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Player evaluation entering key phase for Canadian junior team hopefuls

11/03/2014 05:47 EST | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - Keeping up with the pace and playing solid two-way hockey will count for more than scoring goals at the Super Subway Series, says the head coach of Canada's team for the World Junior Hockey Championship.

Benoit Groulx considers the six game series that pits Canada's major junior leagues against a visiting team from Russia as prime chance to evaluate players and decide who will be invited to the team selection camp.

"First of all, we're going to face a very good Russian team," Groulx said Monday. "It's an opportunity for our guys to show us how they can adapt to that level and the style of hockey we want to play.

"It's not about showcasing themselves by scoring goals or only playing one way. It's about playing our style. It's a great opportunity for us to see who can adapt to that level of hockey."

There is extra attention on the Canadian team, and its star attraction Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters, with the world juniors to be held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Montreal and Toronto. Canada has not won gold since 2009 in Ottawa.

The Subway Series has an all-star team from the Western Hockey League facing the Russian national juniors Nov. 10 in Saskatoon and the following night in Brandon, Man.

The Ontario Hockey League stars play them Nov. 13 in Peterborough and Nov. 17 in Kingston, while the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League faces the Russians Nov. 18 in Bathurst, N.B. and Nov. 20 in Rimouski, Que.

The games will go a long way toward deciding which players, and how many, will be invited to the selection camp Dec. 11-15 at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto.

"We want to have a competitive camp," said Groulx. "We'll see after the Subway Series how it plays out."

There were 41 players at a summer evaluation camp in Montreal, but some of them are likely to be kept by the NHL teams that drafted them. Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick in June, is doing well with the Florida Panthers while 2013 third-overall pick Jonathan Drouin may stick with the Tampa Bay Lightning, although he was recently demoted to the fourth line.

The Canadian team that finished fourth at the world juniors in Malmo, Sweden in January, had 11 players eligible to return this year, including Ekblad, Drouin and the 17-year-old McDavid, a favourite to go first overall in the 2015 NHL draft.

Others are goalie Zach Fucale of the Halifax Mooseheads, defencemen Chris Bigras of the Owen Sound Attack and Josh Morressey of the Prince Albert Raiders and forwards Frederik Gauthier of the Rimouski Oceanic, Bo Horvat of the London Knights, Curtis Lazar of the Edmonton Oil Kings, Nic Petan of the Portland Winterhawks and Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice.

Reinhart was sent back to junior by the Buffalo Sabres last week. Horvat was injured in an NHL pre-season game with the Vancouver Canucks. He returned on the weekend from an AHL conditioning stint, but it is not known if the Vancouver Canucks will keep him or return him to London. The Ottawa Senators have the same decision to make on Lazar.

Some NHL clubs may opt to keep a junior age player, but then loan him out for the world juniors if they feel that is best for his development.

Groulx isn't worrying about which NHL players will be available until he has to.

"We're watching everybody, but mostly our guys in junior hockey," he said. "That's the one we focus on because we know we'll get the best players out of our three leagues.

"We'll wait and address the situation when the time comes. Everything's in play now. It's too early to tell exactly what's going to happen."

Some high draft picks will be in the running, including fourth overall pick Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs, fifth overall Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals, sixth pick Jake Vertanen of the Calgary Hitmen, and seventh pick Haydn Fleury of the Red Deer Rebels.

Right-winger Emile Poirier of Groulx's Gatineau Olympiques may also have a shot, as would Guelph Storm forward Robby Fabbri and rearguard Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

The Canadian team hopes to play what Groulx called the "tight checking" style used by Canada to win gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Groulx attended a news conference at which Martin Raymond, who has been announced Oct. 15 would be an assistant coach, was made available to the media.

Raymond, a former Tampa Bay assistant who now coaches the Drummondville Voltigeurs, will act as advance scout to help in game planning and be the spotter from the pressbox during games.

"It's different but also exciting," said Raymond, who coached Canada's under-18 squad to a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in the Czech Republic in August. "It's fun to watch what the Swedes do and then watch the Slovaks and the U.S., all different styles.

"It's part of coaching I really enjoy."

Tournament organizers also announced a series of ticket mini packages to help spur lagging sales in Montreal, where Canada will play its preliminary round games before moving to Toronto for the knockout games.

Canada opens the tournament Dec. 26 against Slovakia at the Bell Centre.

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