So, with the World Juniors Tournament awaiting us the day after Christmas, the last gift to be unwrapped, there is a lot of buzz around the big event in Finland. Not quite as marketable as the Jack Eichel v Connor McDavid duel last year (more of a manufactured media narrative, as McDavid played on CAN’s 2nd line with a stacked line up, while Eichel was probably Team USA’s best player), but in terms of draft eligibles, still plenty of star power including 4 or maybe all 5 of the likely Top 5 in the upcoming Draft likely to be on the ice.
As some of the DBTB folks asked for a primer on who to watch at the WJC’s, I thought I’d tackle that challenge. So here we go:
PLAYERS OF INTEREST:
Will Borgen (LD, USA): Making a splash as a frosh at St. Cloud State, Borgen has shown poise, quickness, and a bit of an edge as he grows into his pro-style frame. A surprise add to the US WJC Camp, I don’t know if he’ll make the squad, but his mere invite says a lot about how quickly he’s matured into a very good potential prospect.
Colin White (C, USA): Had to include him, as everyone likes to compare to him to Robin Lehner as the player selected with the #21 pick Buffalo traded to get the banged-up goaltender. Having a monster year in the NCAA, he’ll likely center the 2nd line or play wing with Auston Matthews on the top line. He’s super-smart, fast, and will get to the net to make plays. And he’s very good defensively as well.
2016 DRAFT ELIGIBLES:
Julian Gauthier (RW): Huge, 6’4 225# winger who can really skate, play both ways, and is a goal scoring machine in the admittedly weaker Q. Has 29G in 30 games, but what’s going to get him on this team as the only under-ager is his skating and his heady play all over the ice. A good WJC could get him in the conversation for Top 5 overall, but he may be a fit for BFLO in the 6-10 range.
Simon Stransky (LW): Electric playmaker, a bit on the small side (5’11, 170#) but has been tremendous in his first year in N America playing for Brenden Guhle’s Prince Albert team (30P in 26 games). With more ice, he should get enough space to do some damage with some of the best hands in the Draft.
Filip Hronek (LD): Smallish PP QB (5’11 170#) who is playing limited minutes in the CZE senior league, but has been very good if not their best defender in more age-friendly international tournaments (U-18s, 4 and 5 Nations, etc). Slick puck handler, rarely makes a bad play.
Tomas Soustal (C/W): Over-ager with great size (6’3 200#) who uses his big body effectively around the net, and has good enough hands to make some really clever plays in tight. Has good speed as well. Nearly a PPG (20 in 24) in the WHL.
Patrik Laine (RW): Best, most lethal shot in the Draft. A Finnish Ovechkin. Doesn’t have the speed of Ovie, but has that monster size (6’4 205#) to be able to fend off the D or just roll over them to get to the net. After having some maturity issues last year, he’s risen to the occasion. Great internationally, he’s put up 16P in 24 games in Finland’s Men’s league, Liiga. Skating much improved, if still choppy. A good showing here might get him up to the #2 pick in the Draft.
Jesse Puljujarvi (RW): Consensus #2 heading into the year, he started slumping, hit an upswing, then has tailed off again lately. Amazing skater for his size (6’3 200#), with the whole package – hands, vision, hustle, defense – but consistency, and IMO no particularly elite skill, may have him slide a bit to the 5-7 range by the time Draft Day comes around. But a strong performance at WJC likely vaults him back up to the #2 spot.
Sebastian Repo (LW): Undrafted, double-over ager with good size (6’2, 195#), a bit of a sleeper but has put up 15P in 27 games in Liiga, was very good at the 4 Nations Tournament with Laine and Puljujarvi, and has a toolbox full of skill, particularly defensively, that allow him to play in any spot, on any line.
Olli Juolevi (LD): Man who could give the Finns 3 picks in the Top 10. Smooth, very good skater with a ton of offensive upside. Already putting up nearly a PPG with London, who turns out NHL defenders with regularity, he has size (6’2 190#), speed, and crisply, accurately moves the puck out and through the NZ. Want him to be more confident with the puck on his stick.
Veini Vehvilainen (G): Over-ager who surprisingly (to me, at least) wasn’t drafted last year. Was tremendous in the U-18s (1.65 GAA, .947 Sv%) and has been really good in Liiga this year (1.79 GAA, .938 Sv%). A bit on the smaller side (6’1, 170#) but certainly has some very good tools.
Yegor Rykov (LD): Another over-ager who probably fell victim to the "Russian Factor" last year. Captain of the Russian U-18 team, a big, strong defender (6’2 205#) who can skate, plays a gritty, safe game, and can lay some lumber. Not a dynamic offensive player, but can contribute and moves the puck quickly, accurately.
Max Lazerev (LW/RW): Double over-ager with a ton of skill, but has a decided lack of defensive intensity. Granted, he plays on a line with likely Top 10 pick Pierre-Luc DuBois and last year’s 1st rounder, Evgeni Svechnikov, but he’s got 42P in 30G, was one of the best Russian players in the CHL Super Series a few weeks ago, and has put up points in international competition. Small (5’10) but in a year where the Draft isn’t quite as deep as in previous years, this could be his time. A good WJC could cement his position.
Carl Grundstrom (LW): Likely a fringe 1st rounder this year, he’s a classic Swedish forward with a mix of smarts, skill, grit, and 2-way play. Can grind with the best of them, but has that quick release and a bit of a power game that make him effective down low in the O-zone. Average-sized, but still plays a N-S game.
Rasmus Asplund (C): Another 2-way talent, he’s got a bit more raw offensive skill than Grundstrom, but also a bit smaller (5’11 170#) and adds some leadership capability, having worn the C for SWE in the U-17’s and U-18’s. Slick playmaker, very complete. Seeing-eye passer, especially in transition.
Alex Nylander (RW): Uber-talented, younger brother of Willie Nylander, last year’s Top 10 pick. Small (5’10 170#) but tore up the Hlinka (6P in 5 games) and now on one of the most dangerous lines in the OHL for Mississauga, he’s the top-scoring import with 49P in 33 games. Oodles of skill, dangles, and a better sniper than his older brother, should be an exciting addition to a very structured Swedish team.
Auston Matthews (C): Perhaps you’ve heard of me? The consensus top pick in this year’s Draft. Demolishing the Swiss Men’s League with more than a PPG. Big, strong, smart, poised. Even an average performance here should lock up the top spot unless something unforeseen occurs.
Kieffer Bellows (LW): One of my favorite Draft-eligibles. Laser-shot from all sorts of angles, has that ability to find the open spots in coverage. Works hard, great skater, not big but plays big and is relentless in puck pursuit. Has 30P in 23 games, with 19G, for the US NTDP.
Alex DeBrincat (RW): Bit of a surprise addition, despite his immense production his size has been seen by many scouts as too big of a hurdle to overcome. Not thus far. He’s putting up almost 2 PPG for Erie in the OHL, with 33G in 30 games. He’s another puck hound, despite his 5’8 height – which might be generous – he doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas, sticking his nose in the crease to track down that loose puck.
Scott Eansor (C): Bit of a sleeper, not sure if he’ll make the team but this over-ager is another small (5’9) but gritty forward who plays a defense-first game and has a non-stop motor. Even has a little offense (16P in 20 G). He’s all over the ice, so should be a fun guy to keep an eye on.
Clayton Keller (C): Dynamo who could use the WJC to vault himself into the Top 10 discussion. Like DeBrincat, only his size (5’9 165#) is holding him back. Slick passer, great skater, can finish, dangles and sees the ice like a pro, smart enough to create turnovers all over the NZ. Works well with Bellows, and should see time with him on a line. The whole, if a bit undersized, package.
Matt Tkachuk (LW): A likely Top 5 pick, Tkachuky Cheese has good size (6’2 195#), plays a gritty, power game and has tons of skill. Tearing up the OHL with 59P in 29G on the most productive line in CHL hockey, he put up 12P in 7G in the U-18s. Has an edge and isn’t afraid to agitate, he’s a complete player and should play on USA’s top line with Matthews.
Casey Fitzgerald (LD): Over-ager who played a key role for the US at the U-18s, and has been tremendously productive at Boston College (11P in 16G) from the back-end. Good skater, savvy with his head always up. On the smaller side (5’11 185#) like many of the USA’s Defense, but springs transition decisively and is very smart trailing the play.
Chad Krys (LD): Another smaller D, Krys has underwhelmed a bit this year, but is a pure PP QB type. Much like Fitzgerald, he’s the same size but has more puck skills, especially in the offensive zone. A good showing here could reignite the buzz he had going into the season.
Charlie McAvoy (RD): Another superb puck-mover, McAvoy is slick and quick, another likely 1st rounder from the US Team. Very good passer, he’s a bit bigger (6’0 205#) but can really motor and sees the entire ice well. Has done a great job on a deep Boston U team with 8P in 17G while stepping up his positioning, and he’s only improving.
Other Participants (In Case You Really Like the Rinks or Can’t Find a Cab):
Nikolaj Krag-Christsensen (C): Nifty, quick Dane who has done some damage in the U-18’s (3G in 5 Games) in the past. Shifty, agile skater who can make plays but isn’t big (5’11 175#). Could be a 2016 Draft pick.
Sam Solensky (LW): Super slick playmaker with buttery hands, but small (5’9 165#). Has put up points internationally (3 in 5 at the U-18s, 3 in 4 at Hlinka) and tearing up the Czech U-20 League (28P in 22G, with 18 goals). Should be fun to watch in the open ice and on the half-wall.
Filip Lestan (LW): Huge winger (6’5 200#) who reminds me a little of Sweden’s Filip Ahl last year. Not nearly as polished, but a super-strong bruiser around the net who can dominate physically down low and play a hard defensive game. His hands are question marks, but he potted a couple goals in 5 games in the U-18s, and has been playing occasional shifts in the Swedish Men’s League (SHL).