Canada dominated Denmark in their opening action of the 2019 World Junior Championship. It was almost painful to watch, provoking questions of whether hockey needed a mercy rule, as Canada romped to a 14-0 win.
Canucks prospect Mike DiPietro was better than he needed to be in the Canadian net: not only did he stop every shot he faced for the shutout, he even had an assist.
DiPietro’s performance needs to be kept in perspective, however: even if he had let in every shot he faced, it would have still only been a tie game. Denmark managed just 14 shots on goal.
You can’t blame DiPietro for only making 14 saves, and he also stopped Phillip Schultz on a third period penalty shot, but it’s true that he wasn’t significantly challenged.
That made some scoff when Canada’s head coach, Tim Hunter, declaring that DiPietro “is our guy.” Apparently there won’t be any goaltending controversy for Team Canada at the World Juniors between DiPietro and Leafs prospect Ian Scott.
“Mikey started the first game because we believe in Mikey,” said Hunter. “You start the season with your number one goalie...Mikey's our guy. He's going to carry the load.”
To make that kind of declaration after a 14-0 win where the goaltender had little action, may seem odd, but Hunter’s decision had nothing to do with DiPietro’s performance against Denmark. DiPietro has been Team Canada’s guy for a year now.
It was understood when DiPietro was one of the final cuts at last year’s World Juniors that he would be their go-to guy this year. Neither of Canada’s two goaltenders last year was going to be able to return and DiPietro had a strong history already with Hockey Canada at both the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
There’s a reason why Hockey Canada brought DiPietro along to the World Championships in 2018 and it wasn’t because they expected him to play. That trip to Denmark was all about this tournament: they wanted to give him extra coaching and guidance for his summer training so that he would be prepared to be Canada’s number one goaltender.
Even his performance in the opening game was impressive in its own way. Sometimes the toughest games are when you face the fewest shots, as it can be difficult to stay engaged. As InGoal Magazine’s Kevin Woodley pointed out, Canada’s goaltending coach Fred Brathwaite believes that active puckhandling can be a great way to stay engaged in a low-shot game.
DiPietro’s puckhandling is something we haven’t really talked about, but his stretch pass for his assist was superb. It was a fantastic stretch pass that sent Nick Suzuki in with space and he set up Morgan Frost for his third goal of the game.
DiPietro will face stiffer challenges as the tournament progresses and he’ll be a lot busier against the likes of Russia and the Czech Republic in Group A in the preliminary round, then potentially Sweden, Finland, and USA in the elimination round.
Of course, if Canada’s offence can continue to be as potent as it was against Denmark, it’s not going to matter much how well DiPietro performs.
As for the other Canucks prospects, the opening day of the tournament was a mixed bag.
Quinn Hughes and Tyler Madden were both standout performers for Team USA in their 2-1 win over Slovakia, but it was a tougher task than might have been expected. Slovakia took a 1-0 lead into the third period, where USA finally solved Slovak goaltender Samuel Hlavaj.
Canucks fans might have hoped for more out of Hughes, who didn’t record a point, but he skated like he was born with ice skates on (his poor mother). It may not have shown on the scoreboard, but he was effective.
According to Darryl Keeping, who is tracking microstats for the World Junior tournament, Hughes was his top performer of the day. Hughes had 17 primary shot contributions (shots or passes that led directly to a shot) and had a 70% controlled zone exit rate. Those are extremely good numbers.
Hughes finished with 19:46 in ice time, leading all USA defencemen, and had one shot on goal — that means his 17 primary shot contributions came mainly from passes.
I was less impressed with his defence partner, Oilers prospect Phil Kemp, who didn’t seem to quite know what to do with an active partner like Hughes, who frequently jumped up the ice. At one point Slovakia got a penalty shot after Kemp got caught up high in the offensive zone after Hughes skated the puck in deep. Oliver Wahlstrom had to come back to cover for Kemp and Hughes and hooked Andrej Kukuca.
Hughes would do better with a partner that could read off him and stay back for his forays up the ice. We’ll see if they make an adjustment.
The other frustration is that Hughes was not on the first power play unit with his brother Jack. That’s baffling, considering how good Hughes is quarterbacking the power play in college.
Meanwhile, Tyler Madden was a revelation against Slovakia. His speed was extremely noticeable, as he darted through gaps in coverage and created multiple scoring chances. His hands were great too, controlling the puck well at top speed.
That he was so noticeable was legitimately surprising: in the NCAA, Madden has frequently disappeared for long stretches, while still popping up a couple times per game to pick up points. That’s not really a criticism — there’s value in a player that can quietly contribute offence — but it was the furthest thing from Madden’s active puck-carrying game against Slovakia.
Madden picked up his first point of the tournament, leaving the puck on the cycle for Evan Barrett, who cut to the slot and put a backhand top corner.
Madden finished with 13:09 in ice time, including some time with Hughes on the second power play unit. It was a strong debut and hopefully a sign for things to come in the tournament for Madden.
As for Toni Utunen and Finland, it was a disappointing start against their longtime Swedish rivals. They got in penalty trouble and struggled to stop Sweden’s power play: Sweden went 2-for-6 on the power play, scoring both of their goals with the man advantage for the 2-1 win. Both goals were scored by Sweden’s captain, Erik Brannstrom.
Utunen was solid, if unspectacular, on the third pairing for Finland. He moved the puck out of the zone well, won battles along the boards, and showed sound positioning and a good stick.
There were some that wished Finland had put some of their more dynamic young defenceman on the roster to help Finland create more offence, but Utunen was far from the problem for Finland. I really liked his game, even if it wasn’t particularly dynamic.
Utunen played 17:18 alongside Otto Latvala.