Sarnia Sting head coach Alan Letang took some time to speak to Recrutes this past week about his experience in coaching Canada to a gold medal at the recent Hlinka Gretzky U18 tournament.
On how close the Gold medal game was with Czechia: Teams are closing the gap on us now and it’s tough taking a team there when you don’t get to have a training camp. We spent four days together before the tournament, and you try to get over jet lag and you try to build a team…I thought the kids played hard. They got better every game and they were able to pull it out.
Getting the teams’ attention after losing 9-6 to Finland in Game 1: “I said: ‘You may have to play some defence.’ They bought in after that, It’s nice to get humbled early on. You know you’re going to face adversity, and these kids need to be humbled quickly.”
Player selections: “We had open discussions about how we were going to build a team and who we wanted. A lot of it was done through the scouts with Hockey Canada. If I really wanted to pound the table for someone I think I might have been able to but a lot of those kids I didn’t know either because I hadn’t been part of the U17 program at all…so I had to trust them.”
Olli Josephson – “He was everything we had identified in (watching) video. We wanted a guy who would play a potential fourth-line role, was good on faceoffs, wasn’t going to complain, he would do whatever we needed him to do. We knew he was going to be one of those few guys that would kill penalties regularly for us. You usually win with those guys because he is so valuable.”
Maxime Masse – “He came out after having a good season and obviously, we put him into a secondary role and he accepted it. He scored some really big goals for us. He has a really accurate shot and knows his way around the net. He tried to play physically and was really responsible defensively. I thought he had a good tournament.”
Cole Beaudoin – “I was concerned going into the tournament with his skating because I’d seen him early in the year in Barrie but his skating wasn’t much of a factor. I don’t know if he worked really hard on it during the year or if he just worked so hard (at the tournament) that he got there. I thought the big ice would hurt him but he was excellent in the tournament for us. He’s a total power forward.”
Carson Wetsch – “He was good. We had started him out on the bottom line, and then we made a few adjustments and he went up on the top line. He was perfect; he was the glue for that line. Pretty deceptive speed. He beat a couple of defencemen wide. North-south he’s pretty quick. Laterally he’s okay…but he was really good in a top-six role; going to get pucks and just working.”
“He gets who he is, he knew who he was, and just talking to him, he said ‘I want to fight ten times next year in the WHL’, so he knows what he has to do to get noticed and he’s willing to do that. A lot of times that’s half the battle with a lot of these young kids.”
Jeremie Poirier – “He’s a power play guy. He’s got a really heavy shot. He’s a shooter who is most effective playing with people that get him the puck.”
Berkly Catton – “He’s a good kid. He was our MVP obviously with some big goals but just the minutes he had to play, a really good leader (who let his play do the talking). He was just a kid that always wants the puck and finds a way to always have it on his stick. It’s hard to find those guys that are relevant. I was thinking ‘I don’t know about his defensive zone (coverage) but he just finds a way to get near the puck or get the puck on his stick and just get going.’ He had a good tournament for us.”
“He’s not overly big but he’s pretty thick and he’s got a bigger lower half. Brayden Point’s not very big either and he’s doing fine in the NHL. He’ll have to work on his frame and get thicker in the upper body but he’s a good kid and he’ll work hard. He may have some growing to do because he does not look like a physically mature kid. His first three steps are good, he’s pretty good laterally. He doesn’t have Ritchie’s breakaway speed but he gets going, he can move. Very dynamic.”
Ryder Ritchie – “He’s very skilled. I think coming into the Finland game he had to play with a little more edge to get pucks. He is super, super skilled. He’s got a great shot, a great release. He was good for us. One of our few guys who was dynamic and could beat guys one-on-one.”
Liam Greentree – “He was that guy we thought if he came over and accepted that power forward role that could help out, and if we needed a guy to move up and provide a net-front presence on the power play or something like that…so we saw him as being a little more versatile than a Senecke. He did a good job, he didn’t mope but deep down, I think it affected him mentally feeling like he didn’t get a chance. It’s just the way it is in a short tournament.”
Jordan Gavin – “He’s a little bit undersized. Just an okay skater right now. I think he’s pretty smart; pretty heady. He needs to fill out.”
Cayden Lindstrom – “He was really good for us. He came in as a guy we thought was a bottom-six role but he was a guy I could have moved up if I needed to if we had injuries or if someone wasn’t playing well. He’s a big horse. He skates very well, very powerful. Not a pretty skater but he can move. He’s a big, mature kid, he was hard to handle. That third line with him, Spence and Porter…our depth helped us there. They were going in against other teams’ third and fourth lines and they took advantage of it.”
Malcolm Spence – “He was really good, and good for him to accept the role that he had. He didn’t see power-play time, didn’t see time on a top-six role but played the minutes we needed him to play and just the fact that he played a third-line role and then lots in overtime because you knew he was so reliable and still had that offence. I give him a ton of credit because I didn’t know that much coming in. Part of my concern was that he was a second-overall pick; probably would have gone first overall if Misa doesn’t get exceptional status. What was his attitude going to be like if I have him on a third line but he was really good. It will be fun to watch him in Erie to see what he does.
Porter Martone – “He had a good tournament. I knew what Porter was. I think the biggest thing…the big ice was a bit of a factor for him but he’s so smart, he’s got great skill around the net, and good compete around the net. He started on Catton’s line but when I dropped him he accepted the role and played well. You win with those guys because they get it. If we’re in North America and we’re on the smaller ice maybe you don’t notice his skating as much and maybe he’s a little bit more effective but he was good in the tournament for us.”
Michael Misa – “I said to him at the tournament: ‘I can’t imagine the pressure that you’re under coming here with all of the expectations with you being exceptional and coming here and doing all of this.’ I thought it took him a while to get going but he was good by the finals, and he was good in the Swiss game. Just a kid that, if you give him time and space, he’s going to make you pay. Young kids just have to learn how to create time and space for themselves. It’s just going to take some time. I would expect him to probably go to the Hlinka again and probably dominate. That’s the projection for us.”
Sam Dickinson – “I thought his tournament was just okay but he has all of the tools that you need. He is still trying to figure out who he wants to be. He tried to do too much offensively for us at times. He’s got size, he can skate, he can shoot the puck, he can move pucks. He doesn’t have to go end-to-end to be effective and in London…Mark and Dale (Hunter) will (help him) figure that out. In the (OHL) playoffs, he didn’t play like that. I think it was just ‘Hey; I’m playing with my age group, I’m going to show that I’m the guy,’ and it just kind of caught up to him a little bit at times. But he has all of the tools to be a good pro.”
Ben Danford – “I thought his tournament was a little bit underwhelming from what I saw in Oshawa. In the two games (Sarnia) played against him I thought he was really good…excellent for a 16-year-old playing in Oshawa and having to play those kinds of minutes. I just felt at times – and the hard part is you go from summer hockey to that intense hockey – he just looked a little surprised by the speed. He’s going to be a good two-way defender.”
Charlie Elick – “I thought he was really good when he (kept it) simple. I thought in the US game he kind of struggled because he tried to do too much, or maybe it was nerves. But in the final game and the Swiss game, he was excellent for us. He’s just got to be a puck mover. Make the first pass, be physical, and use his size. He skates pretty well.”
Henry Mews – “I thought he got better as the tournament went on for us and I thought in the final game he was perhaps our best defenceman. He’s undersized; he’s not a very big kid at all – he’s thin and small, so I think it took him a while to understand how he was going to defend. Early on in the tournament, he was overcomplicating his reads; trying to look for options 2 and 3 before just taking option 1 and I thought as the tournament went on he got comfortable with pucks. His offensive skill set is really good. He’s a power-play guy, he’s a good puck mover. He’s got a really good knack for just getting pucks through from the blueline.”
He ran our second power play, and could have run our first one too if we needed him to. He’s a good kid too; I didn’t know too much about him. He got quieter as the tournament went on, which was nice to see. All these kids come in and they’ve all been the best. They’re all sort of jockeying for position, and then as soon as you get the hierarchy and set the record straight for them they either buy in or they don’t, and Mews was one of the guys that bought in – he’s like ‘Okay; this is what I’m going to do.’ We used him quite a bit in that final game.”
Zayne Parekh – “It’s going to be up to him if he’s going to decide to defend harder. There’s no doubt how good he is offensively and how good he is on the power play. He’s a very personable kid. I would talk to him all of the time around the lunch room – very, very outgoing and easy to talk to, no character issues there whatsoever.”
Frank Marelli – “He was good. He was so steady, so reliable. A guy that’s a little bit undersized but competes super hard. He got tired by the final. We had to use him quite a bit killing penalties and we used him a bit on the PP, and I think he started to feel…the five games in six days crept up on him. If I’m Chris Mallette and I’m looking down the bench (in Ottawa) I’m thinking ‘I could play you at any time and in any situation and know what I’m going to get.’ As a coach that’s a super nice feeling. I don’t think his skating hurts him. I don’t think he’s an excellent skater but his skating is good enough, he competes super hard, sees the ice well and makes a good first pass. Not overly offensive but has some offensive instincts.”
“He’ll probably make a really good solid two-way dman, and those are the guys in our league…whoever is going for a championship is probably trying to get him. I think there’s enough there that teams can take a chance on him in the draft. He’s not a Matt Dumba or a Jared Spurgeon offensively but he’s got the compete like those guys. He competes hard. I think he’s got the work ethic where as he matures and gets older he’ll put the weight on. He can be that solid, thicker guy that can help you.”
Anthony Cristoforo – “We knew what he was going to be. He was the extra guy, and we had enough two-way guys in Elick, Marelli, Dickinson and Danford…we thought with our extra D…what if Parekh or Mews got hurt…we needed someone who could potentially run a power play for us. I knew he had done that in Windsor, and that’s what he is. He’s a puck mover, an offensive guy.”
Roger McQueen – “He’s going to be a good player I think because he’s big, he’s got so much maturing to do. Good skill for a big guy who is willing to play a little bit physically. He was a right-shot second-line center – he was really good for us. He’ll be intriguing to watch through his junior career. When he fills out that frame, he’ll be scary in junior hockey. When that core strength, that leg power comes, he’ll be a force when he’s 19 playing in the World Juniors.
Gabriel D’Aigle – “With the shortened training camp for us….D’Aigle’s equipment didn’t come for us for three days, so he missed the first three days of skates, so he had a tough go early on. He skated once and then a morning skate before we played the Hungarian team, got in and played that game, and then two days later the tournament started. I don’t think he got off to the start he wanted, and then obviously the first game we played horribly in front of them. I think it was a situation where in a short-term tournament we had to rely on our goalie coach (Justin) Pogge and the coaching staff to make a decision…’What do we do? We don’t have time to bring this guy along. We have to go with the hot guy.’ In the game against the Finns; D’Aigle was very active in the net. He’s super quick and he’s very active laterally. Even pucks that were missing the net he was out of his crease blockering it or trying to catch it.”
Carter George – “Honestly; for our group being super young…we had a group that wasn’t overly strong mentally early on, and George is so good at handling the puck, it just fit our group perfectly. George was just calm and steady and poised. Our whole group settled down when he played. We had to roll with that guy and it worked out perfectly. We played Slovakia and we played in that Fog Bowl. Kids were coming off the ice and they were like ‘I can’t see anything – I can’t see where the puck is’, and they were all rattled, and George didn’t even say a word until after the game he was like ‘I couldn’t see a puck all night.’ We needed that calm composure. And I love goalies that play the puck. For me, if a goalie is composed and he plays the puck, that is so valuable. Even if he gets out and stops dump-ins and rims, it is just so massive to alleviate a forecheck.”
Beckett Senecke – “We watched a ton of video on him. I kind of knew what he was about and what he was. The hard part is…and kids don’t understand…you’re picking 22 kids that are supposed to be the best in Canada. There are always good players that get left off for reasons…sometimes in a short tournament going to Europe if guys are close (in talent)…you sometimes go with the kid that you know will accept a lesser role.”
“I think if we would have had a tryout camp, which they normally do for five days, you’re going to get wowed by a couple of kids, and there’ll be some kids that you see on video, and you think they’ll be okay, and then you see that they lack something so you take another kid. I think if we had had a normal year….if our training camp wouldn’t have been cut short, we would have had a little bit of a different team. There were five or six kids on our depth chart that would have perhaps earned a spot if they had come out.”
Nathan Villeneuve – I like the way he was in Sudbury, what he brought in a PK role, a bottom-six guy. I called the coach in Sudbury Derek McKenzie three or four times to dive in and he loved the kid and spoke very highly of him, so he was one of the kids if I was going to put up a fight or fight for someone, it would have been that kid. But then at the end of the day, we agreed as a staff that this was the direction we wanted to go. It helps when you win. You don’t second-guess too much but there’s still a little bit of second-guessing when you leave a bunch of really good kids off of the team.
Emil Hemming – “He was pretty good. Not scared of traffic, he was heavy on pucks in the corner. Good lateral mobility, and good skating. He was noticeable.”
Adam Benak – “He was very good. Super competitive, a high engine. A lot like Catton. Just wants the puck all the time on the ice.”
Brett Connelly – “High skill. Tons of skill.”
Daniil Ustinkov – “They were in that situation where you know you can lose, you just can’t lose by three goals. That was probably our best game, we played well, and we gave them nothing. They never really even tried to push us at all, they played so conservatively…that put them on their heels. with what was at stake I didn’t really pay much attention to who they had and who they had going.”
Adam Jiricek – “He’s a good player too.”
Lukas Fischer (Sarnia’s draft-eligible defenceman) – “We’re asking a 17-year-old to be one of your top two dmen, which is somewhat scary. Good size, plays aggressively and moves pretty well. He doesn’t look super fluid but he can move. He’ll play a big role for us. He should have a good year this year. I’m excited to get him in and work with him but at 18 and 19, he’ll be a big horse. He plays very similar to his old man Jiri. A big solid, hard to play against defenceman. He has that…even in the playoffs as a 16-year-old. He fought in one of the games versus London where they were trying to push us around. He understands the game and what he sometimes has to do.”
Logan Mailloux – “I think he’s got every tool in the toolbox to be a pretty good pro player. It’s just a matter of what he’s willing to do, what he’s willing to sacrifice. He’s got size, he skates, he sees the ice well, and he’s gifted offensively. He’s probably gotta be a guy that plays both ends for Montreal, and if he’s willing to do that, I think he’ll be successful. I don’t know what his work ethic is like off of the ice but he doesn’t get rattled, he’s pretty composed on the ice. He’s still pretty raw. Sometimes in our league, you have to play those guys 25+ minutes because they’re so effective and they have to rest on the ice and it doesn’t really do them justice. As a pro, they’ll be playing 15 minutes a game and they’ll need them to go every shift and there’s always a little bit of an adjustment when they turn pro.”