Editor’s note: Section on selected AUS goalies edited to reflect the fact they won’t be playing in the games.
Breaking down the roster for Team AUS ahead of their exhibition series against the Canadian World Junior team
On Dec. 11 and 12, the U SPORTS all-star team will take on participants in Canada’s World Junior Hockey Championships selection camp. The games will be played at Moncton’s Avenir Centre.
There’s one catch though with this edition of the Canadian university all-stars: it’s an all-Atlantic affair.
An AUS-exclusive club will face Team Canada, beloved by Canadian hockey fans who tune into the tournament every holiday season, for the first time since 2002. That was the last time the international junior hockey tournament took place in the region, hosted by Halifax and Sydney, N.S. Halifax and Moncton host this year’s World Juniors, with Canada playing all of its round-robin and medal round matchups in the Nova Scotia capital.
So, will the stars of the east coast give the likes of Canada stars Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli a fight next week? Let’s see what we got.
Who’s playing for Team AUS?
Sending the most AUS representatives, naturally, are the U SPORTS number-one team, the UNB Reds. The Fredericton crew will have six players heading up the Trans-Canada Highway for the Canada doubleheader in Moncton. Gardiner MacDougall will lead behind the bench, coaching the Saint John Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup victory last spring, a prize many Team Canada players fell short of last year.
Behind UNB are five players from the 2023 U CUP hosts, the UPEI Panthers. The hometown Moncton Aigles Bleus will have an adequate presence, too, with four players being selected for the team.
The SMU Huskies and StFX X-Men will send three members apiece, the latter featuring AUS leading scorers Liam Hawel and Matthew Struthers. The Acadia Axemen and Dalhousie Tigers will have one face each at the games.
Projected Forward Lines
Nathael Roy – Matthew Struthers – Liam Hawel
Austen Keating – Brady Gilmour – Jason Willms
Kyle Maksimovich – Troy Lajeunesse – TJ Shea
Jacob Hudson – Andrew Coxhead – Shaun Miller
Keeping familiar faces together would be a solid move for a short, two-game sprint like this, especially with this crop of forwards.
Three of the four lines could be made up of a single school each if coach MacDougall wants to. The all-UNB and UPEI lines have been solid lines for points of this season. Same for StFX’s Struthers, Hawel and Hudson, the latter of whom I flipped out with Moncton’s Natheal Roy. I’d be intrigued to see what Roy, an established top-10 scorer in the conference, could do on the top line with the dynamic duo from X.
It gets trickier after the first three lines, as the final four forwards all have adaptable games to the shift to playing junior players would bring. I opted to put the more offensive-leaning talents — Hudson, Coxhead and Miller — on a line. But I think Aigles Bleu’s vet Deslauriers will play just as much, if not more, with his more rounded, grizzled-veteran-type game. I anticipate him playing a lot of penalty kills.
It’s a crowded queue in the special teams department, as expected of an all-star team. My three shoo-ins at forward are Hawel and Struthers, the conference’s top scorers, plus AUS power-play goals leader Lajeunesse. The fourth spot is anyone’s guess. But I will go with Keating, who’s struck five times on the man advantage this season.
Projected defence pairings
Matthew Brassard – Justin MacPherson
Ross MacDougall – Adam McCormick
Yann-Felix Lapointe – Noah Carroll
Now, that’s one scary-looking first pairing.
MacPherson comes off an insane rookie season, scoring-wise, on the SMU back end. He’s doing it again this year, with 18 points in as many games. The only defenceman above him in points? Projected blueline mate Brassard, scoring 23 points in 18 matchups. The veteran Panther has been shocking most of the conference this season, filling in for Owen Headrick adequately as the top UPEI d-man.
Imagine either of them on the power play. Heck, why not both? Brassard would likely get PP1 priority alongside Hawel, Struthers, Laujenesse and Keating, but I could see MacPherson stepping in for one of the forwards.
MacDougall and McCormick could also be that first pairing. They’re familiar with one another and are reliable players familiar with coach MacDougall’s assignments. MacDougall (the player) and McCormick have the best and fourth-best plus/minus totals of AUS blueliners, and honestly, they could play half of a game together if they wanted to.
Lapointe and Carroll could also do that if the AUS all-stars need a shutdown boost against the offensive threats of Team Canada. Lapointe was instrumental in Moncton’s playoff run last season and is a big reason for Moncton’s defensive stability this year. Carroll is the quiet workhorse on the UNB backend and will lead the challenging assignments well as a fifth-year veteran. That will leave Acadia’s Zazula to do most of the jumping in, likely on more defensive assignments and penalty kills with Lapointe or Carroll.
The AUS sent an extra forward and defenceman (because teams can ice 20 skaters at the World Juniors), but it will just be the two goalies.
This was a hard choice, for sure. UNB’s Samuel Richard is running away with the AUS goalie-of-the-year race as a rookie, posting a .948 save percentage in 849 minutes of hockey played, both tops in the conference. Etienne Montpetit was also considered after a hot start to the year in Moncton.
But Capriotti and Welsh were the two goalies settled on. UPEI starter Capriotti is well on his way to trumping his strong U SPORTS rookie season in 2021-22, posting a .921 save percentage in 13 appearances. Welsh isn’t quite there, sitting at .899. But SMU coach (and assistant for the all-star team) Tyler Naugler put belief in Welsh after losing the crease late last season, and he has delivered. His six wins are the fourth-best in the conference.
While this was a great debate for the AUS crease, it unfortunately is more of a formality to select them, as Team Canada goalies will play between the pipes for the U SPORTS squad. But if the AUS goalies had the chance to play outside of practices before the game (which would be a lot cooler), I’d start the hot hand in Capriotti in game one, with Welsh playing game two. Pointing out the goalies is still important to me here, to reflect on who’s been playing the best midway through the season.
Does Team AUS have a shot?
This is the second straight year the U SPORTS squad will be made up of players from a specific region rather than all of the country.
Last year, the team was made up of players just from Albertan teams, with the World Juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer. It didn’t go well, as the junior team won the games 3-0 and 7-2.
Two big differences stand out this year. First, Team U SPORTS picked from more schools this year. This team is made up of seven universities, compared to four last year. As we saw with the lines and D pairings, some chemistry should still be maintained between players from the same teams.
Second, it’s a better team this year. That’s not to discredit the Alberta team last year, backed by stars from the powerful Alberta Golden Bears squad.
The rhetoric usually goes that the AUS is the strongest hockey conference and competition this season is a prime example of that. Historical powerhouses UNB and StFX aren’t the only teams capable of succeeding at the U Cup level, as groups such as UPEI and Moncton have proven this fall. The conference includes not only one or two of the country’s best teams but is deep with talented ones.
However, Team Canada is outstanding and also deep. They are led by Bedard, who might be considered the best player in the world very soon. With WHL Regina, he’s scored 64 points in 28 frickin’ games and is currently riding a 27-game point streak. No, those are not normal WHL stats. This guy is insane.
The juniors also feature U SPORTS killers from last December, such as Logan Stankoven and Joshua Roy, who had two points against the Albertan U SPORTS squad. Olen Zellweger and Shane Wright are two other big returning names, while Adam Fantilli (competing with Bedard for the top spot in the 2023 NHL Draft), Jordan Dumais and Zachary Bolduc are promising new faces.
The AUS all-stars are capable of taking a game, but the younger Team Canada is turning out to be something special, especially on offence. The key is shutting down Bedard, but I’m unsure if anyone on Earth can do that.
In that case, the best move for U SPORTS is to lean into the offence and challenge Canada’s defence (who have just three returnees) and goaltending (no returnees). It will be a hard couple of days for the university team in Moncton, but don’t count them out.
Cover Photo: Matthew Struthers and Jonah Capriotti (StFX Athletics)