World Junior Championship: Predicting the Top Players
By Brendan Ross (@RossyYoungblood)
For hockey fans around the world the sight of Christmas lights and smell of holiday feasts indicates more than the arrival of our traditional Christmas season – it means that the puck drop for annual World Junior Hockey Championship is about to occur. The World Junior Championship represents a time for nations to converge and display their national pride as teenagers don their national colours. Holiday traditions are plentiful but one of the most memorable rituals for Canadians is gathering with buddies and piling around the largest television available to enjoy frosty beverages and good company while cheering on the Red and White. In recent years, junior hockey has improved greatly in competiveness among the world’s top hockey countries and when ten nations convene on Boxing Day in Alberta to vie for World Junior gold there will be several players step up to play the role of a hero for their country.
Let us examine a few players who could be playing the starring role for their country over the holiday season at the 2012 IIHF World Under-20 Junior Hockey Championship.
Beginning with the defending World Junior Championship gold medalists there are a few notable players who could elevate Team Russia to back to back gold medals. Last year, St. Louis Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko and Washington Capitals’ 2010 first round selection Evgeny Kuznetsov both scored four goals and eleven points to lead Russia in scoring and finished second in tournament scoring. Entering the 2011 WJC, Tarasenko was expected to carry the offensive load and he succeeded but Kuznetsov was more of a wild card. Russia will lean on the nineteen-year-old Kuznetsov again for his scoring prowess but he will be joined by several other capable offensive weapons expected to lead Russia. As Canada can attest to, Russia has the ability to break the game wide open with their bevy of offensive talents.
Nail Yakupov makes WJC debut (Metcalfe Photography)
Look for sniper Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Nikita Gusev to unite on a line to form a dangerous duo. The Nikitas played together in the recent CHL Subway Super Series and led the six game competition in scoring with seven points each. The most interesting story line of the 2012 NHL draft class could be how well teammates and top prospects Nail Yakupov (Sarnia Sting, OHL) and Mikhail Grigorenko (Quebec Remparts ,QMJHL) play throughout the tournament as they compete for the coveted first overall selection next June. Yakupov is one of the most dynamic Russian players to come along since Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin and possesses the ability to elevate his play in critical moments, a dangerous weapon that the Russians will surely utilize.
Mikhail Grigorenko formed some immediate chemistry with the abovementioned Kucherov and Gusev in the Quebec leg of the Super Series and with his puck protection skills and offensive skillset Russia boosts three dangerous scoring lines. The cavalry does not stop there as Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay Lightning, London Knights), Ivan Telegin (Winnipeg Jets, Barrie Colts) and Alexander Khokhlachev (Boston Bruins, Windsor Spitfires) will earn plenty of ice time find their way onto the scoresheet. Russian captain Evgeny Kuznetsov currently leads his KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, and should sit atop the leading scorers at the conclusion of this tournament but there is a great chance that two or three of his forward teammates will be alongside him as well.
Prediction: Kuznetsov, Khokhlachev and one of Yakupov/Grigorenko lead this team in scoring. Gusev is a solid dark horse too.
Mark Visentin is one of four Niagara Ice Dogs on Team Canada (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
The hosts enter this year’s tournament with a relatively average team lacking a true game breaker like in previous years. The canucks have finished with Silver medals in back-to-back World Junior Championships and third silver would be devastating for a country that prides itself on hockey success. However, with the strength of the USA, Russia, Sweden and Finland rosters Canada must realize that gold (or even Silver) is no guarantee.
Canada’s blueline is full of fresh faces as seven defensemen are new to the World Junior Championship. Coach Don Hay will likely ride his two-way horses in Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins, Niagara Ice Dogs), Ryan Murray (Everett Silvertips, 2012 NHL eligible), and Brandon Gormley (Phoenix Coyotes, Moncton Wildcats) for most of the tournament. Montreal Canadiens’ 2011 first round pick Nathan Beaulieu (Saint John Sea Dogs) is coming off a strong selection camp beating out Ryan Murphy as the team’s powerplay quarterback so look for him to become a fixture when Canada gets the man advantage. Beaulieu has big game experience from winning the CHL Memorial Cup last season with fellow teammate Jonathon Huberdeau (Florida Panthers) and this experience should not be overlooked. Huberdeau is currently rehabbing his injured foot but Hockey Canada expects the third overall pick from last year’s NHL draft to be ready for the opening game.
Hockey Canada received a small boost when Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks loaned rookies Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly to play in the WJC. Other notable NHL’ers eligible of suiting up for the red and white included Tyler Seguin (Bruins), Jeff Skinner (Hurricanes), Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets), Sean Couturier (Flyers), Erik Gudbranson (Panthers) and the NHL’s leading rookie scorer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers). Needless to say, Team Canada will need to play a strong defensive game in front of goaltenders Mark Visentin (Phoenix Coyotes, Niagara Ice Dogs) and Scott Wedgewood (New Jersey Devils, Plymouth Whalers) if they want to be standing along their blueline wearing gold medals.
Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets, Oshawa Generals), Freddie Hamilton (San Jose Sharks, Niagara Ice Dogs),and Michael Bournival (Colorado Avalanche, Shawinigan Cataractes) will be responsible for shutting down the opposing team’s top lines. Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets, Barrie Colts), Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues, Colorado College), Mark Stone (Ottawa Senators, Brandon Wheat Kings), Ryan Strome (New York Islanders, Niagara Ice Dogs) will be team up with Connolly and Smith-Pelly to provide the offensive output. Mark Stone and Tanner Pearson both lead the WHL and OHL, respectively, in scoring and enter the tournament with plenty of confidence so it will be interesting to see how they make their impact. Last year, Ryan Johansen led the entire tournament in scoring but it is unlikely that Canada has that weapon option this year.
Predictions: Jaden Schwartz, Brett Connolly and Mark Scheifele have to be the favourites to lead Canada in scoring up front but do not count out the emergence of Brendan Gallagher (Coach Don Hay’s go-to player in the WHL) and Ryan Stome (deadly on the powerplay). Nathan Beaulieu and Dougie Hamilton should be among the defensive leaders for Team Canada.
The Americans enter this tournament as the “favorites” by some experts and it is because of their experienced depth that they have a solid chance of bringing gold back across the border. The strength of the Americans is their lack of weakness. Canada has question marks between the pipes and on the blueline. The Russians traditionally rely on their offensive explosions to bury teams. Finland and Sweden often struggle with their consistency throughout the tournament. USA, however, has two fantastic netminders in Jack Campbell (Dallas Stars, Sault Ste. Marie) and John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks, Kitchener Rangers) and several established defensemen in Jarred Tinordi (Montreal Canadiens, London Knights), Jon Merrill (New Jersey Devils, Michigan), Derek Forbort (Los Angeles Kings, UND) and Adam Clendening (Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Univ.).
Up front, the Americans lack a true “superstar” forward but can utilize their fantastic depth with the play of Charlie Coyle (Minnesota Wild, Saint John Sea Dogs), Emerson Etem (Anaheim Ducks, Medicine Hat Tigers), Brandon Saad (Chicago Blackhawks, Saginaw Spirit), and Shane Prince (Ottawa Senators, Ottawa 67’s). Teammates and fellow Florida Panther prospects Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers, University of Minnesota) and Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers, Univ. of Minnesota) have developed ridiculous chemistry at the collegiate level and come into the WJC with some familiarity. The depth is not limited to those names as JT Miller (Buffalo Sabres, Plymouth Whalers), Austin Watson (Nashville Predators, Peterborough Petes), and Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild, Univ. of Denver) can score as well defend with the best of them.
Predicting the players who will lead this team in scoring is virtually impossible but returning forwards Etem (29 WHL goals), Bjugstad (4th in NCAA scoring), Coyle (recently departed BU for the Saint John Sea Dogs) will receive plenty of ice time to earn their points. Jack Campbell has shown to elevate his game to the next level and has to be the favourite entering the tournament to be named top goaltender.
Prediction: While it’s more likely that USA scores by committee and have several players finishing with four to eight points I will go with Bjugstad, Coyle and dark horse Kyle Rau to lead this team up front. Look for Adam Clendening and Jon Merrill to be the top defensive scorers.
Jack Campbell returns for his third WJC (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Led by seven NHL drafted defensemen including Jonas Brodin (Minnesota Wild), Oscar Klefbom (Edmonton Oilers), Mattias Backman (Detroit Red Wings), Petter Granberg (Toronto Maple Leafs), John Klingberg (Dallas Stars), Patrick Nemeth (Dallas Stars) and Fredrik Claesson (Ottawa Senators) Sweden will certainly be strong on the blue line but their success will be determined by the play of their talented forward squad. Captain Johan Larsson (Minnesota Wild) has been lights out playing for Brynas in the Elitserien league scoring seven goals and twenty-three points. Senators’ first round pick Mika Zibanejad almost made Ottawa’s roster this season but returning to Sweden has not hurt his development one bit. Zibanejad has tallied six points in thirteen games for Djurgarden and Sweden will utilize his offensive skillset a lot over the next few weeks. Supporting Larsson and Zibanejad will be Anaheim Duck prospects William Karlsson, Max Friberg and Rickard Rakell (Plymouth Whalers). There is no secret that Anaheim likes drafting Swedes and with a likely top pick in next year’s NHL Entry Draft, the Ducks could be paying close attention to draft eligible players Filip Forsberg, Sebastian Collberg and Pontus Aberg as they make their debut in the World Junior Championship. Second round picks in last year’s NHL draft, Ludvig Rensfeldt (Chicago Blackhawks, Sarnia Sting) and Victor Rask (Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Hitmen) provide Sweden with depth and the ability to play in several different roles.
Prediction: Mika Zibanejad, Johan Larsson and William Karlsson are the favourites to lead this squad but do not count out Friberg and one of Forsberg or Aberg if they can earn ice time in Sweden’s top six. Oscar Klefbom could break out in a similar fashion as Dmitry Orlov did last year for the Russian team as Oscar quarterbacks the team’s powerplay.
Finland has a group of young talented hockey players that should be well-known very soon in the hockey world. The Finns are coming. Over the next few seasons, there are several Finnish names making huge strides and NHL scouts will be saying their names shortly. Olli Maatta (London Knights) and Ville Pokka are two draft eligible defensemen this season and they will be looking to catch the eyes of scouts in the upcoming WJC tournament. Rasmus Ristolainen is a 2013 draft eligible defender to watch as he’s being tagged as a top defenseman for next season and is mature beyond his years.
Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild) should lead the forwards in scoring as he may be one of the best prospects not currently playing in the NHL. Mikael’s younger brother Markus Granlund (Calgary Flames) will make his debut for his home nation and while he does not possess the dynamic game of his elder brother, Markus can put up points. Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov (2013 draft eligible) is being tagged as an early top ten selection for next year’s draft and should show some flashes of brilliance in his WJC debut. Detroit Red Wings prospect Teemu Pulkkinen, Joel Armia (Buffalo Sabres), Joonas Donskoi (Florida Panthers) and Miikka Salomaki (Nashville Predators) will all see some valuable ice time and be relied upon for leadership and offensive support.
Prediction: Mikael Granlund, Teemu Pulkkinen and Joel Armia all have the potential to be the team’s leading scorer but could also challenge for the tournament’s leading scorer as well.
SWITZERLAND, LATVIA, CZECH REPUBLIC, SLOVAKIA, DENMARK
The following players have the chance to make an impact on scouts and their respective NHL teams with them being featured as their country’s top players.
Sven Baertschi (Calgary Flames, Portland Winterhawks) is tearing the WHL apart in his second year notching a league leading 42 assists and 54 points in 25 games. Baertschi has proven to the Flames that picking him thirteenth overall in last year’s draft was not a mistake as Sven is showing that he has exceptional playmaking abilities. There will be a gold ticket for two players on Team Switzerland if they earn the right to play with Baertschi and it will be interesting to see who those lottery winners are.
Zemgus Girgensons (2012 NHL draft eligible) will be the name scouts will be watching on Latvia. Girgensons is a strong two way forward playing for Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL and he currently sits tenth in league scoring with 24 points in 21 games. Top rated Latvian forwards are a rarity and Girgensons has the chance to leave a strong impression with scouts for the upcoming draft.
Martin Frk has been held to only six games this season missing time with a concussion. The Halifax Moosehead gritty forward was once considered a top ten selection in the upcoming draft and Frk will look to raise his draft stock back up with a strong World Junior Championship. Last year, Frk was second on the Czech Republic in scoring as an underage player (6 points) and if he can find his game quickly he should be amongst the team leaders again. While Frk’s draft stock has fallen, Radek Faksa’s stock has skyrocketed. The first year Kitchener Ranger (OHL) leads all rookies in scoring with 33 points in 31 games and with his large frame (6’3”, 204 lbs.) Faksa is showing that he has legit NHL first round potential.
Red Wings prospects Tomas Jurco and Marek Tvrdon are the names to watch on Slovakia as both players should see tons of ice time. Jurco was selected 35th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and has elevated his game substantially this season playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) scoring 45 points in just 30 games. Last year, Jurco tallied 56 points over a full season so it appears that this creative winger will surpass last year’s totals fairly soon. Tvrdon was held to only twelve games last year due to injury but Detroit may have another steal in this big Slovak winger as he is clipping along at over a point per game pace with the Vancouver Giants (37P in 33GP). Slovakia has reserved plenty of ice time for Jurco and Tvrdon and they should play as much as they physically can.
Lastly, Denmark will be competing in Group B with Canada, USA, Finland and the Czech Republic so wins will likely be scarce but the country will certainly turn to Vancouver Canucks’ 2011 first round selection Niklas Jensen (Oshawa Generals) for his offensive output. Jensen had an extremely impressive Canucks pre-season camp and turned plenty of heads and the big Dane will look to continue making a strong impression. Playing for an underachieving Oshawa Generals team in the OHL, Jensen has found the back of the net 17 times and recorded 35 points in 30 games. Jensen’s playmaking abilities and quick shot will be welcomed to a country that will need to play a stifling defensive game and depend on some top notch goaltending in order to win games in this group.
Every year the World Junior Championship provides a place for several unknown players to entrench a name for themselves in the hockey world. The task of predicting who breaks out and who will sit atop the scoring leaders is extremely difficult. Players develop at different rates and perform at different levels depending on the situation and the World Junior Championship provides an opportunity for big game players to elevate their play to heroic levels and leave an unforgettable stamp on NHL teams. The 2012 IIHF World Under-20 Junior Championship will be no different and it will be interesting to see how players (specifically draft eligible players) decide to brand themselves to the hockey world. If previous years are any indication there are a few guarantees that can be made. There will be players who step up to the challenge of the big stage. There will be other players who succumb to the pressures. There will be unfortunate injuries crushing the dreams of teenagers. Lastly, on January 5th, 2012 in the Gold Medal Game one team and one nation will experience triumph while the other will be left in heartbreak and disappointment.
Ross’ Prediction of Top Scorers (one per nation):
Canada – Mark Scheifele
Czech Republic – Radek Faksa
Denmark – Niklas Jensen
Finland – Mikael Granlund
Latvia – Zemgus Girgensons
Russia - Evgeny Kuznetsov
Slovakia – Tomas Jurco
Sweden – Mika Zibanejad
Switzerland – Sven Baertschi
USA – Nick Bjugstad
Follow Brendan Ross on Twitter for prospect news and World Junior Championship updates @RossyYoungblood