It is always tough for players entering their draft year to crack the Canadian world junior championship roster. During a NHL work stoppage, it's almost impossible. In 1995, no draft-eligible players were part of Canada's dominant gold medal run and in 2005, only one made it and he went by the name Sidney Crosby.
"Obviously, tradition has shown that this is a 19-year-old tournament," said Canadian head coach Steve Spott, "but the players we have that are draft-eligible deserve to be here and ultimately they're going to be evaluated like any 19-year-old players."
"Steve made it clear to all of them when they came in: age isn't a factor here," said Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast. "If they're the best players, they'll make the team."
With that in mind, we asked the four young guns at the 2012 camp – Jonathan Drouin, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan and Hunter Shinkaruk – what they have to do to overcome the odds and make what may go down as one of the strongest Canadian world junior teams ever assembled.
'There's Less Pressure For Me'
"I don't think I'm going to change too much," said MacKinnon, the Halifax Mooseheads centre, who ranks second on TSN scout Craig Button's latest list of top prospects. "Obviously, I'll adapt to a role. Whatever role I'm given, I'll adapt to it. There are countless talented guys coming to camp and a lot of guys are fighting for the same spot so I've got to adapt quickly."
MacKinnon shrugged when informed that Crosby, a fellow Cole Harbour, NS native, was the only draft-eligible player to get picked to play on a Canadian junior team during an NHL work stoppage.
"I think there's less pressure for me, to be honest, because there's so many good players here," he said.
MacKinnon will play alongside his Halifax linemate Jonathan Drouin during Tuesday night's intra-squad game. The pair may be the most dynamic duo in the Canadian Hockey League with MacKinnon scoring 22 times in 30 games and Drouin netting 19 goals in 24 games.
"We're pretty similar," said Drouin, noting their love of sushi leads them to a local Japanese restaurant three times a week. "We always hang out a lot and it helps our on-ice chemistry. We're best friends off the ice."
Hockey Canada has done its best to make life comfortable for MacKinnon this week, rooming him with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who also attended a selection camp as a 17-year-old.
"If there's someone who can lend some advice, Ryan would be a good mentor for him," said Spott. "When we put our rooming list together, it's about having guys that are compatible and obviously for a young player like Nathan ... there's a lot of pressure on those guys so it's about putting them with veteran players who can help them through the process."
Drouin, who skyrocketed up Button's list this month, moving from No. 13 all the way up to No. 4, said he plans on adding a little more physicality to his game during the selection camp.
"Play a good all-around game, play offensively like I play in Halifax, a little more grit," Drouin said, laying out his plan for the week.
Monahan, an Ottawa forward with 12 goals in 24 games while playing for the last-place 67s this season, is also vowing to up his physical game this week. And there's a good reason why.
It will be tough for the draft-eligible players to crack the top-six forwards with Nugent-Hopkins likely to centre the No. 1 unit with Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Scheifele on his wings. Ryan Strome will likely anchor the second unit with Charles Hudon and Ty Rattie his potential linemates. So MacKinnon, Drouin, Monahan and Shinkaruk may need to prove they can fill a bottom-six role. And they would be competing against bigger guys – only Monahan stands taller than six feet among the foursome – for those jobs.
But Monahan, at 6-foot-2, 193 pounds, is certainly able to throw his weight around.
"He is strong enough," agreed Spott. "We saw it this summer [at the Canada-Russia Challenge] against a very strong Russian hockey club so strength for me, with Sean, is not an issue."
And Monahan is eager to get his competitive juices flowing again. He's been sidelined due to a 10-game suspension (illegal hit to the head in a game against the Plymouth Whalers on Nov. 18) for more than three weeks.
"It's not a good feeling, but it happens and you've got to deal with it," Monahan, ranked sixth on Button's list, said. "You just have to work hard off the ice to make the best of it and just move on."
The suspension won't cost Monahan any points with Canada's coaching staff as Spott made it perfectly clear he has no concerns about the Brampton, Ont. native's on-ice judgement.
"He's mature beyond his years when it comes to the game," Spott said on Tuesday. "His hockey sense is, in my mind, at a National Hockey League level right now. He's a guy like Hudon, who can play in all situations, can play the wing or centre."
Speed Key For Shinkaruk
Shinkaruk, for his part, plans on sticking to what got him here.
"Coming in, the main thing I've got to use is my speed," said the Medicine Hat Tigers forward, who's 11th on Button's list. "I think it will allow me to play in all roles. I think the coaching staff will see that. I've got to come in and use my creativity, use my shot and create offence. I feel, if I do that, that's going to give me the biggest shot to make this team."
Shinkaruk, tied for eighth in the WHL with 19 goals in 29 games, has always admired Crosby and would love nothing better than to follow in his footsteps by making the junior team in a lockout year.
"That'd be pretty neat to be in that category obviously," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can this week to give myself the best shot of making this team and hopefully when it's all said and done I'll be in that group with him.
"I guess now it's in my hands to make sure that dream becomes reality."