When Hockey Canada announced its 34-man World Juniors selection camp roster on Monday afternoon, there were a few interesting omissions. Speedy winger Ryan McLeod, Edmonton’s 2018 second-rounder. Trey Fix-Wolansky, the 2018 Blue Jackets draftee with 57 points in 30 games this season. And Gabriel Fortier, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2018 second rounder and alternate captain with the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL.
After back-to-back years of four to five Lightning prospects on Team Canada, the 2019 team won’t even have one.
Fortier, the 5’10” smooth-skating left winger, has been off to a fast start with the Drakkar this season, racking up 34 points in 29 games. As he wasn’t named to Canada’s roster for the World Juniors Summer Showcase, the defense-first Fortier was probably not on Team Canada’s radar as a possible team member. However, his offensive production once the season began warranted an appearance on the QMJHL’s roster for the Canada-Russia series, which served as his best chance to impress the Canadian management group.
Unfortunately for Fortier, he had a fairly underwhelming performance in the Q’s two games against Russia (although the entire team looked flat against Russia in their two games, both of which were losses). Fortier failed to register a point in either game and went 9-for-19 in the faceoff circle.
That faceoff stat is interesting, because Fortier isn’t a centre. There are a couple of reasons that could explain that. Maybe Hockey Canada wanted the opportunity to look at Fortier down the middle of the ice, or Fortier’s centerman kept getting waved out of the faceoff circle. However, after doing some digging, I’ve discovered that the Drakkar are deploying Fortier as their first-line centre this season. He boasts a 51.4% in the faceoff dot with over 400 attempts, which is fairly impressive for a first-time centre in major junior.
Ultimately, this is where Fortier ran into problems trying to make Canada’s world juniors selection camp. He would have been hard-pressed to make the final roster regardless, but you could make the argument that he deserved to at least be invited to camp, given his numbers this season.
Canada on the Left
Although Fortier is being used as a centre this season in Baie-Comeau, he would have slid back to his original left-wing position on Team Canada. His natural position did give him an advantage - Canada has even more depth down the middle of the ice this year than in year’s past (evidenced by the 12 centres they invited to camp).
Let’s take a look at the four left-wingers they did invite to camp and their numbers this season:
Maxime Comtois and Alex Formenton both played in the NHL before being returned to their junior teams. Formenton was returned from the Ottawa Senators after his ninth game, scoring once in nine games played. He didn’t look out of place in the NHL, but it was probably better for his development to return to the OHL (and be spared from being a Senator this season). Comtois probably would have remained with Anaheim had he not been injured. He had seven points in 10 games with the Ducks before his injury. Comtois was sent to San Diego where he played four games on a conditioning stint, collecting 2 points, before being sent back to Drummondville. Both players were members of Canada’s gold-medal winning team last year and are locks to make the team this time, dropping the number of available spots on the left side to two.
Alexis LaFreniere is arguably the most interesting player named to the Canadian team. His late 2001 birthday means he is not eligible until the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. However, his 46 points in 28 games puts him third in QMJHL scoring with the highest point total among undrafted players in the league. Even if he doesn’t make the team, he undoubtedly deserves to be at camp. Isaac Ratcliffe and Owen Tippett are the other two options (although if Tippett makes the team, he will probably play right-wing). Both have identical numbers, but Tippett has played in six fewer games. Ratcliffe is the exact opposite of Fortier on the ice. The 6’6 left winger plays a heavy, physical game, and is unafraid to throw his body around. He has an accurate shot and is a good skater for a player his size.
When Hockey Canada left Fortier off the camp roster (likely in favour of Ratcliffe), it was likely because this year’s version of the team boasts smaller, speedier forwards. While Fortier would have fit in perfectly with that group, players like Ratcliffe bring a different aspect to a team who will take players not necessarily known for their physicality. Tippett would be another one, despite being five inches shorter than Ratcliffe.
Fortier’s success this season landed him a spot on Team QMJHL at the Canada-Russia series. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much with his opportunity (zeros across the stat-line), whereas players like Ratcliffe put up points and made Hockey Canada notice them. Canada isn’t especially deep at left-wing this year, which would have worked well in Fortier’s favour, but they are a country unafraid to take nine or ten centres and make them play on the wings. Fortier, as a defense-first player, would have filled a depth role very well for Canada (on their fourth line or as the 13th forward). There were just better forward options for Canada to bring to Victoria.
Remember, Fortier wasn’t on Hockey Canada’s radar in August for the Summer Showcase, and forced his way onto Team QMJHL three months later with his play this season. More likely than not, Fortier should be playing at the showcase next summer. He has an entire year to improve and play his way into consideration for the team next year. This won’t be Fortier’s last crack to make Team Canada’s World Juniors team. A solid finish to this season, and an equally (if not better) successful start next year, should put him back in the conversation to make the Canadian team as a nineteen year old.
Statistics from Elite Prospects and the CHL.