When Aaron Ekblad made the NHL out of training camp last season, the Florida Panthers' gain was Canada's loss.
Ekblad went from Hockey Canada summer-camp invitee to an indispensable top-four Panthers defenceman within months, and the NHL club declined to make him available for the 2015 world junior championship.
Canadian world junior coach Dave Lowry figures there will be a player or two from this year's camp who play so well in the big league they won't be available for the team come December, when the 2016 tournament begins in Helsinki.
The leading candidate to be the next Ekblad is Michael Dal Colle with the New York Islanders, while Robby Fabbri has a shot to make the St. Louis Blues and Dylan Strome hopes to force his way onto the Arizona Coyotes' roster.
Dal Colle, the fifth pick in 2014, starred for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League this past season, leading them to the Memorial Cup. The 19-year-old feels his game has "grown quite a bit stronger" since being one of the final cuts from the world junior team a year ago, and his first goal this fall is making the Islanders.
Looking at what Curtis Lazar and Anthony Duclair did a year ago, playing in the NHL and still representing Canada at the world juniors, Dal Colle would love the opportunity to follow that path. But the Vaughan, Ont., native has also thought about the possibility that it's one or the other.
"That's come across my mind quite a few times," Dal Colle said by phone Wednesday. "I'm definitely preparing myself for a big year this year."
Fabbri is back to 100 per cent after a high-ankle sprain cut his 2015 world junior experience short in the quarter-finals and lingered for a few months. The Guelph Storm star acknowledged that the NHL is a "huge, huge, huge step from junior," but St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong recently mentioned Fabbri as someone who can make the team along with someone like Ty Rattie.
Fabbri isn't pencilling himself in on one of the Blues' forward lines just yet. He called the NHL a "reachable" goal but only if he prepares and performs beyond expectations.
"There's a lot of young guys," Fabbri said. "It's still something I've got to prove and I've got to work every day this summer to try to be at where they want me to be at and where I want myself to be at.
"To get that shot is great. It's going to be tough."
It'll be even tougher for Strome to crack the Coyotes, who are expected to have Duclair and gold-medal-winning world junior linemate Max Domi as part of their youth movement. While 2015 top pick Connor McDavid and No. 2 Jack Eichel are set to join the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres immediately, Arizona might prefer to keep No. 3 Strome in the OHL with the Erie Otters.
Strome led the OHL in scoring last season, just ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs' pick at No. 4 and good friend Mitch Marner, who's expected to go back to the London Knights. Like the Leafs, the Coyotes want to develop their prospects with precision, and Strome believes he's "at the bottom of the food chain."
"I have to prove myself all over again, making sure I'm at the NHL level," Strome said. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a tough grind. That's where you stand right now, so you've got to be mature about it and get ready for the next level."
The next level may wait for 2016 or even 2017 for Strome, a native of Mississauga, Ont., who should be one of Canada's top players at the world juniors. But he's determined to show Coyotes GM Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett that he belongs in the NHL right away.
"My goal is obviously to play in the NHL as soon as possible, and I'm going to keep working until they don't have a choice but to keep me on their roster," Strome said. "I've been working hard. I've been on the ice lots and working out in the gym lots. I'm looking forward to getting the chance to prove myself at camp."
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press