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In Morin, Canada gets the long straw

Flyers prospect Sam Morin will play for Canada in the world junior tourney today after recovering from a broken jaw.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Sam Morin called it the most annoying injury of his young career.

He has been cut, bruised and battered - but this one was different. Not only did it keep him out of his junior team's lineup, but many wondered whether his fractured jaw would keep the 19-year-old defenseman off Canada's prestigious World Junior Championship roster.

Morin was injured when he was hit with a slap shot Oct. 12 while playing for his junior team, Rimouski. Subsequent surgery wired his mouth shut. He couldn't eat solid food for a month and shed weight so quickly that Jenny Craig would have been jealous.

Rather than remain in Quebec, he spent the month sipping meals through a straw and skating in South Jersey under the supervision of the Flyers' training staff.

It wasn't always pleasant. Milkshakes alone would not provide the necessary nutrition for a growing, 6-7 tree trunk of a specimen. That left Flyers chef Greg Sloane to get creative.

"He was putting steak and chicken in the blender and just blending everything," Morin said. "Then I'd have to drink it."

The concoction tasted exactly what meat in liquid form sounds like.

"It was disgusting," Morin said, laughing. "I feel bad saying that, because he was so nice to me. It was really, really tough. I'm a big eater. I like to eat. But I think it was just good to go there and gain some weight."

Sloane probably preserved Morin's dream. He is back to his usual 226 pounds and has played five games since returning from his injury.

Those five games were enough for the Flyers' 2013 first-round pick to make the cut for Canada's entry in hockey's under-20 tournament. The 10-day event, televised on NHL Network, kicks off today with Canada facing Slovakia at Montreal's Bell Centre.

Phantoms defenseman Robert Hagg is the Flyers' only other prospect in the tournament, playing for Sweden.

In Canada, the tournament is almost religious ritual, one that begins the day after Christmas every year. Hockey-crazed youngsters across the country tune in with their fathers on Boxing Day, dreaming of one day representing Canada. It is also a rite of passage for NHL prospects; Matt Read, Ray Emery, Zac Rinaldo and Andrew MacDonald are the only Canadians on the Flyers' roster who did not participate.

Back on home soil in Montreal and Toronto for the first time since 2012, it means more this year for Canada, which failed to medal in Europe in back-to-back tournaments for the first time in the event's 38-year history.

Morin is part of a stacked Canadian roster. Watching Team Canada skate around at the Master Card Centre for Hockey Excellence last Saturday, the names on the backs of the Maple Leaf-clad jerseys were eye-popping.

All were fixated on 17-year-old center Connor McDavid, the surefire No. 1 pick in June's draft, referred to as "The Next One." Then there were Darnell Nurse, Anthony Duclair and Curtis Lazar - players who have already made a dent in the NHL this season.

Morin does not have that name cachet, not yet. He was impossible to ignore, though, as the tallest and most menacing player in the ice.

"I thought he was good enough to be on this team," said Team Canada coach Benoit Groulx, who tutored Claude Giroux during his junior days in Gatineau. "Sam obviously brings size and strength and it was an important component for us in our selection. I think he's got a good stick. He's a competitor. I know him from our [Quebec] league, so I know what he can bring to the table.

"He's played only 12 games. He needs a little more time to get into his groove. But I think Sam is getting better every day."

Morin never doubted he belonged with the McDavids, the Nurses, the Duclairs - even with the relative lack of preparation.

"Injuries can happen. You have to get through it," he said. "I had a pretty good [evaluation] camp this summer for Team Canada. I think I had a good camp with the Flyers. I've played with these [big names] before, so I know them. It's a good pace here, the guys are really good. It's pretty fun."

In his junior league, Morin hasn't yet had the chance to make a real impact this season. The Rimouski Oceanic is in first place and has played well without him. This year, Morin said he is more confident than before. He was never afraid to speak his mind in the locker room as a leader, even as a 16-year-old, piping up with the endorsement of his coaches. He is even more vocal, leading by both word and example.

Morin's high confidence level is evident in his play. Last February, the Daily News traveled to Quebec to watch Morin play twice. He was steady and conservative, a solid player, but did not dominate the way you would think a 6-9 monster on skates would wreak havoc against teenagers.

If the knock was his lack of dominance, the commendation should be that he does not play outside himself. He doesn't try to be a player he isn't.

Development takes time for defensemen, even more so for rangy players still growing into their lanky and awkward bodies. The Flyers have patience, even though Ron Hextall acknowledged in September that Morin did "just about everything he could do" to try to make the NHL as a teenager.

Interestingly, Morin plays exactly the style of play Craig Berube craves right now: a risk-averse, simple big man who can make quick plays.

"I know I'm confident," Morin said. "I know I'm a good player. I know I'm going to be a real good player in the NHL. I know the Flyers like me, and that's good for me. But my confidence is always high, I don't need them to tell me that. I'm good with that."

Last week, the Flyers' most recent first-round pick, Travis Sanheim, was Morin's roommate during Canada's 9-day final roster preparations in St. Catharine's, Ontario. Sanheim, 18, was among the final cuts and is a shoo-in for next year's team. It had to be quite the scene: nearly one half of the Flyers' future blue line sharing one hotel room.

"It was fun," Morin said, smiling. "Travis is a quiet guy but a good guy. He's a really good player. We didn't talk a lot. We weren't thinking about the future. That's a long time away. We're living in the present. I want to win gold here."

Slap shots

The Flyers will fly to Nashville this afternoon, ending the NHL's 3-day Christmas break . . . They pick up the back end of their eight-game road trip with the Predators. Under former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette's guidance, the surprise Preds (22-9-2) are only two points behind Central-leading Chicago and have two games in hand . . . Nashville has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (70) and has the third-best goal differential . . . The Flyers (14-14-6) are back at .500 for the first time since Nov. 15 after their three straight wins to start the trip.