A look at Canada’s best U-18 team ever with Steven Ellis

Historic.

Dominant.

Special.

Best ever.

Those are some of the words to describe Canada’s Gold Medal victory at the U18 tournament last night.

After the 2020 tournament was canceled due to Covid. And after a year many players haven’t played competitive hockey, Head Coach Dave Barr was able to get in his words, “ A group of individuals into a band of brothers.

Canada defeated Russia five to three to win the Gold on Thursday night. This completed a dominant tournament from start to finish.

The lowest goals they scored in this tournament? Four against Latvia. They dominated Sweden, outscoring them twenty to two in two games. The most goals they allowed in the entire tournament were three. They only trailed once the whole tournament. That was the opening goal in the Gold Medal Game against Russia.

That is just the team performance. What about the individual performances? And how can you not start with Connor Bedard? He tied Connor McDavid’s record for underage performers points at 14. He also scored several highlight-reel goals and moments in this tournament. 

After going 414 days without playing a game, Benjamin Gaudreau was the goaltender of the tournament. Brandt Clarke was an all-star defenceman.

Even the contributions of the WHL stars not named Bedard were impressive. Of the seven wins in the tournament, four of the game-winning goals were from WHL stars. Logan Stankoven had two, including the winner against Russia. Dylan Guenther had two as well. Thomas Milic had two wins in this tournament. Olen Zellweger had eight points in this tournament.

Last night, I chatted with Steven Ellis, Web editor of The Hockey News, and asked him how you put this tournament in a historical perspective.

“I follow all the IIHF levels. It’s been very hard to find a  performance where it was that dominant. Canada scored at least five goals in all the games except one. Latvia of all teams. From start to finish, they were so hard to beat. The twelve-one win over Sweden set the tempo for how Canada was going to do. We knew even though there were a lot of guys that haven’t played this year, they were going out there trying their absolute best to play at a high level. 

“There were some rusty moments. Even in the twelve-one game, the Canadian players admitted there were mistakes that if they were more seasoned, wouldn’t have happened. From start to finish, there were not many flaws with this team. The goaltending was good. The defence was solid. The scoring was working really well. We knew it would be a well-rounded team going into the tournament. It was going to take a big collapse for Canada to struggle based on the talent on this team.

“This is the best Canadian team we have seen at the under-18s. Guys like Bedard, Wright, Brennan Othmann, Mason McTavish, and Brandt Clarke are the future of the Canadian program.”

Although the team had all of this talent, the coaching staff led by Dave Barr deserves credit for bringing this team together. As well as keeping the foot on the gas pedal.

“You see in a lot of these tournaments, it takes Canada a game or two to get into it. From the start, Canada was ready to go. Dave Barr did a great job making sure everybody was able to go at all times. He made sure they were relentless at all times. They were playing as hard in an 8-1 game as they were in a two-one game.”

There were two defencemen I did not discuss in the preview that turned in impressive performances. The first was Olen Zellweger from Everett Silvertips. Ewen was very impressed.

Olen Zellweger (photo-Chris Mast)

“I would say Zellweger was a top-15 player in this tournament. In every game he was impactful. He was on the scoresheet all the time.”

Ellis also said that the scouts he talked to were impressed as well.

“He was on their radar. They knew he was good. They didn’t know how good he was. When you put a guy like that who isn’t a star, you put him around good talent, and he is the one shining, that’s a really good sign. People really need to start looking at him. His draft stock 100% moved up.”

The second one was Nolan Allen from the Prince Albert Raiders.

“You are looking for a guy who can throw hits. A backbone for your team. He’s not going to cause you a lot of issues out there. He won’t be the reason your team loses. The hit on Chibrikov at the beginning of the game was important. He looked really motivated. I thought it was his best game.“

Allen isn’t flashy, but Ellis said he did exactly what he needed to.

“One of the things about defence is if you are not seen in a negative light, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be flashy. You are still doing everything about your job right. The job of the defenceman is to keep the puck out of the zone and away from the net. That’s what he did. The advanced numbers I have seen have been solid.”

Moving to the forwards. Although it is hard to criticize the Canadian players in this tournament, there was some directed towards Dylan Guenther. Considering where he is on some draft rankings tied with 2nd in Bob McKenzie’s draft, some felt he wasn’t noticeable.

“It’s funny because I did hear those comments that they were not in love with his play. He had a point per game in seven games. He had an opportunity to play with some good linemates. I didn’t think he was ever the best player on his line. I would have liked to have seen more. I would have liked to see him be more impactful. I didn’t think he was bad at all. I didn’t think he was a major standout of this team.”

In spite of that, Ellis also remains very high on Guenther.

“When you get him in his natural habitat, where he can be a leader on the team, he usually is the leader of his line. We know he’s a really, really, talented forward. He can play both wings very well. Good energy. Really good shot. You can only take so much stock in a tournament like this, especially with the circumstances we have.”

One major standout Ellis felt was Logan Stankoven, Stankoven’s late second-period goal ended up being the game-winner. This after the Russians were dominating that portion of the game.

Logan Stankoven. Photo by Allen Douglas/Kamloops Blazers.

“He has a really good tendency to make players on the opposing team look silly, “ Ellis said “ In this tournament, he was just the buzzsaw you can never, ever, leave alone because he was going to do something with the puck. He’s so much fun to watch.  He’s got a good personality. He’s a good kid and someone his teammates really like. Even in games where he wasn’t scoring a lot of points, he was still impactful. And that’s what you need in a tournament like this. When the games started to really matter, that’s when you started to see him step up his performance. One of my favorite players on Team Canada.

And, of course, Bedard. What can you say about him, and for that matter Shane Wright, that hasn’t been said?

Ellis took a breath. 

“I don’t know.” Ellis started. “ When I looked at the start of the tournament, I thought Matvei Michkov was going to have a bigger impact on this tournament because Russia wasn’t that deep of a team. Michkov was going to have to be a huge factor within that group. I didn’t expect the same for Bedard.  Even if prospects look good, if history has proven anything, if they are underage, they don’t get a ton of ice time. You just couldn’t sit Bedard. At any point. He was way too good at the WHL. He looked outstanding at this tournament. How many goals is this guy going to get? How many points is he going to get? Tying McDavid’s record is really cool.

Although he is not a WHL, it’s hard not to talk about the factor Shane Wright was in this tournament. As well, there will be a link going forward with Wright and Bedard. 

“I have watched Shane Wright since he was 13-years-old. He is so mature beyond his years. You almost think he’s a 25-year old that’s been in the league for a few years. He’s so confident in himself. He’s so well-spoken. I don’t know if I’ve heard a negative thing about him from anyone. He’s so uplifting to the rest of the group.”

Both Bedard and Wright are incredible talents. One scout said it to me like this. If Connor Bedard is like Connor McDavid, Shane Wright is like Sidney Crosby. Seeing their performance now and seeing their performance in previous events and it’s hard to argue that.”

Ellis went back to Bedard and shared his favorite thing about him.

“The day before he got announced to the team was the day he found out this tournament existed. He actually had no idea right up until he got called up that there was a Canadian under 18 team. All fresh information to him. A couple of weeks later, he’s trending on Twitter every night he plays. National news coverage in Canada. We haven’t seen that since Connor McDavid.”

There is no question that we are entering an amazing era of young talent. Not only from Canada, but across the world. Not only Michkov. But Brad Lambert, Nikita Chiburov, and Simon Edvinson. There were several stars like Owen Power, Luke Hughes, Cole Sillinger to name a few, that missed the tournament. And specifically with the WHL, Rich Sutter said we are about to see some of the most exciting talent coming through in years. Not only is their talent, there is a willingness to pull off moves like lacrosse goals, between the leg moves. 

“I don’t know if I have ever been excited about an international game,” Ellis said. “I can’t wait to see them in the NHL. Why do we have to wait?”

With all this talent, how do you get and keep focus on the product? Ellis says TSN getting the rights will help. However, there already is a big market.

“With TSN getting the national rights, it will be a good opportunity to get these prospects to get6 the spotlight in a much bigger way. Obviously, Sportsnet is focused on their NHL deal. It would be really nice for a network to put the focus on it. If that is the case on TSN, that would be really cool to see.”

But at the same time, we also are a bit more saturated in terms of how hockey is covered these days because there are so many outlets. When I first started writing about prospects in 2013-2014, outside of one or two, none of these public scouting services existed. Now there are so many following the prospects. Playing video clips of the guys. There is so much information at a level we have never seen before. “

It’s not only the TV.

It’s to the point that when Bedard gets drafted, there will be 5 or 6 years of public information. Seeing these guys on a consistent basis will be really big. It will also be nice when fans are going to fill these stadiums. I know for me, I haven’t been in a rink since the final Toronto Maple Leaf regular-season game before the pandemic began. For junior hockey fans who do not have an NHL team near them, they want to go and watch. I hope the TV partners do a good job of putting together games with these top prospects in it and marketing these guys very well. As well as the local teams to reap the benefits of these guys coming over and playing and exposing those guys to other markets.”

Finally, with the expected notoriety, it means there will be more pressure on these kids. Ellis isn’t worried.

Connor Bedard poits skyward to honor his grandfather Garth. April 9, 2021 (Keith Hershmiller/WHL)

“Guys like Wright and Bedard are not reading what people are putting on the internet. They are laser-focused. They have been told for years how to prepare for things like this. They are ready for the spotlight. 

Judging by this tournament, the historic spotlight has begun.

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