STOCKHOLM – Canada’s strength at the men’s world hockey championship is up front.
Firepower at forward puts Canada among the favourites to win the International Ice Hockey Federation’s premier tournament.
Led by the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, twice the winner of the NHL’s Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer, Canada’s forwards boast substantial international experience and success in the NHL.
“I like our whole group altogether, but obviously there’s some firepower up front and some offensive weapons who at the NHL level have really done well and contribute for their teams,” captain Eric Staal said Thursday at the Globe Arena.
Games start Friday, but Canada opens Saturday against Denmark followed by Switzerland on Sunday. Canada hasn’t won a world title since 2007 and exited in the tournament with quarter-final losses the last three years.
Stockholm and Helsinki are co-hosting the men’s world tournament for a second straight year with the Swedish capital the site of the medal games this time.
Defending champion Russia is a co-favourite as that country gears up to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The host Swedes and Finns, the Czech Republic and last year’s surprise silver medallist Slovakia are also contenders in the 16-team field.
Canada’s Stamkos, Staal, Taylor Hall of the Edmonton Oilers, Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers and Andrew Ladd of the Winnipeg Jets finished among the top 20 scorers in the NHL this lockout-shortened season.
Staal helped Canada win Olympic gold in 2010. The Carolina Hurricanes captain is one of eight Canadians in the IIHF’s “Triple Gold Club” of players who have won a world title, Stanley Cup and Olympic gold during their careers.
Jordan Eberle was third in scoring for the Oilers and is playing in his fourth straight world championship. Matt Duchene was one of Colorado’s top two producers and is appearing in his third.
Staal, along with his brother and Hurricanes teammate Jordan, were both in Canada’s lineup on that victorious 2007 squad. Jordan Staal finished this season with 29 points in his last 28 games for Carolina.
The Staal brothers and Ladd have four Stanley Cups between them. All but one of the dozen forwards have played for Canada at some level during their careers.
But Canada isn’t nearly as decorated or experienced on defence or in goal. Of the seven defenders named to the team, Philadelphia’s Luke Schenn and Stephane Robidas of the Dallas Stars are the only two with previous world championship experience.
T.J. Brodie of the Calgary Flames, the Stars’ Brenden Dillon and Justin Schultz of the Oilers are making their international debuts in Stockholm.
The goaltenders are similarly light in experience. Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk is appearing in his third world championship, but has played just three games. Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes is playing for Canada for the first time at 31.
Saskatoon’s Michael Garnett, who played in the KHL for Chelyabinsk this season, is also wearing the Maple Leaf for the first time.
“We’re younger on defence,” Canadian head coach Lindy Ruff acknowledged. “We have probably have a little bit less experience back there than we’ve had in the past. Up front, we’re got a lot of experience, a lot of skill.”
Ruff expects to start the tournament rotating two goalies, but didn’t reveal Thursday who his starter would be against Denmark.
He coached the last Canadian team to win a medal, a silver in 2009. He’s reunited with his assistants from that tournament — Nashville’s Barry Trotz and Phoenix’s Dave Tippett — in an attempt to upgrade to gold.
“I think you have to come in with the mentality you want to win this tournament,” Stamkos said. “Canada hasn’t won this tournament in awhile. For us, as Canadians, you expect to win gold when you put that Canadian jersey on.
“There is some pressure. It’s been shown in the past, these teams here are great. You look at Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, all those teams are contenders every year. It’s not going to be easy.”
With the NHL’s regular season ending three weeks later than usual because of the lockout, there was no time for Canada to have a training camp or exhibition games. More than 70 players have joined their national teams straight from the NHL, according to the IIHF.
Canada’s 22 players arrived in Stockholm on Wednesday and skated that night. Thursday was the second of just three practices Canada gets before facing Denmark.
“It does maybe feel a little bit rushed,” Stamkos said. “This year, you’re kind of thrown in the fire. I think guys don’t mind that. You’re still in that game shape.”
Ruff can add three more players to his roster during the tournament.
“It’s something we’re looking at,” he said. “There’s no guarantee we’re going to add. I think most teams save a couple of spaces for injuries or whether it’s a player who comes available.”
The tournament is divided into two groups of eight countries with the top four in each advancing to the quarter-finals. In addition to the Danes and the Swiss, Canada’s group in Stockholm includes the Czech Republic, Sweden, Norway, Belarus and Slovenia.
Russia, Finland, Slovakia, United States, Germany, Latvia, France and Austria are in the Helsinki group.