STEPHEN WHYNO – The Canadian Press
When Connor McDavid returned to the Air Canada Centre for the first time since winning world junior gold with Canada, he didn’t let the disappointment of being injured stop him from soaking in the memories and spreading some joy.
McDavid sent former teammates a Snapchat picture of a world junior poster from one of Canada’s most dominating performances in the nation’s history. That undefeated Canadian team could go down as one of the best, but players are just starting to make their mark.
Ten players from that stacked group have already made their NHL debuts with a handful of others on the cusp of doing the same. McDavid is the headliner, but forwards Curtis Lazar, Anthony Duclair, Max Domi, Robby Fabbri, Jake Virtanen, Nick Ritchie and Nic Petan and defenceman Darnell Nurse are tangible evidence that the 2015 Canadian world junior team was as NHL-ready as any under-20-year-old group could be.
“The way we played that tournament, I think it was pretty apparent that there was a lot of really good hockey players on that team,” Nurse said. “To say that this many guys were going to be playing in the league this fast, I don’t know if everyone expected [that]. But playing alongside those guys, how professional they are, how much hard work went in, it’s pretty clear why they’re in the league.”
Lazar, Canada’s captain, was established with the Ottawa Senators before the tournament, and Duclair was a surprise member of the New York Rangers as a 19-year-old. Canada also had the No. 2 draft pick from 2014 in Sam Reinhart and projected No. 1 pick in McDavid, so it was obvious the team would be deep.
“We just looked at the lineup and we said, ‘Wow,’ and we said we can do something special, for sure,” said Duclair, who’s now teammates with Domi on the Arizona Coyotes. “Not every year you get a group like that that can play in the NHL that year.”
Even Hockey Canada officials didn’t see this coming. They knew with an older group there was a good chance of winning on home ice and ending a five-year gold-medal drought but couldn’t predict so many players going right to the NHL nine months later.
“You like to think that part of their development is through the national junior team experience,” Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey operations Scott Salmond said. “But you never know. For us, we need them to be ready for three weeks and they’re exceptional for us, and then where it goes from there no one knows.”
To no disrespect of players’ individual talents, several members of that group credited the team’s success at the tournament for so many getting to the NHL this quickly. It helped players to experience a 7-0 run in Montreal and Toronto and grow closer along the way.
“That team was pretty loaded, obviously – not only obviously with good hockey players, and better people, too,” said Domi, who’s second in NHL rookie scoring. “Ultimately our success and our ability to win under all the pressure, all that stuff, was definitely mainly attributed to just how close we were off the ice and how close of a team we were.”
Players remain close now through text messages, and often postgame greetings in NHL locker-rooms.
“It just brings back smiles when I think about that team,” said Virtanen, who has played 19 games for the Vancouver Canucks. “When we play each other, too, it’s nice; we can see each other after games. … It’s fun playing against those guys.”
Reinhart isn’t surprised at all that almost half of that team is already in the NHL because he said so many players put in the work to make the “pretty tough” jump. Some, like McDavid and even Domi, were a slam dunk to be in the NHL for the 2015-16 season, but that doesn’t make it any less fun for players to look around the league and see.
“It was a very special team,” said McDavid, who has been out of the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup with a broken left clavicle. “It’s good to see a bunch of them doing well in the NHL.”
Beyond the 10 already in the NHL, goaltender Zach Fucale recently spent three games as the Montreal Canadiens’ backup, and defenceman Shea Theodore got a little taste with a call-up but didn’t dress for the Ducks. Forward Nick Paul could join the Senators next season, if not before, and the Winnipeg Jets have defenceman Josh Morrissey pencilled in to their not-too-distant future.
Among Canada’s 16 gold-medal-winning world junior teams, 2015 might rival the 2005 group that had Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Shea Weber and Brent Seabrook and the 2008 group that had John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban and Steve Mason as Canada’s most dominant and talented.
“I don’t know if it tops the Sidney Crosbys and Bergerons and guys like that, but it was definitely up there,” Duclair said.
It’ll naturally take some more hindsight to know how 2015 stacks up, and players believe it’ll take some time before they can truly appreciate how good that team was.
“During it, you’re basically happy to be there and be around those guys [and] you don’t really think of it,” Petan said. “Probably five years from now you’ll look back and see everybody five years into their NHL career and look back at hopefully one of the better teams that we’ve had.”