It's unusual for any Canadian team to enter a major international tournament as an underdog, but that's exactly the position Team Canada's prospect-laden squad for the 2012 IIHF U-18 World Championship, which begins next week in the Czech Republic, finds itself heading into the competition.
Most of the top Canadian players eligible for June's draft, of course, are in the thick of the CHL playoffs and not available to coach Jesse Wallin.
Nonetheless, the event is still hugely important to the Canucks who are taking part -- such as Red Deer defenseman Mathew Dumba, a projected top-five pick this summer -- and part of the reason is precisely because the planet's top producer of NHL talent isn't the favorite this time around.
"I think for all these players - there are a number of players on our team that are going to get drafted -- the thing scouts are really looking for this time of year are intangibles," Wallin told us in a phone interview from Toronto Thursday afternoon, a day before the team's departure for Europe. "They've watched these kids all year and they know what they're capable of. So I think more than anything at this point, they want to get a read on what type of teammates they are. They want to see if they're willing to buy in to have success, to show that leadership. That would be the biggest accomplishment they could all have there."
That and a title, of course.
Six players on this squad helped Canada win the gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka U-18 tourney in the same country last summer, but it has been the Americans who have owned the U-18 Worlds, winning the last three editions and five of the last seven.
Part of the reason for the USA's success is the fact that its team is together all year, playing in the USHL as part of USA Hockey's residential development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. But even the likes of Russia and Sweden have spent more time together than the Canadians, who open against Denmark April 12 and finish the preliminary round with a North American grudge match against their southern rivals five days later.
"We see it a challenge," Wallin says. "We have to play a really solid team game -- not just against the U.S. but against other teams that have been together at various points this season."
From a scouts point of view, the high-stakes setup is ideal.
"It's your last look at everybody," says Joe McDonnell, the Red Wings director of amateur scouting who'll attend the tourney along with his entire staff. One thing they'll be watching for, besides how the best Europeans (such as Swede Filip Forsberg) fare against physical, NHL-bound players like Dumba, is how the North American players handle the wider ice surface.
"I think where that helps is players we've seen here and sort of questioned their skating, I think it really stands out more over there," McDonnell says. "For guys you have questions on, to see them on that big ice and [their skating is] not very good, it sort of solidifies what you were thinking all along. The game is wide-open, it's fast and the guys who can't keep up really show up a little bit more."
That's why Wallin picked a good skating team highlighted by forward Brendan Gaunce -- another surefire first rounder -- but one that is highly physical in the Canadian tradition, too.
Wallin and Co. could get help before the elimination round begins; depending on CHL playoff results, up to three more players could join the final, 23-man roster.
That still might not be enough to make them favorites. And that's just fine with Wallin, an assistant under Pat Quinn on Canada's last U-18 world champion team, in 2008.
"It's a big opportunity, and if we can get it done I know from experience that it's a very rewarding feeling just because of the adversity you have to overcome."