Monday, December 8, 2008

Canada Q-Less?

Yes... that IS Justin Timberlake as a French goalie from the ridiculously bad Love Guru. Why is he on display here at Coming Down the Pipe? Because he's another Q product that's not going to make the WJC team either.

Zero returning players, one goalie, one blueliner and 3 forwards invited. That's the total contribution to Canada's 2009 World Junior camp which begins later this week in Ottawa. It's almost unthinkable to imagine but could this possibly be the year where there isn't a single player from the QMJHL that makes the team?

My first thought is that Hockey Canada wouldn't allow that to happen simply for political reasons - the uproar out East would be enormous.

My second thought is whether Hockey Canada would really take a player from the Q simply for that reason. Surely someone from the five players invited is good enough to earn a spot on his own merit but I'm willing to bet that if there is just one guy who makes it... someone is going to raise an eyebrow and declare that guy to be "the token Q representative".

The goalie in question is Jake Allen. This time last year no one outside of Newfoundland new who he was because he was stuck playing behind Timo Pielmeier with the Fog Devils. Once he got to the U18's though it was a different story and thanks to an outstanding tournament in Moscow (capped off with an 8-0 shutout in the final game) Allen is a legit contender for a roster spot.

Allen was a 2nd round pick by St. Louis last June and since the team relocated to Montreal, he's been the go-to guy in net (Pielmeier is now in Shawinigan). Allen's numbers a solid but not mind-blowing by any stretch of the imagination; 2.92 GAA, .919 SV% and 13 wins in 24 games played.

On his side he has fresh success with Hockey Canada and head coach Pat Quinn, both of which are a big deal. Working against him is his age, he's the youngest of the four invitees as the only '90 born of the group. There will be some who suggest that unless he's clearly in the top 2 then he should be cut with the knowledge that he'll be a frontrunner for the job next year.

On the other hand, the conspiracy theorists might point out that if you were going to go the "token Q player" route... the back up goalie spot would be an easy place to do it.

The only blueliner from the Q is Kevin Marshall of the Quebec Remparts. Marshall took part in the tryout camp in 2008 for Prague as well but fell short of making the final roster. The 2nd round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, Marshall is a 6'1, 207 lbs defence first kind of guy. His career high for points is 35, earned last season while still a member of the Lewiston Maineiacs.

It's just my personal opinion but I don't have any trouble putting 8 of the other 13 rearguards at camp ahead of him on my depth chart.

Up front Patrice Cormier of the Rimouski Oceanic, according to Hockey's Future writer and TPS contributor Kevin Forbes, is "by far a much more complete player (than teammate Phil Cornet), able to make room for those less eager for the physical battles to show their stuff. I suspect that's why Cormier gets the invite, as he'll be competing for a third/fourth line spot".

Cormier fought through a myriad of injuries last year but the New Jersey Devils rolled the dice and grabbed him in the second round anyway. So far this year Cormier has 24 points in 27 games but, as Forbes and some others have said, points probably aren't why the forward is part of this camp.

I've never seen him play so I can't tell how he compares to guys like Stefan Della Rovere, Jamie Arniel, Brett Sonne, Riley Nash or Dana Tyrell but I know the last three names I just mentioned bring more to the table than simply an ability to check. However, Cormier's ace in the hole might be that at 6'2 and 205 lbs... he might be the biggest forward at camp.

Chris Didomenico, a 6th round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2007, enjoyed a 95-point campaign with Saint John last year. This season he's off to another good start with 34 points in 26 games. He was originally named to the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge but had to sit out due to "a lower body injury" that had him on the shelf for a couple of weeks.

It will be interesting to see how he matches up with some of the other offensive players in camp, assuming that is the role he'd be expected to fill for Canada. CHL guru Peter Loubardias will guest on The Pipeline Show tomorrow night and will be able to tell us much more about Didomenico and his chances of sticking.

Last but certainly not least is Angelo Esposito who has one last chance to try and crack the WJC roster. He's never really come close so is there any reason to think this year will be any different? Motivation certainly has to be a thing of the past as failure to make the squad would mean getting cut 4 years in a row.

Still, it's not like he's ripping up the scoring race in the Q this season; his 24 points in 20 games sounds great but doesn't put him in the top 50 - and yes I know he's played fewer games than most.

Is Esposito really a more deserving invite than say Ottawa 67's forward Logan Couture? They have similar point production and neither have had any success cracking the WJC roster in the past but this year it is being held in Couture's backyard.

It will be interesting to see how the 5 QMJHL players make out this week. For some reason I think Didomenico has the best shot but I won't be surprised at all to see Jake Allen joining him on the final roster.

Just my opinion though, what's your's?


Nathan Fournier said...

Very good read. I wouldn't be surprised if the QMJHL has no reps this year. No one has really stood out this year. The QMJHL is less physical this year and it will hurt the players who will be trying out.

I want to say Marshall has the best chance but still I didnt include him in my roster.

Kevin Forbes said...

I have to agree that there is a strong possibility that this iteration of the World Junior squad will be without a representative from the Q League.

As you mentioned Guy, Allen and DiDomenico have likely the best chances, with Cormier a bit of a wild card. I don't think the fourth time will be the charm for Esposito and despite being one of the top competitors and perhaps, pound for pound, one of the toughest players in the league, Kevin Marshall is unlikely in my books.

Allen has clearly benefited from his work with Hockey Canada over the past year. I have to admit, I thought he was simply a goalie on a hot streak during the second half of the 2007-08 season and into the U18s. This year he has proven to be the real deal and he's showing that he deserved to be the first goaltender out of the QMJHL to be selected at the 2008 Draft. Clearly any of the goaltenders named could be Canada's ticket for gold, but it is likely the most scrutinized position both by fans and the media entering into the tournament.

It's worth noting that if this WJC was being held on the big ice in Europe, DiDomenico would hardly have a shot. His skating makes him an easy target to hit on the ice and although he's listed as having grown a bit, he doesn't look that much bigger on the ice. But his skills are undeniable and he battles through the extra checking attention (amplified by his lack of speed) and can still make a play. You can't count him out, simply because he's continually made fools out of those who do, but I still wonder what sort of role he would slot into on Team Canada.

The same could be said for Cormier, albeit for different reasons. Personally, I feel that for a tournament like this, you need guys to fill that energy line who can also step into a larger role if the situation calls for it. But a lot of it depends on how the staff want to build the team. We've all seen three offensive lines and a shutdown line. We've seen two offensive lines, a two-way line and a grind line. Canada has had success with many different ways. If Canada choses to go with a grinding line, I think Cormier has a chance. His size is undeniable and at times I feel that he really hasn't been given the chance to show everything that he can do, due to his injury history. Rimouski has had quite a bit of trouble with injuries this year as well, with players slotting in and out of the lineup, so despite being healthy, that hasn't been an ideal stage for him either. As it boils down, I think he'll likely have a better shot next year.

To disagree slightly with the previous comment, I don't feel that this is a case of the Q being any more or less physical then it has been in recent years. I think that this is a continued fallout from the league itself changing and evolving. We've already seen it a bit in the draft, with no Q players drafted in the first round of 2008 and more players being picked up in later rounds (like DiDomenico for example). The league itself isn't attracting and developing top talent like it has in the past and while I would agree that the style of play has changed (maybe not this year compared to the last, but perhaps over the past six years for sure), becoming, if anything, more in tune with their neighbouring leagues to the west with a bit more emphasis in the grinding, two-way play. The league still suffers from a popular stereotype that it is dominated by small, speedy, one-way offensive forwards who easily rack up 100+ points and have to introduce themselves to their own goaltenders at any team luncheon. By and large, that's definitely not the case anymore and if anything the pendulum of high-end talent has swung the other way. Two subjects that I've poked at a bit over the past year: the impact of the Maritime expansion and players from that region as well as the declining number of Quebec-born goaltenders advancing, lead me to believe that this is more an evolution of the Q as opposed to simply a "bad year". The clearcut top-end talent isn't there this year like it has been in the past, but I don't believe that's an accurate commentary on the state of the QMJHL itself.