As Christmas approaches, so too does one of the premier events in the world of junior hockey: the IIHF Under-20 World Championshipknown to most as the World Junior Championship. The annual tournament is consistently a big stage for a plethora of the NHL's top prospects, including a handful of draft-eligible talents.
All this week, we'll examine the NHL potential across the rosters of four tournament favoritesCanada, Sweden, the U.S. and Russiaas well as some of the top prospects on the remaining squads. Check back for a new team each day. Beginning with the medal round, Insider draft expert Grant Sonier will be on hand to provide updates on all the future NHL stars in Calgary. But we start today with a look at the talent-laden roster of Team Canada.
Canada tends to enter the World Juniors as the favorite for the gold each year, and this one is no different, though there are a few question marks surrounding the squad.
Coach Don Hay decided to go with a more traditional top-six/bottom-six lineup, and in the process he cut some talented players (like Zack Phillips, Tyler Toffoli and Ty Rattie) for lesser-talented players who are better-suited to a checking role. There have also been a few questionable decisions regarding the goaltending tandem that has lowered Team Canada's talent level somewhat.
But right now we're just focusing on some of the top previously drafted NHL prospects in Team Canada's lineup, based on my own observations of the players and from discussions I've had with scouts and front-office executives:
Nathan Beaulieu, D, Montreal Canadiens: Beaulieu enters the tournament as one of Canada's most gifted defenders when it comes to raw offensive ability. He's a plus skater who can flash great puck skills, vision and a fine shot from the pointand on his best nights, he has all the abilities to be the standout defender, even among players like Brandon Gormley and Dougie Hamilton. However, his decision-making at times is questionable at best, and with a strict defense-first coach like Hay, his ice time may be determined by how much he tests his coach's patience.
Brett Connolly, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning: Loaned by Tampa Bay to Team Canada to be put in a more ideal development environment, Connolly has a chance to be the top offensive player for this team. He's a high-end skater who skates exceptionally well for his size with a pretty well-rounded offensive set of puck skills, vision and finishing ability. He can also be a decent asset in the defensive end. The sixth overall pick in 2010 is a potential candidate for tournament MVP.
Brandon Gormley, D, Phoenix Coyotes: Gormley would have made Team Canada last year if it weren't for a major knee injury. He enters this year's team as the likely No. 1 defender and should log a boatload of minutes and contribute significantly at both ends. He's not a flashy dangler or overly physical, but he thinks the game at a very high level and moves the puck well while consistently shutting down the opposition's best players.
Dougie Hamilton, D, Boston Bruins: Hamilton has had a monstrous campaign this year in the OHL (currently in the top 10 in scoring). To put that in perspective, there isn't another defenseman in the top 30. He has scary offensive tools, as he's an above-average skater and puck handler relative to most pro prospects, but he also has a 6-foot-4 frame. He still needs to work on his decision-making and defensive game, but his unique combo of size and skill will make him a very desirable asset on Canada's blue line.
Quinton Howden, LW, Florida Panthers: Howden is a returning member from last year's team; his ability to perform in this tournament may be affected by a hit he received from Connolly during the selection camp that led to "concussion-like symptoms." When healthy, Howden is a big forward who may be the best skater on this Team Canada squad. He's not a top-end offensive player, but his skating helps push the pace at a decent level and he can bury his chances when he gets them.
Jonathan Huberdeau, C, Florida Panthers: The third overall pick from the 2011 draft has showed this year in the QMJHL why he is way beyond the typical CHL talent level, scoring at over a two-points-per-game pace. Huberdeau has special possession skills and is a highlight machine with the puck in terms of his one-on-one play and his ability to distribute it. He has a wiry body that needs a ton of filling out, and it hurts him somewhat in the physical game, but his high-end offensive tools make him a legit scoring weapon for Canada. As of this writing, how much he'll play is in question due to a foot injury.
Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets: Scheifele's stock has risen exponentially in the course of a year. He had a great second half last season in the OHL and a good performance at the World Under-18s; he made the Jets out of camp and has played very well in the OHL this year after being sent back down. He is all but a lock for Canada's top center spot. Despite all the praise heaped on him, Scheifele is not a flashy or dynamic type of player, but just the kind of prospect who does everything well (outside of his skating, which needs work, in my opinion) and can be a productive asset in all facets of the game.
Jaden Schwartz, LW, St. Louis Blues: Schwartz was on a scoring line for Canada's U-20 team last year, but he got injured early on during the tournament. Outside of top picks such as Huberdeau, Connolly and Ryan Strome, Schwartz is the most dynamic talent up front for Team Canada. He's a very special puck handler and playmaker who projects to be well above-average in the NHL in those areas. Despite lackluster size and speed, he should more or less be able to dominate the U-20 level as he has dominated at Colorado College the last two years.
Mark Stone, RW, Ottawa Senators: Stone slipped to the sixth round in 2010 after getting injured; also, there were worries about a skating tool that was well below replacement level. Right now it looks like the Senators got a significant steal, as he has been one of the WHL's top scorers the last two seasons. His skating is still below-average, but he has made significant progress. Stone's best asset is his hockey sense and his contribution as a puck distributor who can use his frame to possess the puck well in the cycle game.
Ryan Strome, C, New York Islanders: The fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft has seen his points rate dip a bit this year, but he has shown a notable amount of dedication to the defensive side of the ice and demonstrated more work effort with his off-the-puck play. Despite being an 18-year-old player, expect him to be one of Canada's top offensive weapons as he displays his near-elite puck skills and great offensive instincts.
The two draft-eligible players on this Team Canada club are:
Tanner Pearson, LW, Barrie Colts (OHL): Pearson is one of the surprises of the 2012 draft season, albeit in his third draft-eligible season; he has shot out to the scoring lead in the OHL. His assets tend to come more from his experience, work ethic and physical maturity than a raw offensive skill set, although he does display fine abilities as a passer.
Ryan Murray, D, Everett Silvertips (WHL): Murray, even as an 18-year-old, should be on Canada's top four and be a significant contributor at both ends. His hockey sense is well above-average, and he is advanced beyond his years with his game-processing ability. He can contribute offensively with good skating and abilities with the puck, but tends to play a more conservative style of game and relies on puck-moving for his offense.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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