EDMONTON — Through five games at the 2022 World Junior Championship, Canada’s most dangerous offensive weapons have separated themselves far from the pack.
The starring duo of Mason McTavish and Connor Bedard have already amassed a combined 21 points during that stretch of games, establishing themselves as arguably the most dynamic pair in the tournament, and leaving fans in the Rogers Place stands dreaming of gold.
But as the team heads into a semifinal matchup Friday against a tough Czechia team that just upset the Americans — who were the only other undefeated team remaining in the tournament — head coach Dave Cameron is still experimenting with finding the best formation for his top-line group.
We’ve seen a number of different iterations of the trio through the team’s slate of games so far, with the Bedard-McTavish duo hopping over the boards with three different wingers over that span.
Against Latvia and Slovakia it was Montreal Canadiens prospect Joshua Roy. The next two games, against Czechia and Finland, New York Rangers prospect Brennan Othmann got a couple spins in that top spot. On Wednesday, for Canada’s quarterfinal win over Switzerland, Cameron switched things up again, throwing Rangers prospect Will Cuylle up with the leading duo.
Of all three, it’s Othmann who’s seemed to have the most success on that top line. While Bedard and McTavish both racked up plenty of even-strength points of their own doing, Othmann’s fingerprints have been all over a number of the pair’s highlight-reel tallies over the course of the tournament.
In Canada’s second game, as McTavish went off for four goals against Slovakia, Othmann was there with a couple slick passes to set up two of the captain’s goals. A game later, against Czechia, he was making his presence known again, setting in motion one of the top line’s best plays of the tournament, firing a beautiful stretch pass up to Bedard, who found McTavish with space in alone on the netminder.
A couple nights later, against Finland, Othmann showcased the sandpaper mentality that defines his offensive game, battling along the wall deep in the opposing zone, winning the puck to Bedard who cycled it up high, and then deflecting home an eventual point shot from Olen Zellweger.
Still, as the Canadians headed into their first elimination game of the tournament on Wednesday, Cameron opted to move Othmann down to play with Zack Ostapchuk and Eliot Desnoyers, shifting Cuylle up. Though the top line might’ve lost a hint of its offensive magic with the change, in the coach’s eyes, there were other aspects of the trio’s game in need of shoring up.
“The big thing is that I wanted a wall presence in the D-zone,” Cameron said of the top-line change after Wednesday’s over Switzerland. “I wanted somebody that can be big and strong on the wall, that would enable that line to play D-zone a little bit faster and get out. I thought he did well.”
“He’s a huge guy, gets in on the forecheck, creates a lot of space for us. And he can score, too,” the captain said of his new linemate Wednesday. “I played against him in the OHL, in the finals there, and he’s not fun to play against.”
For Cuylle’s part, the assignment is the same regardless of which line he’s thrown on, especially as the stakes get higher with the tournament nearing its end.
“I don’t think it changes much for me,” he said of being moved up to play with McTavish and Bedard. “I’m just trying to play my game, be physical, get to the front of the net, get some dirty goals. But I thought we played good, I thought we had lots of chances.”
Cameron has one luxury in the fact that Bedard and McTavish have both proven they can thrive regardless of who’s on their line, given their ability to either create offence for themselves or work with each other to keep opposing defenders spinning. We’ve seen it time and time again over the course of this tournament — most recently two games ago, when Bedard took a pass from McTavish at the end of a tough D-zone shift, carried the puck up himself and sniped a beautiful goal as the rest of his line headed to the bench for a change.
And then there was the play against Slovakia, perhaps the goal of the tournament for the Canadians, which saw Bedard and McTavish dance around the opposition and play off each other to set up a stunner, the rest of their team simply watching them do their thing.
It’s that consistency that’s allowed Cameron to shift pieces around and experiment with different versions of this lineup, knowing his star duo will produce regardless. Now, with the semifinals looming, the coach’s sights are set on the bigger picture, on navigating the adversity that’s impacted other parts of Canada’s game, and finding the formation that will allow his team to play the right way when it matters most.
“Very rarely are you going to go through a tournament where you have a powerhouse and everything just goes the way you want, but you never know how you’re going to deal with adversity until you get it,” Cameron said Wednesday. “But we’re confident in this group. This group’s a calm group. This group’s a committed group — I mean, you just got to look at the shot-blocking against the Finnish team. They’re committed.
“But it’s a challenge now, as the competition gets better. When it gets better, you can still play a real good game and lose. So, we’re not worried about winning and losing, we’re just worried about how we’re going to play.”