The 2019 World Junior Showcase came to an end Saturday after a day of rivalry games saw Sweden defeat Finland for their first win of the tournament and the United States best Canada in their second meeting at the showcase.
Although the Canadians finished the showcase with a mediocre 2-2-0 record, several top NHL prospects excelled for them, including the Tampa Bay Lightning’s only two prospects at the showcase in Nolan Foote and Gabriel Fortier. In fact, their performances over the last week were so impressive that it would be more surprising if they were left off the final team in December.
If you were following along with my live tweets of the showcase, I assessed every player I evaluated at the WJSS with a letter grade after each game. Once the tournament was finished, I then averaged the grades (as best as I could) to determine an overall grade for their showcase performance. Keep in mind that these grades are subjective, and feel free to discuss in the comments!
Nolan Foote (A-)
3GP: 2G, 4A, 6P
Foote, Tampa Bay’s first round draft pick this past June, led Team Canada in scoring with an impressive six points in three games (three more points than any other Canadian player). Foote led Team Canada in shots on goal with 14, and he was given a spot on Canada’s top powerplay unit. He didn’t disappoint there either. Foote was lethal on the man advantage and finished the showcase with four powerplay assists. Foote finished tied for second in tournament scoring and was one of Canada’s most surprising standouts all week.
Obviously, Foote’s main impact came on the powerplay. But it’s worth noting that his two goals came at even strength. He was mostly stationed in and around the slot, but he was all over loose pucks and made smart plays with the puck:
3-1. Nolan Foote gives Canada it's two-goal lead back with a great wrist shot. Justin Barron with a good play to get the puck near the net. He has been fantastic today. #WJSS pic.twitter.com/IWXkEaD7bC— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisTHN) July 30, 2019
All of Foote’s assists came on the powerplay, but he wasn’t stapled to one area of the ice. In the third game against Sweden, he alternated quarterbacking the powerplay with Colorado Avalanche prospect Bowen Byram. Foote used his hard shot to his advantage by getting it through traffic in front and allowing his teammates to score by jumping on the rebound or loose puck.
What I also liked about Foote’s game was how he played when he (or his team) didn’t have puck possession. He was an active player in the defensive zone and always engaged in puck battles at both ends of the ice. His skating looked a lot more natural and smooth, which he showed off in rushes down the ice as well as getting back to help out in his own end. The one blemish on Foote’s tournament was his four-minute minor for high-sticking against Sweden, but other than that, I thought he had a fantastic showcase and should be in the conversation to make Canada’s 2020 World Junior team.
Gabriel Fortier (A-)
3GP: 1G, 2A, 3P
Unlike Foote, Fortier was given a very different role, but like his fellow Bolts prospect, he flourished there. The Bolts’ 2018 second rounder was instrumental in the success of Canada’s penalty kill. Even with all the ice time he saw shorthanded, Fortier was still a point-per-game player, finishing the tournament with a goal and two assists in three games (and in a 6-way tie for second in team scoring).
Fortier’s best work, though, was his defensive play. He was effective in winning puck battles with stick work along the boards, used his size to push players off the puck, and was an excellent penalty killer. Fortier’s strongest game was against Sweden (which fittingly was probably Foote’s weakest performance). He forced turnover after turnover, which allowed him to generate offense like this:
2-0 Canada. Benoit-Olivier Groulx wins the faceoff and scores just five seconds later. Sweden was caught sleeping around their own net and Aidan Dudas and Gabriel Fortier did a good job of grabbing the puck. #WJSS pic.twitter.com/hr3oJ17dJK— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisTHN) August 2, 2019
Every time he was on the ice, if there was a puck to be fought for, Fortier was there. He always seemed to emerge from a battle or scrum with the puck. There was one particular play against Sweden (that I can’t find GIFs or video of) where Fortier knocked down a pass from mid-air with his stick in the neutral zone. If he hadn’t, Sweden probably would’ve been down the ice on an odd-man rush. On a penalty kill against Team USA, Fortier stripped Cole Caufield of a puck that definitely would have led to a scoring chance. He was a turnover machine, something the Canadian coaching staff recognized. Fortier was a likely long shot to make the selection camp roster, but he’s definitely forced his way into the conversation now.
Canada is in the unofficial ‘Group of Death’ at the World Juniors (with Russia, USA, and the Czechs). After a shockingly disappointing sixth place finish in 2019, Canada will arrive in the Czech Republic with something to prove. However Mark and Dale Hunter decide to construct Canada’s roster is up to them, but their evaluations begin at the World Junior Summer Showcase. A poor showing at this tournament won’t necessarily hurt a player’s chances, but a strong performance will do wonders.
It’s encouraging that Dale Hunter gave both Foote and Fortier instrumental roles on special teams. It’s a sign that Canada’s management and coaching staff have both players pencilled into potential roster spots right now. TSN’s World Juniors analyst Craig Button thinks that after this week, both Foote and Fortier could be on Canada’s final roster in December. That would be great, but the work doesn’t stop there. Both players will likely return to junior hockey in the fall, where they’ll need dominant performances to solidify their spots on the team.