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Duclair a rarity for Canada as NHL teams hold on to world junior prospects

12/13/2014 01:58 EST | Updated 02/12/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Anthony Duclair was happy to ditch his blue New York Rangers jersey for a red Team Canada one, at least for a few weeks.

Duclair was released by the NHL club to take part in the camp leading up to the world junior hockey championship in Montreal and Toronto. So far, he's the only one.

As Canada gears up to try to win its first world junior gold since 2009, it will have to do so without a handful of eligible players who are making an impact in the pros like Florida's Aaron Ekblad and Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin. The status of two others, Ottawa's Curtis Lazar and Vancouver's Bo Horvat, is still uncertain.

Letting Duclair go seemed to be a no-brainer for New York, given that he was a part-time player after making the team out of training camp.

"I'm glad that the Rangers let me be a part of this tournament," Duclair said Saturday morning. "It's the last opportunity for me to play in this tournament. When you're playing against the best junior-age players in the world, you know you're going to get some good hockey and some good minutes. It's a big tournament and it's really tough to play in. I'm really looking forward to it."

But it's far from a one-size-fits-all strategy when NHL teams weigh whether to send their young stars to the world juniors. In the case of Ekblad and Colorado's reigning Calder Trophy winner, Nathan MacKinnon, saying no is quite easy.

Then there are the iffy cases like Drouin, Lazar and Horvat, each of whom has played a bottom-six role as a rookie in the NHL. All have been healthy scratches fewer times than Duclair was with the Rangers.

"Every situation's different," Duclair said. "I think every player you need to handle differently. Some guys in the NHL have a lot of impact in their club teams. You don't want to let them go. For myself, I was in and out of the lineup as a young guy, so I think it was a pretty good decision for me to come here."

Drouin was Canada's second-leading scorer at last year's tournament with three goals and six assists in seven games. Looking at his whole season with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Halifax Mooseheads, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman liked what he saw out of Drouin becoming a more complete player.

After breaking his right thumb, Drouin made his Tampa Bay debut in October and has a goal and 10 assists and has averaged just under 13 minutes of ice time. Coach Jon Cooper made him a healthy scratch four times.

Still, Yzerman wants Drouin to keep growing in the NHL, not at the junior level.

"It's just going to take a little time adjusting," Yzerman told local media this week. "We're asking him to do more than just score: Be good in all aspects of the game. And he's committed to it and we want him to get as much opportunity here."

Lazar had three goals and four assists for Canada last year, and there's only a small chance he'll get to have an encore. Part of that has to do with a knee injury to Chris Neil that opens up a spot for the 19-year-old with the Senators.

A healthy scratch twice early, Lazar has a goal and six assists and has had similar ice time to Drouin. The Senators declined comment on Lazar until a final decision is made on whether to loan him to Canada for the world juniors.

Horvat might be the most interesting case of all, considering he has carved out a niche for himself with the Canucks.

Horvat, who was selected with the draft pick Vancouver acquired in the Cory Schneider trade with New Jersey, has only been scratched once since he broke into the NHL. He has a goal and four assists and is averaging about 10 minutes of ice time per game.

When the Canucks came to Toronto on Dec. 6, Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney took a light-hearted jab at trying to get Horvat loaned for the world juniors. In an interview shown on the video screens at Air Canada Centre, Renney said Team Canada was "pretty complete, except for maybe a player on the ice tonight."

That line aside, there's undoubtedly some pressure on the Canucks to decide before Canada finalizes its roster. That's not due until Christmas Day, but the decision on Horvat must be made before the NHL roster freeze goes into effect Dec. 19.

Duclair will get that experience after being passed over last year. The Montreal native had just a goal and six assists with the Rangers but in 2013-'14 recorded 99 points for the Quebec Remparts.

Canadian coach Benoit Groulx, whose full-time job is behind the bench for the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques, hopes Duclair can be a force.

"Last year after Christmas he was tough to play against," Groulx said. "He ended up scoring 50 goals, and when you have a 50-goal scorer, whether it's in the Quebec League, Ontario League or Western League, you've got to respect that."

Duclair is a nice fit as a natural right-winger, according to Hockey Canada director of player personnel Ryan Jankowski.

Scratched for Saturday night's exhibition game against the Toronto CIS Selects team, Duclair is a virtual lock to make the roster. Also worthy of that distinction were defencemen Josh Morrissey, Darnell Nurse and Shea Theodore and forwards Max Domi, Nic Petan, Sam Reinhart and the injured Connor McDavid.

Robby Fabbri scored twice and Jake Virtanen had three assists in Canada's 10-3 victory over the team of Ryerson, York and University of Toronto all-stars at Mattamy Athletic Centre. Forwards Brayden Point and Michael Dal Colle, and defenceman Dillon Heatherington each had a goal and an assist.

Goaltender Zach Fucale, who figures to be Canada's starter once the tournament gets underway, stopped 23 of the 26 shots he faced.

On Sunday afternoon, Canada faces the same Toronto CIS Selects team at Mattamy on the site of the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

When the games get real starting Dec. 26, Duclair hopes he can make the most of this chance.

"I think I bring some experience, some leadership in the locker-room," Duclair said. "Whatever I learned at the pro level I can bring down to the team here."

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