Another Boxing Day is nearing, and with that comes yet another World Junior Championship, which this year will take place in Saskatoon and Regina. The tournament is always good and bad for the fact that the very best U-20 players converge on the same field. We get to assess the skills of both top prospects in NHL systems and players who are about to be drafted, and the competition at the WJC that the players face is probably the best pre-NHL competition that they'll ever see. On the other hand, people tend to horribly over and underrate prospects due to their performance at this tournament. Due to the brevity of the event, last year the winning Team Canada played a mere six games, onlookers tend to draw drastic conclusions at times over prospects, even from pro scouts.
This is because of many factors, such as limited opportunites to watch a player play, because many people only get to watch a handful of games before they need to form judgements on an athlete. Also, scouts really love to overrate clutch play/playing well on such a grand stage. While this could be a valuable asset, sample size and the quality of competition must be taken into account (Canada played Germany and Kazakhstan outscoring them a combined 19-1), so it’s almost impossible to have a high level of confidence in what you’ve seen to draw conclusions about players. While some skills are easier to track over small samples sizes, such as skating ability, shot power and such, many others important qualities in a hockey player are variant and volatile over small amounts of time. Things such as a player’s scoring ability, decision making, and work ethic may not be in full display over a handful of shifts.
The World Juniors though remain a fantastic tournament for prospect and hockey lovers everywhere, and this year the big teams to watch going in are not a surprise to most of us: Canada, Russia and Sweden.
As always, the red and white bring one of the most stacked and intriguing teams to display to scouts on home-ice as they try to go for their sixth straight Gold medal. While elite prospect Cody Hodgson will be sidelined with a back injury, other returnees will include Nashville’s Ryan Ellis, New Jersey’s Patrick Cormier, St Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo, Washington’s Stefan Della Rovere, Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle and the Kings Colton Teubert.
Up front, last year’s star with 13 points in the tournament, Jordan Eberle, will be accompanied by Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Nazem Kadri, Brayden Schenn, Brandon Kozun, Greg Nemisz, Jordan Caron. Hall, who is one of this year’s top Entry Draft prospects, will be one of the most highly watched players out there. The Windsor Spitfire star has destroyed the OHL in his three year tenure. Dating back to the 2007-08 season, Hall has 109 goals and 233 points in 160 games. He’s been on some pretty great teams though, so the quality of his teammates should be taken into consideration. This year, however, he is scoring .76 Goals per Game and 1.74 Points per Game and will look to translate that offensive dominance to the big stage come game day. The forwards will feature a lot of fresh faces to this squad, so we’ll see if the chemistry can develop in time. Canada’s ability to cut potential 2010 top three pick Tyler Seguin speaks volume of their depth.
On the backend, Canada has some slick puck movers in De Haan and Pietrangelo with Ellis and his rocket returning to the team. Colton Teubert, Marco Scandella and Jared Cowen look to bring the muscle and defensive presence to the squad. Their defense will be what Canada will lean on to carry them throughout the tournament. In net, Canada will look to St Louis’ Jake Allen to shoulder the load, although Matt Hackett has been making some noise and could make a case with his great .926 SV% this year so far with Plymouth in the OHL.
The States will be taking a while to name their final roster, with the full list likely not being available until a few days before Christmas. The United States will be sporting some fresh faces in critical positions with plenty of graduates from last year’s squad. Vancouver’s Jordan Schroder, Montreal’s Danny Kristo and Tyler Johnson are all for the returning members. Schroeder, who was a highly touted skilled prospect for last year’s Draft (but fell likely because of questions about his intangibles and size) looks to enter as the undisputed leader of the team. Jordan’s scoring rates are down this year in comparison to last, but Minnesota as a whole has struggled in the WCHA. He should still be looked to as reliable offense producer for the red, white and blue.
The rest of Team USA’s forwards who are in camp consist of players from last year’s Draft including Kyle Palmeiri, Ryan Bourque, Jeremy Morin, Chris Kreider as well as older players such as AJ Jenks and Derek Stepan. A name I personally like is Toronto’s Jerry D’Amigo, who has done nothing but produce the last two years for the USNTDP and R.P.I in the NCAA. Jerry fell to the 6th round in last year’s Draft, but while not extremely high-end in skill, he still utilizes all of his tools to put the puck in the net and is hard on the backcheck. A lot of the forwards have either good offensive upside (Schroeder, Morin) or two-way ability (Palmeiri, Bourque), but it’s the question of whether they can all produce at a high enough level to compete for a medal.
On the backend, the US sports some very interesting names like the very talented John Carlson for Washington, Draft eligible and top prospect Cam Fowler, and Brian Lashoff as well as Jake Gardiner. Fowler will be under a huge microscope to see how he can play in his defensive game against elite-level forwards; and the rest of the defensive core’s abilities to hold the high-end forwards in check will be in question, but they certainly can move the puck and will give the States a very good power-play and transition game. In net, neither Draft eligible Jack Campbell nor Mike Lee are locks to grab the number one job, but both are good netminders, though their high-end ability should be in question.
The Russian squads never disappoint when it comes to providing offense and this year should be no different. Nikita Filatov, who has recently been on a “loan” from the Blue Jackets, has been lighting up the KHL and displaying offensive ability with CSKA Moscow, scoring 5 goals and 14 points in a mere 12 games at such a young age. The highly skilled forward will be wearing the Russian red along with other talented youngsters up front, which will include many draft eligible players such as Alexander Burmistrov, Ivan Telegin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Maxim Kitsyn and those are just the youngsters who will be complementing the older veterans that will include Maxim Trunev and Kirill Petrov. Unfortunately the Ranger’s Evgeny Grachev, who scored 40 goals and 80 points last year for the Brampton Battalion, pulled out. Out of all the Draft eligibles, Tarasenko is by far the most dangerous (with Kabanov out) with Burmistrov right behind him. Tarasenko has been great as an 18 year old in the KHL with a startling 10 goals and 17 points in 28 games. In fact here are some other 18 year old seasons by today’s star Russians from back in their RSL days:
Alexander Ovechkin: 13 goals and 24 points in 53 games.
Evgeni Malkin: 12 goals and 32 points in 52 games.
Alexander Semin: 10 goals and 17 points in 47 games.
This is by no means an assertion that Tarasenko is going to be better than Ovechkin, Malkin or Semin and, in fact, a study by Behind the Net Hockey’s Gabe Desjardins showed that today’s KHL may be inferior to past year’s Russian Super Leagues. It just shows you that with names like Hall, Seguin, Kabanov and Fowler being thrown around that Vladimir may be getting undersold in the 2010 Draft and I’m sure he will look to brighten his star at this tournament.
On defense, Maxim Chudinov, Dmitri Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev (draft eligible) and Dmitri Kostromitin headline a decent Russian defensive unit who will be without Dmitri Kulikov and Vyacheslav Voinov, who both have pro commitments that will keep them from attending. In net, the battle should be between Alexander Pechursky and Ramis Sadikov. This team remains very fast and skilled and will look to repeat it’s mantra by beating you in the Goals For column every night.
The Swedish team has been very strong the last few years, and may even be the favorite on enemy turf as they field one of their best teams in recent years. While elite prospect Victor Hedman is with Tampa Bay, potential 2011 #1 pick Adam Larsson, who has an astonishing 3 goals and 11 points in the year before his Draft season, will be participating in the WJC. Normally those kinds of offensive numbers in the SEL from a defenseman would propel anyone into top 5 status, but the fact that he isn't anywhere close to having completely developed is a scary thought. The blueline is stacked with Phoenix’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Calgary’s Tim Erixson and St Louis’ David Rundblad who all bring different elements to the Swedish team, but skill is definitely at the top of the list. Last year’s brilliant standout in Erik Karlsson would obviously be a definite lock if it weren’t for his possible Ottawa Senators commitments.
For the forwards, the team will have the talented Magnus Pajaarvi-Svensson of Edmonton who has been great for Timra IK of the SEL with 9 goals and 20 points in 31 games. He will be alongside New Jersey’s Jacob Josefson, the underrated Anton Lander, Mattias Tedenby, Marcus Johansson, Carl Klingberg and many more. In net, the elite Jacob Markstrom (who is property of the Florida Panthers) will look to maintain his dominance from last year’s tournament and will be the key to Sweden’s success. This team has no glaring holes and a good chunk of the team already has international experience. With multiple quality, developed players at every position who can play at both ends of the ice and play very physical, Team Sweden may finally come away with the Gold.
Mikael Granlund, who is probably one of the most talented offensive prospects for the 2010 Draft with an unprecedented 5 goals and 19 points in 20 games in the professional Finnish SM-Liiga, will be under a microscope by many scouts who will be looking to see how his size can match up against strong, physical play. Edmonton’s Toni Rajala will also be a skater to watch as he has been flying with Brandon in the WHL with 14 goals and 30 points in 29 games. As is the case with Granlund, size is considered a concern for him. Finland does have a decent collection of hard-working two-way skaters, so the team shouldn’t be taken lightly.
There is no question that the leader of this team is Tomas Tatar, who was one of last year’s major surprises in bringing Slovakia back from pushover to the bronze medal game. Still, it will be difficult to repeat that magical run; most likely Slovakia doesn’t do much.
The Swiss may not make that much noise, but they have a few interesting names like the Ducks Luca Sbisa, who has 47 games of NHL experience for Philly and Anaheim and will be looked to as the unquestioned leader of the squad. Also on the team is potential 2010 first rounder Nino Niederreiter, who has been climbing draft boards all season as he was been lighting up the WHL in Portland with 20 goals and 37 points in 35 games as one of the youngest players (born Sept 8th) in his Draft class.
This year’s competition should be interesting as always, as we have the usual powerhouses in Canada, Russia and now Sweden, neither of which are a pure runaway favorite. Sweden is a more complete team, but Canada has the home-ice and isn’t far behind in team ability. Russia will look to give both of the other two powerhouses headaches, while teams like USA, Finland and the Czechs won’t stand lightly, as they all have the potential to stage an upset.
For Draft lovers, Russia is stacked with potentials (all depending on who makes the team and gets significant ice time) but from Vladimir Tarasenko and Mikael Granlund up front to Nikita Zaitsev on defense there is no shortage of 2010 players to watch. Taylor Hall is obviously going to be front and center and you can bet his every shift is going to be micro-analyzed. Jack Campbell for Team USA is currently the top goalie prospect for 2010 and his story could become more interesting depending on how the drama that’s been circulating about him not wanting to go the college route plays out. Cam Fowler will also be getting plenty of looks as one of this year’s elite prospects.
I don’t always agree with how much emphasis is generally placed on this tournament. Player stocks are unfortunately too dependent on success and failure in the WJC, but this definitely is a great opportunity to play with amazing competition and teammates from around the world.
I’m not going to end this column with a prediction because it’s a short tournament which includes a one and done elimination round, and you don’t need to be a genius to know there’s a lot of luck involved. However, I will say I predict a great, fun and exciting tournament for all come December 26th.
Corey Pronman is a contributor to Puck Prospectus, an Associate Scout for the USHL Sioux Falls Stampede and runs the statistical hockey site The Hock Project. You can contact him at CPronman@fau.edu.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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