well the selections have been made (whether they were right or wrong is another matter), the exhibition games have been played and the biggest annual hockey tournament this side of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is about to begin on December 26th. I am speaking of the U-20 World Junior Championships, being held this year in Ottawa. Here are some story lines to watch and what to expect from our players, as well as some under the radar draft eligible players that I like.
1) Did Canada make the right move in net?
This one will be questioned for years if it backfires, with Caniac Nation and OHL followers serving up a healthy dose of “I told you so” the entire time. The goaltending position could mean the difference between Gold and Bronze this year for Team Canada with so many of their best eligible players for this tournament currently in the NHL. So you would think they would go with the hot hand, right? Well they did with one of their goalies: Dustin Tokarski from Spokane, who is putting up solid numbers this season (16-9-0-2, 1.97GAA, 93.8%). However the omission of OHL standout Mike Murphy, our 6th round draft pick this past season, from even making the training camp roster is making people in the know shake their heads in disgust. Murphy is putting up better numbers (20-4-2-2, 1.97GAA, 94.4%) in a more offensive league and looks like a lock to repeat as OHL goalie of the year, if not taking CHL goalie of the year outright, which would give the Canes their first CHL goalie of the year prospect since Cam Ward. While Chet Pickard, the player Canada took over Murphy, is defending CHL goalie of the year his numbers this year aren’t nearly as good as they were last year and this tournament is often won by the hot hand. Right now there is nobody hotter in net then Mike Murphy, and with this being the strongest American team in a long time this may come back to bite Canada hard. Along with other questionable moves, such as the inclusion of Angelo Esposito, Canada may be in trouble.
2) Is this US team for real?
We’ve heard it a couple times since the US victory in 04, that “this will be the year we take it again” from the US fans. And each year, with the exception of 2007, which was unfortunately decided in a shootout after an epic Semi-Final match with Canada, the US has disappointed. So what’s the difference with this years team? Well, two things: 1) they finally have a solid goalie in Thomas McCollum (2.13GAA, 92.8% in the OHL) that can go save for save with the best Canada or Sweden can offer. 2) They finally have secondary scoring and are built like a team. Combine the dominant 5-1 result against Russia in exhibition with a weakened team Canada squad; this may in fact be the year we take it again.
3) Tavares or Hedman?
Towering defenseman Victor Hedman, who is projected by many as the #1 pick at the moment, is expected to lead what is arguably the strongest U-20 Team Sweden since the Cold War era. However in the pre-tournament exhibition it was Tavares that looked like the one deserving of the #1 pick as Canada stomped Sweden severly outclassing the Swedish team. Still, it would be insane to say that Sweden isn’t a threat to take in the gold this year. But the best story line between which of the 3 favorites that look pretty equal on paper (USA, Canada, Sweden) will be which of the two highly touted draft eligibles makes the biggest move towards being the #1 overall pick in this tournament. One thing to note is that Hedman is coming off an injury, and may have in fact been re-injured in that game against Canada.
My projected finish:
LW/C Drayson Bowman (United States) – While he was a foolish omission by a US team that was desparate for secondary scoring last year, he wasn’t snubbed a second time. Bowman is among the players that the US will be relying on the most to compliment their top line of JVR-Wilson-Schroeder, and with his Spokane linemate Wahl also on the team Bowman has some built in chemisty on a line already. He might not put up huge numbers but, at the very least, expect him to make a name for himself.
LW/C Zach Boychuk (Canada) – While Bowman is one of the secondary threats for the US team, Boychuk was outright dominant in exhibition play for Canada with 3 goals and 2 assists in 3 games playing on a line with Cody Hodgson and Jordan Eberle. If Canada is to have any chance they need players like Boychuk to really step up and put up numbers like this throughout the tournament. I expect him to do so and expect him to skyrocket up prospect rankings everywhere in the process.
D Michal Jordan (Czech Republic) – While the name itself is rather epic, the kid can play as well. He’s building off last season nicely as Plymouth’s top defenseman this year with 3 goals and 18 points in 29 games to go with a +3 rating. Good size and good mobility go with it for the Czech national. He was on last years Czech WJC team and played a rather solid game for a team that seems to be on the decline in the past few years. Look for him to build off that performance and potentially for the Czechs to make a surprise run to the Semi-Finals.
Draft Eligibles to watch:
F Evander Kane (Canada), RW Jordan Schroeder (USA), LW Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (Sweden), D Ryan Ellis (Canada), D Dmitry Kulikov (Russia), C Jacob Josefson (Sweden), C Tomas Knotek (Czech Republic), RW Tomas Vincour (Czech Republic), LW Marcus Johansson (Sweden), RW Andrej Nestrasil (Czech Republic), D Tomi Kovisto (Finland), G Danil Alistratov (Russia), F Yakov Vorobiev (Kazakhstan), D Evgeny Bolyakin (Kazakhstan), C Richard Panik (Czech Republic), D David Rundblad (Sweden), LW Toni Rajala (Finland), D Tim Erixson (Sweden).
In a tournament that is typically dominated by 19 year olds, if any of these players have a high impact for their teams they are likely worth paying close attention to throughout the rest of the season. Draft stock for players such as Patrick Kane have taken off after solid performances in this tournament in the recent past.
So with all that said, Merry Christmas everyone, and enjoy some of the best hockey of the year starting on the 26th. I’ll be there in person next year, so hopefully we can expect some in-person reports from the tournament.
Team USCanes opened the IIHF World Hockey Championships in style yesterday, with a 6-2 win over Austria. The Austrians probably wish they’d stayed down in the 1-A division today–but they’ll have a chance to make it up against the Czechs tomorrow. The Austrians are in the top division for the first time since 2005, and they’d like to avoid relegation.
Team Caneada opens play today against the Germans–oh, this should be fun. I’d put money on the Canadians getting revenge on the Jerries for Dieppe yet again, but Wing (my bookie) says that the payout isn’t that hot for such a sure bet, so I guess I’ll save my cash and buy a Powerball ticket instead.
I have way too many World War II analogies running through my head right now. Perhaps I should NOT have watched “Stalag 17″ and “The Longest Day” again last night, huh?
Oh yeah, and the playoffs continue tonight. Go Sharkies, Go Sens.