If there was ever a time for Carson Lambos to shine at the World Junior Championships, this was it. Team Canada has an absolutely stacked lineup, as they always do. In net, they have Sebastian Cossa, the highest-drafted Canadian goalie in over a decade. Their forward group has six former first-rounders, plus next year's presumptive No. 1 overall, Connor Bedard.
But they have only one first-round pick on defense: Lambos. Yes, folks like Lukas Cormier and Olen Zellweger have bright futures and were always going to get big minutes. But you might be able to argue that Lambos, the 6'1", skilled, smooth-skating defenseman who may have been a top-10 pick if not for injuries and COVID affecting his draft year, was the most talented of all of them.
So it's extremely surprising to see this potential anchor of Team Canada is now anchored to their bench. Lambos has played in only one game this tournament, playing just 8:01 in a 5-2 victory over Latvia. He had no shots and made the highlight reels in a bad way.
Here you see Lambos defending Rainers Darzins' zone entry. Darzins takes the zone entry very easily, then makes Lambos look silly by dekeing away from a lackluster one-armed poke-check, then cutting to the middle. Darzins scores, and at best, Lambos contributes to a screen while trying to defend the net-front.
That might get you benched against a great opponent, but when you're the Goliath to Team Latvia's David and that happens, you can see why he hasn't returned.
In most ways, the World Juniors don't matter. It's a best-on-best tournament, yes, but your performance in a small sample of exhibition games isn't affecting the big picture. These teams are trying to win Gold for their countries, though. And for most of these players, these are the biggest spotlights in their lives so far. It can't all be meaningless, right?
It feels like it has to say something that Canada's looking at Lambos and deciding there are seven or eight lower-drafted defensemen that give them a chance to win. And if they're right, what does that say about Lambos' future?
Not too much. Many players make a name for themselves in the World Juniors. Think Kirill Kaprizov's dominant nine-goal, 12-point performance in 2017 or Mikael Granlund earning All-Tournament Team honors in 2012. Some players have a more disappointing time but still go on to have a strong career.
Matt Dumba is a pretty good example of the latter. The seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft, Dumba earned the alternate captaincy for Team Canada in 2014. However, he posted only one assist through seven games and added 12 penalty minutes at that tournament. Canada lost the Bronze Medal game to Russia, which is always a big disappointment for a country with high expectations.
No matter. Dumba made the Wild roster the next season and grew into one of the league's biggest scoring threats from the blueline before a freak injury robbed him of his shot.
But hey, at least Dumba got to carve out a role, right? He got minutes while playing alongside fellow top-10 picks Aaron Ekblad and Derrick Pouliot. That's different from Canada deciding Lambos isn't worth playing now, right?
Perhaps, but then remember in 2020, Team USA made the same decision about Matt Boldy, cutting him from the roster altogether. Boldy had struggled massively in Boston College that fall, and those apparently carried over to the WJC Selection Camp. Just like that, a 12th overall selection was sitting at home, watching five forwards taken after him the previous summer representing their countries.
It didn't faze him. Boldy responded with a torrential second-half that season, then parlayed it into a World Junior roster spot the following season. He was one of the best in the tournament, scoring five goals and seven points in seven games. Now he's in the NHL and arguably a top-3 player in his draft class.
World Juniors matters a whole lot less than how he responds to his setback. This upcoming season will go a long way to determining whether Lambos is the top prospect Minnesota thinks he can be or not.
Lambos finished just outside the top-10 for WHL defensemen, with 0.92 points per game. That's a nice rate, but it paled in comparison to younger 2022 draftees like Denton Mateychuk and Kevin Korchinski. There are definitely good comparables to his Draft+1 year production in the WHL, like Travis Sanheim, Morgan Rielly, and Ryan Pulock. Still, that ranks just 36th among Draft+1 defensemen in the WHL this century. Fans should definitely want to see him surpass the point-per-game mark next season.
They should also want him to stay healthy. He was limited to just 51 of a possible 67 games last year, missing time from mid-November to early February. Beyond just proving he can play a full season after his injury problems leading up to the draft, those are just valuable reps that he needs to max out his development, particularly if he's not getting high-level gameplay at an international tournament.
The good news is that Lambos has plenty of time to put this tournament behind him. He'll play gigantic minutes for a Winnipeg Ice team that will need to rely on him. A big year will catapult him into an AHL role once his season at the WHL is over. And given that he was born on Jan. 14, he won't turn 20 until nine days after the 2023 World Junior Championships, so he'll even get another chance to prove himself again on the big stage. If you're disappointed in Lambos' play, or lack thereof, you'll get another opportunity to see him in four months.
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