Brandt Clarke among biggest snubs in Canada's world junior history

·10 min read
Brandt Clarke joins Taylor Hall and Matt Duchene on the list of egregious world junior snubs. (Getty Images)
Brandt Clarke joins Taylor Hall and Matt Duchene on the list of egregious world junior snubs. (Getty Images)

Brandt Clarke’s omission from Canada’s 2022 world junior selection camp roster drew unanimous befuddlement and outrage from the hockey community on Wednesday.

Clarke, selected eighth overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2021 NHL Draft, leads all OHL defencemen with 23 points in 17 games for the Barrie Colts. The offensive dynamo has widely been considered the best defenceman in the province for his age group, going back to his years with the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Don Mills Flyers.

The 18-year-old’s tremendous puck movement and ability to navigate tight spaces would’ve been an immediate boost to Canada’s power play, and the team now enters selection camp with just two right-handed defencemen — Jack Thompson of the Sudbury Wolves and Vincent Iorio of the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Hockey Canada’s decision to leave Clarke off the roster was so baffling that The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler followed up with James Boyd of the team’s selection committee, where he chalked the decision up to flexibility.

The annual world junior selections are often contentious with Canadians having heightened interest in the team’s fortunes at the tournament, but Clarke’s exclusion is the most shocking we can think of in recent memory. Where does it rank all-time? Let’s find out!

Taylor Hall, 2009

The case for Hall: Hall’s world-class speed was evident from the minute he joined the Windsor Spitfires and he transformed the trajectory of the organization during his second season with the club. After posting 45 goals and 84 points during his rookie year, Hall’s elite acceleration and goal-scoring ability figured to translate well on the larger, international ice surface even against players two years his senior. Hall was widely considered the presumptive favourite to go first overall in the upcoming 2010 NHL Draft, although draftniks concocted a “Taylor vs. Tyler” argument to make the case for Tyler Seguin.

Why he didn’t make the team: “Taylor needs to mature his game a little bit and understand he may be the best option sometimes, but not always," Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray told The Canadian Press’s Donna Spencer. "He needs to use the other players on the ice a little bit better and take advantage of his speed with some give and go's, so he's not always trying to beat people one on one.”

I guess you can’t argue with the transparency of the decision, but Hall went on an absolute tear upon being snubbed. Hall led Windsor to an OHL title and Memorial Cup, where he won tournament MVP upon recording eight points in six games. Not a bad consolation prize. Hall and the Spitfires repeated as OHL and Memorial Cup champions the following year, when he became the first player in tournament history to repeat as MVP.

How does the decision look now?: It looks worse in retrospect because it didn’t impact Canada immediately. Canada cruised to a 5-1 gold medal victory over Sweden, with the team preferring a grit-over-skill ideology for its bottom-six. Hall was edged out by Brett Sonne and Angelo Esposito, neither of whom have played a single game in the NHL. Even if Hall had a propensity to do it all by himself at 18, it’s hard to imagine him not being a solid contributor to this championship squad. He posted 12 points the following year, as Canada lost in the 2010 gold-medal game.

Matt Duchene, 2009

The case for Duchene: Prior to the 2009 camp, Duchene appeared to be an internal favourite amongst Hockey Canada’s brass. Duchene dominated at the 2008 World U-18s, where he led Canada to gold with eight points in seven games and was named captain during the subsequent Ivan Hlinka Cup — a prominent international U-18 tournament — where Canada won it all again. In what was considered at the time to be an absolutely loaded draft class, Duchene was the second-best Canadian prospect in the world, with John Tavares in a different tier.

Why he didn’t make the team: Head coach Pat Quinn elected to run a lineup consisting of 12 forwards and eight defencemen, as opposed to the traditional 13F/7D combination that has become commonplace at the tourney. In his draft-eligible year, Duchene was still considered to have some key defensive flaws in his game, while Hockey Canada elected for more traditional grinders over world-class skill.

How does the decision look now?: Duchene never played in the world juniors, graduating to the Colorado Avalanche after being selected third overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. He would appear for Canada several times internationally, including an appearance on the 2014 Olympic gold-medal winning squad. Although Canada won the world juniors in 2009, much like Hall, it remains baffling that Sonne, Esposito and Dana Tyrell made a better impression.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2011

The case for Nugent-Hopkins: During his rookie season in the Western Hockey League, Nugent-Hopkins recorded 65 points in 67 games, the toughest of the three major Canadian junior hockey leagues to score prolifically in. Nugent-Hopkins led Canada in scoring during the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Cup with seven points and appeared poised to impose his excellent playmaking ability on the larger international ice.

Why he didn’t make the team: It’s always tough for draft-eligible players to make an impression but Hockey Canada appeared to make one of their common, glaring mistakes, which you’ll see as a recurring theme here: instead of electing to choose the most talented players regardless of age, the governing body considered team fit and considerable grit among its bottom-six to be more valuable than elite offensive ability.

For what it’s worth, Nugent-Hopkins had a pretty healthy perspective upon being cut.

"I really enjoyed the camp and I look forward to coming back next year. I don't think I'd do anything differently. "If I looked back and thought I had changed things, I'd have regrets. I think I played overall pretty good."

How does the decision look now?: In what’s considered one of the darkest moments in Canada’s history at the world juniors, the team blew a 3-0 lead to Russia in the gold-medal game and surrendered five unanswered markers during the third period in a crushing 5-3 loss. Would that have changed if Nugent-Hopkins was on the roster? He could’ve impacted the game when the chances dried up, where the grit-and-grind mentality of a Canadian team that relied solely on Brayden Schenn to generate meaningful offence failed on the biggest stage.

Nugent-Hopkins almost missed his chance at the world juniors outright after going first overall to the Oilers in the 2011 NHL Draft. As a result of the 2012-13 NHL lockout, Nugent-Hopkins donned the “C” for Canada at the 2013 tournament, leading all scorers with 15 points. Unfortunately, Canada slumped to a fourth-place finish. Nugent-Hopkins has been a key offensive standout for the Oilers during his NHL career and has made a greater impact than the vast majority of the 2011 roster.

Darnell Nurse, 2014

The case for Nurse: Nurse certainly had the required pedigree going into the 2014 tournament, after being selected seventh overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2013. Boasting a booming shot with clever anticipation to join the rush, Nurse should’ve at least warranted consideration for a camp invite at the very least, considering that he had been in Hockey Canada’s elite development system for the better part of two years, contributing to a gold-medal winning effort at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Cup.

Why he didn’t receive an invite: There was a perception that Nurse needed to improve defensively in order to crack the roster, with Canada electing to go for the safe but unspectacular Chris Bigras and Derrick Pouliot over the Oilers prospect. Nurse’s booming shot and ability to see through traffic would’ve paid dividends, but the thinking at the time was that he’d be a liability in his own end. Woof.

How does the decision look now?: It was a curious decision at the time and it backfired almost instantaneously. Canada was thumped by Finland during a 5-1 loss in the semifinal and subsequently dropped the bronze medal game in a 2-1 decision to Russia. Finland’s Teuvo Teravainen and Artturi Lehkonen straight up bullied Canada’s defence, while the lack of offensive imagination was on full display during the medal round.

Nurse probably isn’t sweating it. The following year, he was named to Canada’s gold-medal winning team — ahead of Bigras, who was cut during camp. Nurse recently signed an eight-year, $74-million extension with the Oilers in August. If Clarke is seeking inspiration, he needn’t look any further than another Don Mills Flyers alumnus.

Jakob Chychrun, 2016

The case for Chychrun: From a physical standpoint, Chychrun quite literally towered over his peers from an early age. There’s a readily available photo of Chychrun as a member of the GTHL’s Jr. Canadiens posing with Pittsburgh Penguins standout Kris Letang, hovering over the established all-star.

Chychrun boasted tremendous skating ability, strength and vision but his draft stock dropped throughout the year due to his past history of shoulder injuries, along with a notion of being inconsistent in his own zone. He was immediately considered one of the premier defencemen in the OHL during his rookie year, and his raw talent should’ve won him a spot on the team.

Why he didn’t receive an invite: It’s always difficult for draft-eligible defencemen to make a strong impression and with the prevailing impression being that Chychrun lacked the hockey sense to thrive on the international stage at 17, Hockey Canada cut him loose. Chychrun wasn’t always on Hockey Canada’s radar — he played the vast majority of his minor hockey within the USA Hockey system, before flocking to the vaunted GTHL circuit for his minor midget season.

How does the decision look now?: History has an odd way of repeating itself. Canada blew a 2-0 lead to Finland in the quarterfinals, losing 6-5 as Sebastian Aho, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi carved up the defence. Canada finished sixth, its worst showing since the 1998 tournament. As for Chychrun, much like Duchene, he immediately went to the NHL after being selected 16th overall by the Arizona Coyotes and hasn’t looked back. He has quickly become one of the NHL’s most underrated players and were it not for playing in a small market, he’d be considered one of the marquee defencemen in hockey.

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