Call Canada the domination nation. And the best junior team this country has put on ice? It would be difficult to suggest anything to the contrary.
Canada trampled the competition thoroughly at the 2005 world junior championship in Grand Forks, N.D., as though it was not even there on some nights.
"From start to finish, and I mean right from the exhibition games, they were thorough in every aspect of the game," Maple Leafs scout Craig Button said. "There was not one aspect they were short in. I have never seen a team dominate like this in every point in every game. I don't think anybody could predict what this team could do."
Who knew that adversity for Canada would be allowing three goals to Slovakia in its first game or being tied with Sweden 1-1 after one period? What's remarkable about this group is that when it stepped on the gas pedal -- a favourite reference of coach Brent Sutter -- nothing stood in its way.
If there is a comparison to be made between this team and the only other two that were perfect at the world junior, the 1996 and 1995 editions, then so be it. But if defence is the first and most important step to success, there has been no better team. The seven goals Canada allowed were the fewest in its world junior history. But it's not just that teams could not score against Canada. Scouts commented a few times during the tournament on the fact Canada spent so little time in its own end. The defence corps, led by Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber, had closing the gaps and taking away space down to an exact science. And the passes the defencemen made to forwards in transition usually were bang-on.
Canada scored 41 goals in the tournament, a number that was less than what five previous Canadian teams recorded. But in all its games except one, Canada could have scored just twice and still won.
In 1996, Canada squeaked out a few one-goal wins on the way to a 6-0 record and gold; in 1995, with the other team happily affected by an NHL lockout, Canada went 7-0 with a golden finish but gave up 22 goals along the way, more than three times what this one did.
Certainly, having tournament MVP Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter, Phaneuf and Ryan Getzlaf, was a major bonus for Canada, as they and others would have been in the NHL and may not have been made available. Remember, too, that another pair of NHL players now in the AHL, Brent Burns and Nathan Horton, were not given permission by their respective clubs to play for Canada. Not that they were needed. Canada's fourth line of Clarke MacArthur, Colin Fraser and Stephen Dixon would have been the top trio for the majority of the nine other teams in the tournament.
There has been some feeling that anyone could have coached this team to gold because it was so talented. But to agree to that assessment would be a gross disservice to Sutter, whose stern but respectful approach was eaten up by each player. "Brent Sutter was the perfect guy for this team," Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager Steve Tambellini said. "He had a short leash and they respected him. It was a mature team. They were men who were ready to play in the world junior tournament."
TIME WILL TELL
Time will tell whether this group goes on to become a top-flight group of NHLers as well, but certainly the foundation exists. The 1978 team won only a bronze, but it featured Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Rick Vaive, Craig Hartsburg, Bobby Smith and Ryan Walter and many more who went on to enjoy long and prosperous NHL careers; every player on the 1995 team save Larry Courville, Lee Sorochan and Chad Allan had at least moderate success in the NHL.
But the 2005 world junior team as Canada's best? Yes.