If you are a lover of Canadian hockey, junior hockey, or even hockey in general, how could you not watch the U-18 tournament?
A dominant Canadian team that capped it off with a classic five to three win over Russia. The national introductions for many to Shane Wright and Connor Bedard. Players that we will see on national stages for a long time both having incredible tournaments. The lowest amount of goals Canada scored was four. The most that Canada allowed was three.
After watching this tournament, you have to ask this question. Especially to a watcher of all these tournaments like Peter Loubardias. Is this the best U-18 team of all time?
— Hockey Canada (@HockeyCanada) May 7, 2021
“It’s an awesome question” Avid observer Peter Loubardias said. “There’s obviously recency bias. I remember 2003. I remember being with my good friend Sam Costantino in Saint John, NB watching our 8-0 win in 2008. Obviously in 2013 with McDavid, Theodore, Morrissey, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart as the captain. In this tournament, Canada’s lineups are very much up in the air depending on the CHL playoffs. I always find it hard to compare. Winning matters greatly. But even with recency bias, I don’t know if I ever remember a group of dominant Canadian forwards in comparison to the rest of the field.
“I knew it was a forward group with great depth. Star power. Leadership. I always have trouble with these comparisons because when you say that, someone will say remember when they beat this team? The 2003 team was such a gifted team, a lot of those players formed the 2005 World Junior Team. It’s tough to compare. We get to see all of it now.”
What Al Miller put together. What Dave Barr did. Without the QMJHL kids and Cole Sillinger, who would have made that forward group even better and stronger. This is a heck of a group. I don’t know if I can say they are the best. But it is a heck of a group.”
The next natural conversations were Connor Bedard and Shane Wright. However, Loubardias wanted to point out some other breakout stars. Some we will see for a long time.
“Mason McTavish. I see some Ryan O’Reilly in there. Shoots it a ton. Plays with great passion. There are going to be a lot of guys on this team that will play regularly in the National Hockey League.”
But back to Bedard and Wright. They put Canada in a unique position.
“What makes this different from a Canadian perspective is it’s been a while, maybe going back to McDavid, that Canada had some potential franchise-type people.”
One player that faced some criticism during this tournament was Dylan Guenther. Although it is hard to criticize, Loubardias could understand it.
“ I thought he started slow. He got better as the tournament went on. At times he was overshadowed by his linemates. (Wright and Brennan Othmann) I had high expectations based on an unbelievable viewing I saw against the Calgary Hitmen. I think he’s a terrific player. I still see him as a potential top ten guy. But, if your expectation was going to be a separation forward and set himself above many, I can get why there is a disappointment. But don’t miss the other parts. The smarts, the release, the great offensive instinct. He did a really good job on the penalty kill. Especially in the playoff round where it really mattered.”
Although it wasn’t a classic dramatic winning goal late in the third period, Logan Stankoven’s goal late in the second period of the Gold Medal Game was huge. Not only did it turn out to be the winning goal, but it also came at the right time, and as mentioned in the preview, Loubardias had a feeling Stankoven would score a big goal.
“Did I have a couple of fist pumps when he put it in the back of the net? Yes. But the Russians were coming on. Canada was on the ropes. We really were. Every once in a while I have had some lucky, gut feelings. He’s always struck me as that kind of guy. He isn’t a Wright or Bedard, but I love his motor. I love his passion. I love his compete. He plays way bigger than his 5-foot-8, 170 pounds. He’s got good speed, an excellent release. I love the way he plays. I did when I first saw him at 15.”
One guy we did not talk about during the preview was Everett Silvertip defenceman, Olen Zellweger.
“He ended up quarterbacking the number one powerplay. It can make a big difference to everyone in your group whether you have a left-handed shot or a right-handed shot. He’s not very big but has excellent hockey sense. I thought he showed excellent poise throughout the tournament. To the coach’s credit, they played everybody. All seven guys. Every game. They mixed and matched a lot and not a lot of set pairings. Olen will be an interesting guy because of his size. He reminds me of Danny Lambert of the Swift Current Broncos in the late ’80s. He did a really nice job.”
We also didn’t talk about Prince Albert Raider Nolan Allen in our preview.
Great frame. Excellent skater. Reminds me of former teammate Kaiden Guhle. Good puck mover. Will be a pro, no doubt in my mind. I see a top-4 puck-moving, penalty-killing guy going forward.”
Although Canadians scored a lot of goals and won by a lot, it did not mean that goaltending wasn’t important. Even in the opening game against Sweden, Loubardais thought that Thomas Milic made some key saves.
Conner Roulette and Thomas Milic won 🥇 with Team 🇨🇦 last night at the U18 World Championship. Congratulations Boys! pic.twitter.com/ZyaepY3peM
— Seattle Thunderbirds (@SeattleTbirds) May 7, 2021
“I know it was 12-1. But, if you were to compare just in the first period what I would call quality Grade A chances, Canada had an edge. But Milic made three or four excellent saves in that first period. He also did a really good job the next game.”
“We had the mindset going into the game that offensive production and opportunities were not going to come easy. That was our messaging going into the third period as well. We got that third goal early and things started to open up from there.”
— Dave Barr 🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/24I5HQwnjE
— Hockey Canada (@HockeyCanada) May 6, 2021
In a tournament this dominant, it may be easy to forget the role of the Coach. However, Loubaradias said Barr and the staff were masterful.
He brought everything I thought he was going to bring. Enthusiasm, Experience. In my own dealings, I have had with him, he’s a great teacher. He really values helping the young people he works with. Teaching them the game. Helping them get better. He was always in control. Always stayed with his plan. That staff did a great job.”
Loubardias could also see the fun the staff was having.
“Coaches love to teach and they love the competition. They did a masterful job.”
Some would think that it would be easier for anyone to coach a great team. Loubardias argues it’s the opposite.
‘The buy-in from the kids in a best on best tournament is pretty good. But you are asking a number of players on your team to play different minutes. Play different roles. Have different responsibilities. I’ve yet to meet a player in my life that wants to play less.
One of the great qualities in any team is when the role changes or is not exactly what that person wants, how do you sell them? How do you get their buy-in and trust? Your ability to make people feel a part of it, even when their role isn’t what they want it coming, a lot of times it’s harder to manage. Especially in today’s day and age, you have to keep everyone happy. That’s a hard job.”
Whether this team is considered the greatest U-18 team of all time will not be a debate that can be settled with this article. However, what is not debatable is the current crop of junior talent. Rich Sutter, a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets, recently said this may be the greatest young crop of WHLers we have seen for a long time. If you are a fan like you, me, and Loubardias, this won’t be hard. But how do we get more eyes on the product?
” I have loved the product my whole life and would love to do anything I can to put more people on the bandwagon. It’s something that I would love to help change, fix, or move the needle.”
“If you were ever to move the needle. Connor Bedard. Shane Wright. There are so many great young players. The country needs a chance to see them. “
Loubaradias then asked me an awesome question that makes a lot of sense.
“Why would you not go and watch Connor Bedard and pay $25 now? When two years from now, you are going to pay $250-$300?”