French set bar higher
French set bar higher
Can Les Bleus crack quarter-finals again?
Under long-time coach Dave Henderson, France matched its best finish of the modern era last year, coming eighth, just like in 1995. On any given day, the French can beat any other team at this tournament. They proved that in Minsk 2014 by opening with a 3-2 shootout victory over Canada and coming from behind to beat Slovakia 5-3. They also defeated nations more typically viewed as their international hockey peers, like Norway (5-4 in a shootout) and Denmark (6-2), and forced the Czech Republic to overtime before losing (5-4).
Sure, France may have lost 3-0 to eventual champion Russia in the quarter-finals. But don’t forget: in 2013, it was the French who derailed what appeared to be an unstoppable Russian squad then coached by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, edging them 2-1. After that defeat, the Russians were never the same and were humiliated 8-3 in the quarter-finals by the United States. France arguably sowed the seeds for Russia’s Olympic failure under “Coach Bill” in Sochi.
Will the men with the Gallic roosters on their jerseys play giant-killers in Prague?
Proving that age is just a number, Cristobal Huet looks poised to carry the load in net for France again this year. He was the starter in the upset over Canada last year. The 39-year-old ex-NHLer shone in his third season with Lausanne of the Swiss NLA, posting a 93.1 save percentage and 1.85 GAA in 37 games. Remarkably, his numbers were even better in a seven-game first-round playoff loss to SC Bern. Ultra-competitive, Huet remains the only Frenchman ever to capture the Stanley Cup (Chicago, 2010).Continue reading
Florian Hardy, who played 24 game Red Bull Munich this season, will likely see some action as the backup. He made 28 saves in the shocking 2013 victory over Russia.
The loss of Baptiste Amar’s experience on the blue line is a blow for France. The rock-solid, well-spoken Grenoble captain had represented his nation at the Worlds since St. Petersburg 2000, but retired after last year’s tournament. That places additional weight on the shoulders of returning veterans like Antonin Manavian (Rouen), whose plus-minus rating of +2 was tops among French rearguards last year, and Yohan Auvitu (IFK Helsinki).
While not prone to bone-crushing hits, France’s defence always competes hard. Good positional play will be vital against Group A stars like the Czech Republic’s Jaromir Jagr and Canada’s Sidney Crosby.
Teams like France often struggle to generate offence at this level. The French are bringing back two-thirds of the top trio that created most of the magic in Minsk: Antoine Roussel (Dallas Stars), who was named a 2014 all-star after placing fifth in tournament scoring with 11 points, and Stephane Da Costa (CSKA Moscow), who was fourth in the KHL points derby this year (30-32-62). The degree of creativity they showed last year would surprise NHL fans.
However, in Prague, Roussel and Da Costa will lack 2014 linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Philadelphia Flyers), who’s out after shoulder surgery. If whoever replaces Bellemare can’t at least approximate the same chemistry, the French could be in trouble against more skillful rivals.
Julien Desrosiers (Rouen) chipped in six points last year, and other veterans like captain Laurent Meunier, Damien Fleury, and Yorick Treille can be difference-makers in key moments. Overall, however, it’s hard to envision the French surpassing the 25 goals they tallied last year – their highest output ever at a top-level World Championship.
Apart from Norway’s Roy Johansen, no other of the current national team coaches has coached at more consecutive elite Worlds than France’s Dave Henderson, dating back to 2008. The 63-year-old Winnipeg native cultivates a great “esprit de corps” among his players, and considering that it’s easy for non-“Big Seven” nations to approach superior opponents with a fatalistic attitude, that’s no mean feat. Henderson’s roots in French hockey run deep, as he was a player-coach with Amiens of the French League from the 1970s to the 1990s. Win or lose, his team will be on the same page from Day One.
A return to the quarter-finals certainly isn’t impossible for this gutsy gang. But a top-four finish in a group with Sweden, Canada, and the host Czechs is going to be tough. The French will have little time to get their game in order, as they start off by facing Germany (May 2), Switzerland (May 3), and Austria (May 5). Squandering precious points against these teams unlikely to medal could make the rest of their tournament a moot point. As much as enthusiastic French fans might not want to hear this, if their team can stay in the top 10 this year, that should be cause enough to raise a glass of champagne.
Back to Overview