The World Junior Championship is a Canadian Holiday Tradition. Starting on Boxing Day - sometimes very early on Boxing Day -- it is a chance for many Canadians to get a look at up and coming players they might not normally see, which isn't to say this year's team doesn't also have its share of more well-known talent. Virtanen is on loan from the Vancouver Canucks, returning in the hopes of repeating last year's gold medal result. Names like Strome and Marner also stand out on the roster. Strome being the third overall pick in 2015 NHL Entry Draft certainly means more people will be watching his performance. Marner is a first round Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect (and fourth overall) from the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, another sure sign his performance will be evaluated by many .
Lesser known names on the Team Canada roster include Joe Hicketts of the Victoria Royals, Travis Sanheim of the Calgary Hitmen, John Quennville of the Brandon Wheat Kings, Brayden Point of the Moose Jaw Warriors, and Haydn Fluery of the Red Deer Rebels.
Hicketts was a part of the 2015 Gold Medal World Junior Team and has spent the last year on a Victoria Royals team who have been surprising those watching the WHL with their quality. With 30 points in 29 games played, Hicketts, the Royals' captain, has definitely been a part of the Royals' strong start. Hicketts is a smaller defenseman, but he's not afraid to jump up into the play and has excellent instincts for shutting the opposition down.
Travis Sanheim is a part of a strong Calgary Hitmen team -- which is quite frankly endlessly disappointing to the person writing this article. With 31 points in 24 games played this year, Sanheim can be classified as an offensive defenseman and all around pest by those playing against him. Look for him to move up in the play and make things happen.
John Quennville comes to Team Canada from the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Wheat Kings took a strong squad to the WHL Finals last season, and Quennville was a part of that. Ultimately, the Wheat Kings lost to the Kelowna Rockets. Despite the Wheat Kings somewhat stumbling start to the current season, Quennville has racked up 33 points in 25 games played. Quennville is the type of player who is able to frustrate teams. He plays a controlled game and is unafraid to work in what are often termed the dirty areas of the ice.
Brayden Point is a key piece of the Moose Jaw Warriors' success. With a massive 43 points in 19 games played, Point's diminutive size has been no obstacle so far. The type of player who seems able to make something out of nothing, Point is well suited to working with the type of playmakers that can be found on Team Canada. Point is a player to watch because he should be able to do some truly fantastic things on the ice in Helsinki.
There's also Hadyn Fleury. The Red Deer Rebels are getting ready for an appearance in the 2016 Memorial Cup, and Fleury is a big part of that. Fleury has a respectable 20 points in 24 games played, but looks to be playing more of a shutdown role for Team Canada. At 6'3" and 207 lbs, Fleury certainly has the size to play a more physical game . It will be interesting what see how Fleury's typical blend of offense and strong defensive play is used by Team Canada.
Another, non-WHL player to watch is Brandon Hickey. Hickey's commitment is to the Boston University, where he has 7 points in 16 games played. Paired with Fleury during the early part of Team Canada's preparations, Hickey has definitely made a positive impression. Hickey will be one to watch simply because NCAA play is not widely covered in Canada, and it will be a good opportunity to see one of Canada's top young defensemen in action.
Honestly, the Canadian team has talent to spare. If anything is indicative of this, it's the fact they sent Nick Merkley home in the last round of cuts. Merkley is an undeniably talented forward from the Kelowna Rockets. The last pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft's First Round, Merkley is often almost mesmerizing to watch, not that anyone will be watching him at this year's World Junior tournament.
The big names up front are the players everyone will be watching. Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner lit the OHL on fire last year. As previously mentioned, both were drafted in the top five of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. It is expected that everyone will be watching them, and that Team Canada's offense will follow their lead. Added to the mix for variety is Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks. Coming from the NHL, there is pressure of Virtanen to be a dominant force for the Canadian team and to lead the team the way Curtis Lazar did last year. Virtanen will definitely have to contribute for Team Canada to have success.
In goal, all eyes will be on Mackenzie Blackwood. At least they will be after he finishes serving his 8 game OHL suspension. While both McDonald and Montembeault are capable goalies, the focus stays on Blackwood because there must have been a reason that Team Canada kept him on the roster despite the suspension, right?
Whether or not Canada can repeat last year's gold medal performance remains to be seen, but the team itself seems to be full of talented players looking to make that happen.