care of our own end and giving the puck to our highly skilled forwards.”