Want to see a World Junior Championship with the most stacked rosters possible? Look for a year in which the NHL isn’t playing at the time of the tournament, be it because of a labor dispute, pandemic or, in the current climate, a blend of the two.
The 2005 WJC, for instance, was an amazing star-studded tournament given Alex Ovechkin, the reigning No. 1 overall pick of the 2004 draft, had no NHL to play in during the 2004-05 lockout and was free to compete in the same event as prospective 2005 No. 1 pick Sidney Crosby. Patrice Bergeron already had a full NHL rookie season under his belt yet played a key role on Canada’s championship team that year, too.
We should see a similarly loaded list of final rosters for the 2020 WJC, set to begin on Christmas Day, with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association still trying to hammer out the details of a new season and possibly renegotiated CBA. At best, the 2020-21 NHL campaign will start in mid-January, with a February start looking likelier by the day. Many teams thus feel comfortable loaning some of their top young players to the WJC – including many who were projected to stick as full-time NHLers had the season followed its traditional calendar.
Team Canada, for example, will welcome back center Dylan Cozens, defenseman Bowen Byram and (for now) even the Chicago Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach, who has 64 regular-season and nine post-season games under his belt in the NHL. The projected roster also includes the 2020 draft class’ No. 2 overall pick, Quinton Byfield. Given his grown-man build, he has a real chance to make the Los Angeles Kings and stay well beyond his nine-game limit before activating his entry-level contract, but the Kings are comfortable letting their prized prospect compete against other elite young players to hone his skills before training camps start. They were even committed to letting him play in the tournament had the NHL season met its start-date goal of Jan. 1.
Not so for the 2020 draft’s No. 1 overall pick, however. Hockey Canada announced Thursday it had learned the New York Rangers would not loan left winger Alexis Lafreniere to Team Canada.
“After ongoing discussions with the New York Rangers, Hockey Canada has been informed that Alexis Lafreniere will not be released to represent Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton,” said a statement from Hockey Canada on behalf of Scott Salmond, senior vice-president of national teams. “Although we are disappointed Alexis will not be able to join our team for (the) World Juniors, we understand and respect the decision made by the Rangers.”
Was it the right decision by the Rangers, though?
According to a report from TSN’s Darren Dreger, the Rangers prefer Lafreniere “continue to train locally and prepare for his first NHL training camp.” One could claim Lafreniere, on paper, has nothing left to accomplish at the WJC after capturing gold and the MVP at the tourney a year ago. If the NHL season were following its traditional schedule, that argument would absolutely fly. There would be no reason to send Lafreniere.
In this pandemic year, however, the NHL has no set date yet to launch its training camps, let alone its pre-season, let alone the regular season. The world juniors, on the other hand, begin on a concrete date: Dec. 25. Given the molasses-like pace of CBA talks and the bickering between the PA and the NHL over the owners’ desire to adjust the still-fresh CBA, we could still be a good month away from the start of training camps. If you land on the pessimist side and predict a February start date for the season, it’s not inconceivable the WJC ends before NHL camps even begin, especially factoring in that the seven teams that missed the bubble tournament get to open their camps two weeks before the other 24.
So why not let Lafreniere tune up against elite players his own age in high-stakes hockey, just to get the muscles responding to game action in advance of camp? Injury risk is the most obvious reason, sure. The Rangers believe they can be contenders this season and want their star rookie healthy. Its also possible he’d have to quarantine after leaving the WJC bubble and miss some of camp depending on the start date. Perhaps the Rangers are optimistic about a mid-January season start and camps opening in a few weeks. But Lafreniere hasn’t played an organized hockey game since March 8, 2020. Is there not a case to be made he’d be better off sharpening his game skills before attending his first NHL camp?
Many other Calder Trophy hopefuls will hit the ground running after competing in top-level hockey at the WJC. Lafreniere, meanwhile, will be freshly unboxed. He will have spent months training, but any high-performance trainer can tell you no amount of skating and weightlifting prepares the body for game situations. As of now, Lafreniere will be 10 or 11 months removed from his last game by the time he debuts in the NHL. That unprecedented absence could slow his development.