The indomitable Gauls?
The indomitable Gauls?
Continuity key to French hopes in Russia
In Russia this year, the French are looking for another solid performance leading into 2017, which will be co-hosted by Paris and Cologne, Germany. Bucking the odds, they’ve raised the bar high with upset victories over hockey superpowers at recent Worlds.
In 2013, France got its first win ever over Russia with a 2-1 round-robin shocker. In 2014, Les Bleus opened with a 3-2 shootout win versus Canada on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s goal. Last year, they weren’t able to equal their eighth-place finish from 2014, coming 12th instead. Even so, there were no easy rides for France’s opponents.
Bringing back the same core players year after year has clearly provided an advantage for France. What lies ahead for coach Dave Henderson and his troops in 2016?
Loosely put, Cristobal Huet is the Jaromir Jagr of French goalies. At 40, the first Frenchman to hoist the Stanley Cup (with Chicago in 2010) remains the starting goalie for his nation. Want proof that his competitive fires still burn strongly? When Huet’s pro club, Lausanne HC of the Swiss NLA, was forced to play a relegation series this year, he posted a 1.67 GAA and 92.3 save percentage in three games, and Lausanne avoided getting sent down.
Huet will be backed up by 31-year-old Florian Hardy of Austria’s Dornbirner EC. Hardy shone with 28 saves in the historic 2013 win over Russia. Ronan Quemeener of Asploven HC in the Swedish Allsvenskan is the number three goalie.
Long-time Grenoble captain Baptiste Amar was a minutes monster who anchored the French blue line until his 2014 retirement. He was missed last year. But the team has moved on, and still presents a well-organized resistance in its own zone.
Historically, the team has relied heavily on Yohann Auvitu, who has played the last two seasons with IFK Helsinki. This tournament will also offer a chance for Benjamin Dieude-Fauvel to step up. The 29-year-old has played in North America since 2010, most recently with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings.
Notable regulars are missing, though. Not included on the final roster is Kevin Hecquefeuille (SCL Tigers Langnau), who was the most consistent point-producer among French defencemen, having chipped in three or more points at each of his last four Worlds. Antonin Manavian, who spent part of this year with the Hungarian club Székesfehérvár, is injured. Lacking a marquee star, the French rearguards will need to rely on good positional play and tenacity.
At the 2015 Worlds, Damien Fleury went on a scoring tear with a team-high five goals. French fans must hope the 30-year-old Schwenningen Wild Wings speedster can revive his prowess in St. Petersburg, because this year’s team might struggle on offence.
It will be interesting to see if Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, a two-time Swedish champion with Skelleftea AIK, can regain his offensive confidence here. In two seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, Bellemare has just 26 points in 155 NHL games.
As on defence, key names are missing up front. Dallas Stars agitator Antoine Roussel, who was named a tournament all-star in 2014 with 11 points, is still embroiled in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the St. Louis Blues. Former NHLer Stephane da Costa, who got 12 playoff points with Gagarin Cup finalists CSKA Moscow, is out, hurt again after an injured-plagued season.
Proving how important continuity is to this program, Laurent Meunier has served as France’s captain ever since Dave Henderson took over the national team in 2005. And 22-year-old left wing Tim Bozon, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, is the son of IIHF Hall of Famer Philippe Bozon, who blazed a trail with 144 games for the St. Louis Blues in the early 1990’s.
The best way to understand head coach Dave Henderson’s coaching philosophy is to let him put it in his own words.
In a 2010 interview, Henderson told IIHF.com: “We haven’t ruled out using naturalized players, but we’re proud of the fact that we’re leaning on guys who have emerged out of our youth hockey programs. They're proving they have the intestinal fortitude and work ethic to do it, and we’re hoping it continues that way.” He added: “This tournament is played on the ice and not the lineup sheets. Every game, we go in and try to win. It’s not just coming here and hoping not to get blown out.”
Six years later, the Montreal-born former Amiens forward has stayed true to his word. His team, relying on homegrown talent, is unlikely to win a medal. But it’s also unlikely to get outworked. While the go-to players for France remain largely the same this year, youthful help is on the way.
France will be without long-time assistant coach Pierre Pousse at this tournament. He was injured in a car accident that tragically claimed the life of his wife Violette Mazza. The IIHF extends its sympathy to Mr. Pousse and his family. Stephane Barin, the head coach of the Ligue Magnus’s Epinal Dauphins, will fill in as an assistant coach.
While cracking the top eight for just the third time in modern hockey history would be a wonderful surprise for France, it’s a long shot. Henderson’s boys need to come out of the gate quickly and collect some points, with their first three games against Germany, Slovakia, and Hungary. For a nation that currently sits 12th in the IIHF World Ranking, finishing anywhere between ninth and 12th would be quite reasonable.
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