Dreaming of A Canadian National Development Team

Note: a version of this article was originally found in the June edition of the World Hockey Magazine.

Why would Team Canada create a development team? They care too much about the CHL, and I can’t see them wanting to copy an idea from USA Hockey, even if it does seem to work for them.

But with 60 CHL teams, and players essentially limited to their local areas, (Toronto-born kids don’t go to the WHL unless they’ve been passed over or placed on waivers, for example). Somehow, there never seems to be enough roster spots for talented players, and kids will dart to Junior A in hopes of getting a chance at playing in the NCAA.

Canada has something that makes them special: an abundance of talented hockey players. They could afford to take the cream of the crop and put them on a team together and take on some of the nation’s best Junior A clubs. Heck, even an exhibition game or two against an OHL team would be exciting… maybe.

Imagine what Quinton Byfield could have done in the OJHL with the Newmarket Hurricanes, especially after scoring at nearly three points-per-game in the GTHL, as well as grabbing two points in his lone OJHL contest. Could he have become an even more explosive player had he played older competition a year earlier? Perhaps.

So, here’s the idea: choose the best 15-year-old minor midget players from across Canada, place them on one team that plays in one league (the BCHL, for instance) with older competition, but not players that will physically dominate them. Give the players more chances to develop against older, faster and stronger competition, and give them the tools to be dominant players heading into their respective CHL drafts (with the exception of the WHL players, but this could benefit them significantly).

Here’s something I’d change: make it start at the U15 level. There is always questions about who, if any, should be considered for CHL exceptional status, and 15 year olds Matthew Savoie from Alberta and Shane Wright are the two latest players to apply for it. At this point, it looks very likely that both will earn the honour of carrying the status next fall.

Then, they could either keep the program together and have an exceptional Under-17 World Hockey Challenge team, or send players to their draft teams and let them show what they can do. Heck, enter them in a U16 tournament overseas. Canada doesn’t have a U16 team or a U17 squad, so this could act as an official entry into tournaments for those age groups.

BURLINGTON, ONT. — Oakville Rangers goaltender Noah Pak (#31), Burlington Eagles forward Ethan Micheli (#7) and Oakville Rangers #17 watch a shot during SCTA minor midget action between the Oakville Rangers and Burlington Eagles at Appleby Arena on November 26, 2018. (Photo from Steven Ellis/World Hockey Magazine)

What’s one of the benefits? In some cases, minor midget and midget teams will have openings to allow other players a chance to prove themselves and potentially earn their way to the next level in a way that may have not been possible before.

The downsides are understandable. There’s likely no chance for the players to dominate and take over, something the best players typically get to.

But if you take them out of the equation and have them play against better competition, not only will they be better prepared for major junior, but other players could get opportunities to be better players because some of the major stars wouldn’t be in the system anymore.

Am I being crazy for thinking this would be a viable option? Am I putting too much credence on putting a team together for tournaments and other events? My preference would be to have these players play together until the end of hte U18 World Championships, but that’s also not easy.  

In fact, I’m not sure it would be something that would be as useful at the U18 level. But what if Canada started playing at U16 tournaments? What if they sent this team to showcase events across North America? What if they got to play a super-schedule that gave these players a chance to prove themselves against older competition on a nightly basis before making the jump to major junior?

There are many logistical issues with this idea, and I get it. Which CJHL league would you align with? Would they play in different leagues at different times? Would it make sense to have one team per major junior area (Team Ontario, Team West, Team East)? It’s safe to assume Ontario would have a large portion of the roster if they chose to have just one team, which wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe the format of Canada Winter Games that will be taking place soon, with one team per area with the big Olympic-style event acting as the championship, is the way to go for a season-long format that’s fully backed by Hockey Canada.

I truly wouldn’t want to be in charge of whittling down the talent to make just one roster.

I’ve talked to scouts about this, and I’ve had varied reactions. Some believe it would be an interesting idea and something they’d support. Others think it could potentially hurt some star players that would get more ice time acting as a star player for their team. But even then, those same people said they wouldn’t mind Hockey Canada trying it out for a season and seeing how it goes.

If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If it does, Canada could have an interesting new pathway for the next generation of superstars that doesn’t involve getting 100 points against a bunch of kids who don’t have a future in the sport (many will, of course). The talent pool is huge, and while it could be seen as unfair to give special treatment to some kids, especially if there’s a financial aspect to it. But imagine keeping this team together for a couple years like the Americans and having them be as good, if not better, in international events, featuring many important scouting showcases.

Call me crazy, but I’d love to see it. I have no scientific proof that this would work because there’s never been something like this on this big of a scale at such a young age. But it’s something that could have good results for some of these players, and we’d get rid of the exceptional status rule altogether.

Best 15-16 year olds in the country. One team, playing Junior A against older, stronger, faster competition.

Worth the try? I think so.

The infuriating play of Mads Søgaard

I don’t want to sound like a hipster, but I was a fan of Frederik Andersen’s play before he was drafted to the NHL the first time.

And before George Sørensen stole some hearts at the World Juniors, I was singing his praises at the Under-18’s and World Junior A Challenge.

Oh, and I think that Sebastian Dahm is quite underrated.

So, naturally, it made sense that I quickly started to follow the career of Mads Søgaard after I watched him play for the first time back in 2017 before becoming Denmark’s third goalie as a 17-year-old at the 2018 World Juniors.

I was singing his praises before he got the nod as the team’s top goalie at the World Juniors this year — he is one of the top goalie prospects, after all. So, yes, I definetly received critical comments after he was ripped apart by Canada to open up the tournament in Vancouver.

Denmark never recovered, scoring just three goals in the entire tournament (all three coming in a single game against Kazakhstan). In the end, Denmark was relegated. I won’t go deep into that because I already have, but the player I continued to watch, and become quite disappointed in, was Søgaard.

Mads Søgaard is a highly-rated goalie prospect for the #NHLDraft, but he has not had a good tournament. #WJC2019— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) January 4, 2019

Fast forward to this past week, where Søgaard played quite well for Team Cherry at the CHL Top Prospects Game. When he left the net at the halfway point, Søgaard allowed just one goal in a game that saw his team lose 5-4.

He obviously wasn’t the reason his team failed in the second half of the showcase, and, like I said, he played quite well. But one play in particular scared me just a little bit.

Late in the opening period, Søgaard over-committed on a scoring opportunity by Brett Leason when the rising NHL prospect missed the net off of what became an empty-net opportunity. He didn’t score, but I was still disappointed with Søgaard.

This is the clip I was talking about last night where Mads Søgaard over-committed on a chance by Brett Leason. pic.twitter.com/IoRMaKxTWC— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) January 24, 2019

Why would I be disappointed in such a minor play in a game that truly doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things?

Because it’s something I’ve noticed quite a few times when watching him play.

Case in point: the goal that resulted in Denmark getting relegated to Division IA of the World Juniors just over 30 seconds into the second relegation game.

1-0 Kazakhstan on the first scoring chance. Sayan Daniyar with the sneaky little move after Sogaard was out of position. #WJC2019 pic.twitter.com/sEXBMGU93z— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) January 4, 2019

And of course, it happened a few times against Canada, too.

After he scored the first goal, Morgan Frost’s assist to Owen Tippett gave #Canada an early 2-0 lead at the #WorldJuniors.

🇨🇦 Follow our #WJC2019 live blog ➡️ https://t.co/va8aUbDHqD

(Via @StevenEllisNHL)pic.twitter.com/8aiqBbXMZL— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) December 27, 2018

🇨🇦 Oh, captain! 🇨🇦

Maxime Comtois scores to start the 2nd period and #Canada expands the lead over #Denmark to 4-0 in the #WorldJuniors.

(Via @StevenEllisNHL)pic.twitter.com/NzACWp0U48— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) December 27, 2018

22 minutes into his first #WJC2019 game and Morgan Frost has a hat-trick. 5-0 Canada. #WJC2019 #Flyers pic.twitter.com/zFUtwdQErf— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) December 27, 2018

The third clip there is slightly different because Søgaard wasn’t caught out of his crease, but him putting his right pad down when he did made it tougher for him to slide over for the pass anyone could have seen coming.

But otherwise, all the clips have a similar theme: Søgaard is caught out of position far too often against strong competition. Nobody will doubt how good of a season he’s having with Medicine Hat in the WHL, and he is still a no-brainer to become one of the first goalies drafted in June.

But if he’s going to thrive at the next level, he needs to utilize his size to his advantage. He’s 6-7, damnit. He moves around the ice like he’s trying to make up for a lack of size, which clearly isn’t an issue.

A goalie the size of Søgaard, as rare as they are — if he makes the NHL, he would tie with Ben Bishop and Mikko Koskinen as the tallest goalie ever to play in the league — shouldn’t be fighting himself to position himself right for a shot. It can simply be attributed, on many plays, to his big legs

One goalie I have become a big fan of the past few years is Jett Alexander. While he does play in the OJHL — a Jr. A hockey league below the WHL, where Søgaard practices his craft — his physical growth is something that very few goalies have to go through during their hockey career. On the day he was drafted to the Mississauga Steelheads back in 2015, Alexander was listed as 5-8. Now? He’s 6-5. For any hockey player, that size increase is something really tough to overcome, especially if you’re in the key development portion of your career.

Yet, Alexander has no issue when it comes to his positioning. You rarely find himself chasing after loose pucks or rebounds and his big frame allows him to make smaller movements and save energy when needed, something that has become very evident given how quick his arms move to make some pretty spectacular saves.

When you look at a big goalie, Alexander does so many things right. Søgaard obviously does, too, or else he wouldn’t be such a popular prospect. But this one thing… this thing that really bothers me more than it should, has hurt him more times than it should at this point.

But it really can burn him. Even in the past month, he’s been caught out of his crease, seemingly giving up on the play before the opposition can finish making a move. I really want him to just sit back, relax and read the play better before going all out in a desperate attempt to keep the puck out. He’s got the size to stiffle shooters, but he can’t keep giving them opportunities to make moves without him attacking back — he’s got a long reach that he never seems to use enough, after all.

I’m not kidding when I say I like this kid. If Denmark is going to thrive in the international hockey scene, especially with Andersen starting to creep up in the age bracket, they’ll need
Søgaard to be their saving grace. Heck, he could be the top goalie to ever come from the nation when his career comes to an end.

But when you see his positioning at times taking him out of plays, you have to wonder how good he would be if he was seven inches shorter. Could he improve on his speed from post to post? Absolutely. Should he refine how he attacks cross-ice one timers? Yup, because that’s where he finds himself down too early and too low. He has the frame that most shooters will struggle with if he could at least stand up just a split second longer.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill or whatever the saying is, but I truly think Søgaard needs to work a little harder on maintaining his position in the crease. If he can control his size, I don’t think he’ll have a problem in the NHL.

He is still young, after all.