TORONTO - Canada's world-junior journey will continue without Chris Bigras, who was among the first round of cuts despite being on last year's team.
Bigras, fellow defenceman Travis Sanheim and forwards Nick Baptiste, Morgan Klimchuk and Remi Elie were released Sunday evening after a selection camp that included two exhibition games against local university all-stars. Canada's roster stands at 25 players with main camp set to open Monday in St. Catharines, Ont.
The message from Benoit Groulx and his coaching staff to those players and the one they seemed to receive through the tough news was that this is a deep, difficult group to crack.
"We think that the players that we decided to keep are in our plans and I thought also there was a separation between those guys and the players we kept," Groulx said. "That's the reason why we decided to let them go."
Bigras was the biggest surprise because he played all seven games in last year's tournament and as a returning player figured to have a spot. Instead, the 19-year-old Colorado Avalanche prospect will go back to the Ontario Hockey League's Owen Sound Attack.
"Obviously not the outcome I was looking for," said Bigras, who's from Elmvale, Ont. "Can't dwell on it right now."
Groulx was an assistant coach last year in Malmo, Sweden, and understood it was "devastating" to Bigras to get cut this year. But it was his judgement that the eight defencemen Canada kept — Darnell Nurse, Josh Morrissey, Madison Bowey, Joe Hicketts, Shea Theodore, Haydn Fleury, Samuel Morin and Dillon Heatherington — were "ahead" of Bigras.
"It's not about (what we didn't see) from him," Groulx said. "I think it's about the other defencemen we have. We think that the eight guys we decided to keep are just better than him right now."
Better than Sanheim, too. The raw Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick goes back to the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League hoping he can do better in this spot a year from now.
"(Coaches told me) just that I'm 18 years old and I've got a lot to look forward to," the Elkhorn, Man., native said. "Next year they hope I come in and make a difference and make this hockey team."
Up front, forward depth was responsible for Baptiste, Klimchuk and Elie getting let go. Beyond just the likes of Connor McDavid, Sam Reinhart, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Nic Petan, there's the possibility Canada gets Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks and/or Curtis Lazar from the Ottawa Senators.
Baptiste, a 2013 pick of the Buffalo Sabres, will go back to playing for the McDavid-less Erie Otters of the OHL. Among those cut, he appeared to take it the best.
"It's such a good competition here," said Baptiste, a native of Ottawa. "Just proud to be one of the top 30 in Canada, move forward, go back to Erie and hopefully go on a (Memorial) Cup run."
Coaches told Klimchuk, a Calgary Flames prospect who plays for Regina of the WHL, that he played well in camp and to keep his chin up.
"There's a lot of positives to take out of things like this," said Klimchuk, who's from Calgary. "Obviously when you leave early, it's pretty upsetting, pretty frustrating, but I got a chance to come to this camp and play with the best players in the country."
Like Klimchuk, Elie was told the depth up front was responsible for him going back to the Belleville Bulls of the OHL. The Dallas Stars prospect had a noticeable turnover that led to a scoring chance against in one of the exhibition games over the weekend.
With these five cuts, Canada's roster has begun to take shape. At least three more must be made before the world-junior-tournament roster is finalized on Christmas Day, though there would have to be more if Horvat or Lazar joins.
"Right now that's a first step," Groulx said. "We want to see how this team is doing together, how they fit together, and when we're going to be comfortable at letting go other guys, we'll do it. There's no rush for us in our mind."
Groulx talked of "building this team," a process that continues this week at Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. The team will practise Monday through Thursday there before returning to Toronto for Friday's first international exhibition, against Russia at Air Canada Centre.
"We're moving to another level: one week of preparation in Niagara," Groulx said. "We're going to have to keep working, putting the system in place, working at our lines, duos on defence, speciality team, all that. We've got to have a good week of work in front of us."
Sweden is the opponent Dec. 21 in Ottawa, and then Switzerland at Bell Centre in Montreal on Dec. 23. It's possible McDavid, who has been out since last month with a broken bone in his right hand, plays in one of those games to get acclimated to teammates and the pace of world-junior games.
Among the 25 players left on the roster are 15 forwards, eight defencemen and two goalies. Zach Fucale is the favourite to start in goal over Eric Comrie because he played for Canada last year, but as the Bigras cut shows, past performance isn't a guarantee of anything for this team.
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