Gauthier, Lennox talk World Junior camp competition
Every year in Canada, there’s a significant buzz surrounding the IIHF World Junior Championships. This year, due to the lack of hockey across the country, players eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft face more pressure than ever.
Canada’s best prospects are currently in a bubble in Red Deer, Alberta, competing to see who makes the final roster when the tournament begins on December 25.
Among them, three of Canada’s five goalies invited are eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft. Taylor Gauthier of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars (a double overager), Tristan Lennox of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, and Brett Brochu of the OHL’s London Knights.
Lennox last played competitive hockey back on March 8, in a 4-3 win over the Erie Otters cementing an .867 save percentage over 33 games in his rookie season in the OHL. Gauthier last played a day earlier than Lennox on March 7, where he had an impressive .930 save percentage in an overtime win against the Vancouver Giants to maintain a .917 save percentage through 50 games.
The emphasis scouts place on performances from players like Gauthier and Lennox at the World Juniors will be monumentally more significant than what we are used to seeing. Looking at the current circumstances with COVID in Canada, there might be a very limited opportunity for them to play this year, especially with the OHL and WHL seasons still in flux. With this being the case, both Gauthier and Lennox are approaching camp with a do or die attitude.
These young goalies will need to make a major statement at Canada’s camp to make the team. However, since none of the five goalies at selection camp have yet to make a start in the 2020-21 season, the playing field is as even as it will ever be. The coaching staff has a simple philosophy: whoever performs the best at camp will make the team.
Jason Labarbera has returned to Team Canada as the goalie coach once again. His job this year is now more rigorous than ever. He needs to evaluate five goaltenders based on their play in high-intensity scrimmages with the countries best forwards, after being off of hockey for over nine months.
“It’s been a grind for sure,” said Labarbera. “It’s been fast. Whatever goalie sessions and skate sessions you’re doing at home, you just can’t mimic it. It’s been an adjustment for the first couple of days for the guys. We’re gradually moving along with the process, and they’re starting to get more comfortable every day.”
This year’s environment in a bubble is different than anything that any of these players have experienced in the past. Despite this, both Lennox and Gauthier are making the best of their situations and are leaving everything on the ice.
“The biggest thing coming in was all the shots coming at such a high pace,” said Lennox. “For the first couple of days, it took some getting used to all the speed and quickness of the game. The past couple of days have been better, but definitely, the first couple of days were a bit tough with the shots and the speed of the game.”
Going into camp, many viewed the uncertainty around goaltending to be Canada’s biggest weak point this year, especially with the European country’s goaltenders seeing action overseas.
“Leading up to the tournament, everyone is talking about the big guys from Europe,” said Lennox. “No one is really talking about the five guys we have here.
“With all the elite goalies competing for a spot on this team, everyone here has a legitimate shot at being the starter for Canada, and I think they’re going to do an unbelievable job because everyone here is so talented.”
“I think there are five really good goalies here,” added Gauthier. “I don’t think that we have a weak point. You look at last year, they were saying the same thing about (Joel) Hofer and (Nico) Daws, and then Hofer comes in and gets Goalie of the Tournament.
“So, I personally don’t think the goalies will be a weak spot. We win as a team, so I don’t think that’s a valid statement.”
Although using the lack of confidence in the goaltending situation has been effective motivation, Gauthier and Lennox were both keen to point out that Labarbera has also been a key motivator for them, through stories from his time in the NHL, showing them what the future may hold.
It will be interesting to see the decisions that Labarbera and Team Canada makes with the goaltenders. Over the next couple of days, the coaching staff plans to decide whether they should run with five goalies for most of camp, or make cuts early to get their potential starter as many reps as possible.
For now, Gauthier and Lennox are doing whatever they can to take advantage of the opportunities at camp. Both on the ice and in the room, their soaking up knowledge from their goalie coach Labarbera wherever they can.