Hockey Canada will release their Selection Camp roster for the 2011 World Junior Championships on Monday, and the Sabres look to have some skin in the game when the tournament commences the day after Christmas. Last season, Luke Adam was the only Sabres prospect named to the 36-man camp roster. The Cape Breton scorer went on to make the team as a fourth liner, collecting eight points in Canada's silver medal performance.
The Sabres had four CHLers, a forward and three blueliners, skate in Canada's summer evaluation camp this August in Newfoundland. One of them appears to be a lock to make the club, while a recent high profile injury could create a lower barrier to entry for an experienced defenseman. In addition, there is another forward who should make some noise depending on how Canada wants to construct their entry.
With NHL pre-season experience and a contract already signed, the inclusion of Zack Kassian on the camp roster seems like a done deal. The 6'3 wing has been a lot to handle throughout his OHL career, but he's really taken it up a level this season with increased production (through 20 games Kassian has already equaled his offensive output from all of 2009-10) and better overall discipline. His play was rewarded with an "A" for Team OHL for game #4 of the Canada/Russia Super Series.
A more mature Kassian better understands his value to the team, but it has been a process. Even as recently as this summer, the bullish forward was drawing negative attention from the Team Canada staff after being perhaps a little too nasty during one of the camp scrimmages. Then again, some of that may have been mitigated by Kassian's arrest a couple months before but that's now over and done with.
If Canada is looking to bring some do-it-all beef in their quest to regain gold, it makes perfect sense to bring an edgy forward who'll be looking to mark his territory on HSBC Arena ice before trading the Canadian leaf sweater for a blue and gold one next fall. It's up to Kassian to arrive in camp ready to earn his spot.
Things are a little different on the blueline, where there aren't any "guarantees" among the Sabres main batch of hopefuls. With names like Erik Gudbranson, Simon Despres, Ryan Ellis, and Jared Cowen looking charged to go, it's easy to see how spots are going to be tough to come by. The landscape may have changed some over the weekend though, as another of those "locks", Brandon Gormley of the Moncton Wildcats, suffered a dislocated kneecap that will likely cause him to miss the tournament.
So is there a Sabres prospect that could skate into the radar?
Kootenay captain Brayden McNabb should be one of the greatest benefactors of Gormley's misfortune. At 6'4, 225-pounds, the Saskatchewan native has the stay-at-home posture, physical edge, and base offensive skills to stabilize the bottom pairs a la Keith Aulie in 2009 (when Aulie was paired with Tyler Myers). He's strong enough to handle the speed and power game of the rival Americans, and in a pinch could contribute on the power play. After taking an eight-game rest due to a shoulder injury, McNabb stepped back in to the Ice lineup with dominant all-around play including a point-per-game offensive pace.
I'd pitch McNabb to Canadian coach Dave Cameron as a player with U18 experience who could be effective with a very simple game. If Canada is looking for a guy who can make good keeps at the blueline and spark his team with a hit, then he'll make it to final cuts. The second-tier competition is sharp with names like Dylan Olsen (Duluth), Calvin De Haan (Oshawa), Tyson Barrie (Kelowna), and Brett Ponich (Portland) just to name a few, so playing turnover free hockey at the Selection Camp will make or break McNabb's chances.
Edmonton Oil Kings captain Mark Pysyk is another summer camp invite that has a legit chance of making the cutdown list. He's definitely a bubble guy at this point, but it's fair to think he'll be one of the expected 13 rearguards called to go state their case.
The 6'1 righty is an effortless skater who stays out of trouble, but there's still room for him to be a more assertive presence. Another season with Edmonton should breed the confidence and conditioning to execute to expectations, and given the year's talented pool of Canadian blueline prospects, I think Pysyk is one year away from making Team Canada.
The key for Pysyk is to stay healthy. The OK's all-situations player, who is logging loads of ice time but has yet to record a goal, is not known for his offensive ability but rather as a safe, high aptitude player. More body work and a more engaging physical style should be the trick to developing a blend that will place him in the thick of Canada's list for 2012.
Rimouski's Jerome Gauthier-Leduc earned a summer camp ticket as well, but really hasn't elevated his game to a level worthy of national team consideration. In short, the 18-year old is a savvy puck mover who needs to show the willingness to pay the price in his own zone on a more regular basis.
In an interview early this season, Gauthier-Leduc remarked how the freewheeling strategy employed in Rimouski was more suitable to his game. However, the entire club has just looked too casual in their own end as if the talented players were waiting for others to do the work. Not helping was an injury that caused him to miss the Canada/Russia Challenge and show what he could do outside of the Nics system. He has that Kris Letang package, but this season he's just not there yet so I don't expect him to get an invite on Monday.
If I had to send a third defenseman to camp, I'd opt for Matt MacKenzie ahead of Gauthier-Leduc. The fourth-year member of the Hitmen has been a steady, two-way presence on the league's worst team, but I'm not sure he has the juice to get a look from Hockey Canada.
If there was one Sabres prospect that stands out as a darkhorse to make the Selection Camp roster though, it would be Sudbury captain Marcus Foligno. Sure, it'd be quite the story book "new beginning" of sorts for he and new pal Kassian to team up in Buffalo, but how far of a longshot is it?
I mean, Clarke MacArthur squeezed his way onto Team Canada as a bottom-line player after not getting a summer invite, so why not a big kid who got an extra look in NHL training camp because he deserved it?
Canada will need an aggressive leadership element that can score ugly goals down low. Here is a guy that can do it. Kyle Clifford is in the NHL, and Brayden Schenn's immediate future with the Kings is a little muddy at the moment (after Oscar Moller was injured a couple seasons back on loan from the NHL, would the Kings want Schenn to play if he's still on their roster?). Maybe Portland's Brad Ross helps satisfy that agitation gap while adding some offensive spice, but Foligno is bigger, stronger, and has out-produced the WHL pest on a much-lesser squad.
Many have knocked Foligno's skating ability, but his legs are stronger and his feet have improved enough to make a difference down the wing. Good routes, good energy, good results. Winning teams need what he brings. If Hockey Canada sees his work ethic valuable, don't be surprised if the Buffalo-born dual citizen gets the well-earned look. I think he's at camp, but we'll see.
Good things happen when you're a Sabres prospect skating in the World Juniors. Upon return to the QMHL last season, Adam went on a scoring tear that almost saw him hit the 50-goal mark in the shortened schedule. Tyler Ennis closed strong after winning gold two years ago, while teammate Myers went back to become the most dominant junior player in all of Canada as the Kelowna Rockets surged to the Memorial Cup final.