If Team Canada is going to win gold at the 2017 World Juniors, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be the NHL organization most to thank.
At last year’s World Juniors, no NHL team was represented by more than two of their prospects (Arizona, Toronto, New York) on Team Canada. This year, the Lightning will send a record five prospects to Team Canada for the annual tournament, which brings together the best under-20 prospects in hockey.
Up front, 2016 second round pick Taylor Raddysh, and 2015 draftees Mathieu Joseph (fourth round), Anthony Cirelli (third round) and Mitchell Stephens (second round) make up a third of Canada’s top-12 forwards.
In goal, 2016 third round pick Connor Ingram is fighting for playing time with odds-on starter Carter Hart, a Philadelphia Flyers second rounder.
But Ingram isn't worried about logistics.
“Hart’s a great guy, he has been supportive and that’s what you have to do right now,” Ingram said in Ottawa on Wednesday. “At this point you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for your country and the goal is pretty simple. There’s obviously that competitive edge to every guy but I don’t think there’s any unhealthy competitiveness between us.”
Joseph, a 6-1 winger who has scored 25 goals in 29 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) this year, and Raddysh, a 6-2 winger scoring at a more than two points per game clip in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), have begun Canada’s trio of pre-tournament games on the team’s presumptive second line, centred by New York Islanders standout Mathew Barzal.
Cirelli, an up-tempo OHL standout in his own right, is expected to centre Canada’s fourth line when the tournament starts on Boxing Day.
Stephens, who played on Canada’s fourth line in the first game of their pre-tournament schedule, joined captain Dylan Strome and 2016 third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois on Canada’s top line for their second exhibition game against Team Czech Republic on Wednesday night.
Together, they’re part of the largest contingent of prospects sent by any team to this year’s tournament, joined by defensemen Libor Hajek (Czech Republic).
“I was joking with Mathieu (Joseph) that our prospects team basically turned into half of Team Canada so it’s fun,” Ingram said. “That just goes to show the talent those guys have in finding players like us and it’s a proud moment.”
“Having all of us here, it’s good for us,” Cirelli echoed. “Having them with me for development camp and main camp, we know each other already and we’ve gelled already. It’s good to have this experience with them.”
This, after Moose Jaw Warriors captain Brett Howden (Canada), Halifax Mooseheads standout Otto Somppi (Finland), and Shawinigan Cataractes scorer Dennis Yan (USA) were also considered for their teams.
Against the Czechs, it didn’t take them long to make an impact either. With Lightning amateur scout Chris Yzerman on hand to watch, Cirelli opened the scoring on his first shift of the game, redirecting a pass from Blake Speers past Boston Bruins prospect Daniel Vladar to give Canada an early 1-0 lead.
Moments later, Raddysh – who also factors in on Canada’s powerplay with Barzal and Dubois – nearly tucked in a pass from Barzal to extend Canada’s lead and pick up his third goal of pre-tournament play. In the second, a diving pad-stack save from Vladar denied Raddysh on another cross-ice pass from Barzal.
Ingram, while not tested often, made several big saves, stopping Lukas Andel and Radek Koblizek on a pair of second period breakaways.
In the third, Vladar twice denied Cirelli his second goal with a pair of sprawled out saves in tight. With 5:51 left in the game, Cirelli eventually picked up his second goal of the game, receiving another partial breakaway pass from Speers before deking backhand to close out the 5-0 win.
Cirelli feels he and Speers can play fast and push the pace, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“Everyone here is really good, they’re top, elite players,” Cirelli said shortly after being named Canada’s Player of the Game. “If it looked easy, it wasn't.”
For Ingram and the rest of the Lightning prospects, a 2-0 pre-tournament record is just the beginning.
“That was my first basically international experience,” Ingram, who has never represented Hockey Canada before, said with a smile after picking up a 21-save shutout in his debut. “It’s a good way to get your foot in the door I guess.”
Now the door’s wide open.