With Time Running Out, Can Team Canada Solve Its Problems Before The Olympics?

By: Kacey F
Posted: December 21, 2020

The world hasn’t seen Team Canada’s Women’s Ice Hockey in an International Ice Hockey Federation tournament since they won Bronze at the 2019 Women’s World Championship, the program’s lowest finish in WWC history.

Canada’s crushing semifinal loss against Finland came just over a year after having their Gold medal streak snapped at the Olympics in 2018. What was once the most dominant women’s ice hockey team in the world hasn’t touched gold in an IIHF event since the 2014 Four Nations, just after the Sochi Olympics. 

Something has to change. But with COVID-19 forcing cancellations or postponements of international competition, time is running out for Team Canada. 

The Current Situation

The first cancellation was in 2019 when the Four Nations Tournament was called off due to Sweden’s national team boycott of all camps and competitions in a fight for better wages and conditions.  Covid then axed the 2020 WWC, as well as the 2021 U18 WWC that serves as a way to evaluate young players who would be eligible for the senior team by the Olympics. The only games Team Canada has competed in since the Bronze medal have been a handful of exhibition games against the United States. During December of 2019 and February of 2020, the two countries played five games in their annual Rivalry Series. Another exhibition series in Pittsburgh occurred during November when the Four Nations tournament was meant to take place. Between the two, Canada lost four of the seven games. They haven’t played the team that beat them in the WWC semifinals, Finland, since the crushing loss. 

International competitions aren’t the only opportunities Canada is losing because of the pandemic. Unlike most other national teams, Canada has yet to have a proper camp and instead is limited to small skill sessions in major cities due to pandemic restrictions, where normally they’d have two or three camps at this point. Professional club teams are also running at a limited capacity in North America. All pro players on Team Canada are in the PWHPA, who haven’t played a game in Canada since March and haven’t been able to confirm when they will, due to the ever-changing state of the world.

American professional players are in the same boat, but leagues like Naisten Liiga (Finland), Svenska Damhockeyligan (Sweden), Zhenskaya Hockey League (Russia), and the Swiss Women’s Hockey League A that host the majority of the IIHF’s top division teams have been playing since October. Most of Finland, Sweden, Russia, and Switzerland’s players under the age of 23 play in those leagues, unlike Canada whose young prospects are in the NCAA, playing fewer games than usual or having their seasons canceled altogether. Take Sarah Fillier, for example, the only player who made Canada’s 2020 World’s roster and is still in the NCAA. She plays for Princeton but had her season canceled along with all other Ivy League teams. 

So, Canada has no women actively playing competitive hockey on a daily basis, finished lower than ever before in their last competition, and has to put together a 28 woman tryout roster for Canada’s Olympic team this upcoming spring despite little chances to scout. They fired their coach in January and haven’t gotten to play a proper IIHF tournament with their new one. Canada has to try something new, and maybe unconventional, for a chance at Olympic gold. What are their options? 

What’s Been Good 

Canada’s run into its fair share of problems since the 2018 Olympics, but there’s been plenty of bright spots. Natalie Spooner had a standout performance in the 2019 WWC, putting up 10 points in 7 games for the second-highest point total in the competition and her best output since joining the senior team. The young Loren Gabel, who joined the senior team after the last Olympics, has lived up to expectations and had 7 points at the WWC, including 6 even-strength goals. New defenders Jaime Bourbonnais and Micah Zandee-Hart were an immediate fit. And as always, there were standout performances from the core of Sarah Nurse, Rebecca Johnston, and Erin Ambrose. 

While more of an explanation than a benefit, something to be considered for Canada’s performance during the WWC was an injury to their superstar, Marie-Philip Poulin. Canada’s captain went down with a leg injury in the very first game of the competition. If her skating at the recent Rivalry Series game is any indicator, this will not affect Canada long term, and they’ll have their star scorer back next tournament. 

What’s Been Bad (Before COVID-19) 

Canada’s roster is getting older, with players starting to age out or retire. Star goaltender Shannon Szabados has not been on recent rosters and started a family, although she’s still active in the PWHPA. Meghan Agosta, one of the best shooters in the world, is 33 now and wasn’t on the 2020 World’s roster. Meaghan Mikkelson, who played 20 minutes a night in the 2018 Olympics, hasn’t suited up for a major tournament since, but is still active in Sweden’s league at age 35. While they still have enough of their long-established core with players like Marie Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner, Rebecca Johnston, Blayre Turnbull, and Sarah Nurse who will certainly make the 2022 roster and likely beyond, there isn’t a clear picture of who comes after them. 

When it comes to players under 25, Canada has 7 on their most recent roster. The USA has 12 players, Finland has 15, Russia’s roster has 19, and Switzerland has 16. Finland named a considerable amount of young players to their roster, 6 under the age of 20, including players like Elisa Holopainen, who leads Naisten Liiga with 54 points in 18 games at the time of writing this. Or Viivi Vainikka, who has 20 points in 20 games with the SDHL right now and became the all-time point leader for Team Kuortane in Finland before she turned 18. As stated before, Canada only has one player who’s currently playing in the NCAA and under 22, which is Sarah Fillier. She’ll make a splash on the international stage, but compared to the other teams, is one player enough? 

The Rivalry Series exhibition games should have been the time to scout some new players who haven’t suited up for the senior team yet, which was the United State’s plan. During the recent series, Abby Roque, Britta Curl, Sydney Brodt, Aerin Frankel, Kelly Browne, Clair DeGeorge, and Natalie Buchbinder all got their first looks at the USA senior team. Five of the new players were either sophomores or juniors in college, along with Jesse Compher and Cayla Barnes who had been at several competitions for Team USA prior to the Rivalry Series. Meanwhile, the only Canadian player in the Rivalry Series who hadn’t made a senior team before was Jessie Eldridge, who had just graduated college. 

Canada’s roster for the two Pittsburgh exhibition games was more adventurous, including new players like Claire Thompson, Sarah Fillier, Kristin O’Neill, Emma Maltais, and Ella Shelton. Of that group, only two had yet to start their senior year. Bourbonnais and Zandee-Hart, who were seniors at the time and had played at the WWC, played in one or both of the exhibition series as well. It was in the Pittsburgh series, unsurprisingly, where Canada dominated and won both games. Fillier and Thompson did make it to the 2020 WWC roster that never was, which is a positive step for Canada. 

Hockey Canada tends to favor mainstay and veterans, but other teams are getting younger. This habit has also caused Canada to pass up on players like Ann-Sophie Bettez for years and missing out on several seasons of her best hockey before inviting her to a camp. Or the disappearance of players like Sarah Potomak from rosters, despite solid performances on the world stage. Other teams are taking chances on young players, from team USA choosing a college sophomore (Maddie Rooney) to start the gold medal game in the Olympics, or Finland bringing Nelli Laitinen, who wasn’t even 18 years old when she assisted on the game-winning goal in the semifinals to hand Canada their first bronze. 

A more analytical look at Canada’s offense in the recent Rivalry Series discusses how Canada has struggled at even strength, especially when creating chances off the rush and getting zone entries that lead to quality chances instead of being pushed to the boards. Author Jack Han notes “Team USA significantly outperformed Canada both in terms of quantity (Corsi) and quality (xG) of offensive output generated throughout the series, topping it off with a dominating performance during Game Five.” When you look at who exactly was dominating the play for America that series, they were newcomers like Abby Roque or Hayley Scamurra, who joined the team a year prior. With respect to the scheduling and availability that certainly played a part in who made the roster, would the games look different if Canada had added Kristin O’Neill to their roster? 

So What Now? 

Okay, so you have a team who needs new blood, had their scouting cut short and significantly limited by Covid-19, and has to make a roster by spring with 28 players. Who do you pick? 

The safe bet is going with Canada’s 2020 WWC roster of 23 players and using the additional 5 spots on any combination of the following: Kristin O’Neill, Emma Maltais, Ella Shelton, Jessie Eldridge, as well as mainstays who didn’t make the last roster like Rebecca Johnston, Laura Fortino, and Bridgette Lacquette. 

Except, maybe, that’s not the safe bet at all. Some of the most obvious choices are the ones being passed up. 

No one fits the description of a no-brainer roster choice better than Élizabeth Giguère. The recent Patty Kazmaire award winner and Clarkson forward has 210 points in 118 NCAA games thus far and was the second-highest scorer in the league last season. Jack Han, mentioned previously, also wrote an article talking about her style of play, saying “In the neutral zone, Giguère is one of the most dangerous attackers I’ve seen in any league,” later describing that “On the breakout, Giguère looks north right away. She seldom wanders from her side of the ice and usually receives pucks at the right half-wall or in the neutral zone after having sprinted out of her zone early. Like a striker she is looking to get on the same level as the last defender, then use a burst of speed to threaten a breakaway.” Considering that Canada is a team that has trouble on the breakout, it’s hard to imagine a better fit than Giguère. 

Giguère isn’t the only offensive talent that’s been overlooked. Four of the NCAA’s top five scorers last season were Canadian and not a single one has been looked at by the senior national team. Being a point leader doesn’t always mean the right fit, but it is odd that neither Giguère, Watts, Shirley, of Gebhard got a look during the Rivalry Series matches. At the time of writing this, Jaycee Gebhard has 24 points in 23 games in the SDHL, playing against the stars of Finland that eliminated Canada a year and a half ago. Having someone who has played against them all season could be an advantage. 

Another area to look at is goaltenders. Canada’s rivals over the border have been looking to get younger and younger in net, keeping starter Cavallini but rotating her alongside names like Polusny, Burt, Rooney, and most recently, Frankel. Canada’s yet to look towards the kids in net, but if they wanted to, they certainly have options. The obvious choice would be Stephanie Neatby, who spent four years at Princeton with Fillier and Thompson and is currently playing in Sweden’s league, where she has a .942 save percentage. Neatby playing on a regular schedule is particularly important as a young, developing goaltender and may give her an edge. Raygan Kirk, Corinne Schroeder, and Ava Boutilier are current NCAA goalies that deserve consideration. A possible dark horse is Carly Jackson, who holds just about every goaltending record at the University of Maine. The only thing that makes Jackson an unlikely candidate is that Hockey Canada has very rarely given roster spots to NWHL players, but when they did, it was Szabados during her time as a goaltender for the Beauts. Maybe history can repeat itself. 

The Takeaway

A lot more than just skill goes into making a roster. Chemistry, attitude, coaching- all of that matters. But when there’s barely been any time to play with the new coach, there hasn’t been a gold medal in over five years, and time is running out, isn’t the best option to go with the best player you can find?

For more NWHL thoughts and opinions from Kacey, check out their author page or Twitter.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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