Antigonish - December 20, 2011 - It is always a challenge to identify those players who will separate themselves from the crowd and emerge as difference makers in any given tournament, let alone one with a profile as high as that of the World Juniors. Rather than vainly attempting to guess at that handful of dark-horse players that always seem to emerge from the relative shadows, I will instead highlight the players that we all should be watching - those that have the best chances of playing a dominant role, and who may well be plying their trade in the NHL in the near future.
Obviously, this has the potential to be a lengthy list, however, as this is not intended to be a comprehensive report, I am limiting my scope to the twenty players in the 2012 tournament I feel will have the greatest impact on their respective squads. Originally, I aimed for ten but found it too difficult to pare the list to ten players.
20. Canada - Goalie Mark Visentin - Niagara (OHL) - While goaltending is seen by some observers as a possible question mark heading into the World Junior tournament, Visentin’s athletic ability and calm demeanor suggest otherwise. With a strong squad in front of him, Visentin will be locked in the crosshairs should the Canadian team struggle versus their opponents, as the shadow of last years gold medal collapse versus the Russians still weighs heavy in the mind of fans.
19. Canada - Forward Jaden Schwartz - Schwartz will certainly be motivated, having missed last years World Juniors with a broken ankle suffered just prior to tournament play. A gifted scorer, the St Louis Blues draft pick is sure to be one of Team Canada’s top players, bringing grit and a scoring touch to the ice wherever he plays.
18. Canada - Defenseman Nathan Beaulieu (QMJHL) - A key member on the stacked Saint John team, Beaulieu surprisingly fell to #17 in the 2011 draft, where the Montreal Canadiens eagerly snapped him up. A smooth, puck moving defensemen with size and good skating ability, Beaulieu is likely to quarterback Team Canada’s power play, and as such, is a critical component of the teams success at this tournament.
17. Slovakia - Forward Tomas Jurco - Currently playing as a key member of the QMJHL’s powerful Saint John Sea Dogs, Jurco’s game can also be seen regularly on Youtube, where his vision and stickhandling are clearly highlighted. A secnd rd pick of Detriot, Jurco’s ability to put up points marks him as one of Slovakia’s go-to players throughout the tourney. and the offense he brings to the table will be key to his country’s success.
16. Sweden - Forward Mika Zibanejad - Drafted 6th overall by the Ottawa Senators, Zibanejad is a great skater with size and skill who looked like a star in the making in Senators camp before coming back to Earth when the real games began. While he has not put up huge point totals in the Swedish Elite league, where he is playing against men at only 18 years of age, he should show well against his peers in the world juniors, and give Senator fans a peek into the near future, which is looking good in the Nations capital.
15. Sweden - Forward Filip Forsberg - No relation to Peter, Filip is nonetheless a major prospect in his own right, and projects as a top ten 2012 NHL draft pick. Possessing tons of skill and top end speed, Forsberg should play a key role on Team Sweden despite his tender age.
14. Czech Republic - Forward Martin Frk - Currently playing with the Halifax Mooseheads, Frk has missed a good portion of the season with a concussion, however, his combination of size and skill has the Mooseheads brass excited thinking of what he can do playing with new star Nathan Mackinnon on an exciting young club. Assuming he is 100% healthy, Frk should play a key role on the Czech squad, as a power forward.
13. Switzerland - Forward Swen Bartschi - Packaging high end skill with great hockey sense, Bartschi will be a key for the Swiss team, who do not traditionally produce a ton of potential NHL talent. Look for lots of ice time, and for Bartschi, who was drafted 13th overall in 2011 by the Calgary Flames to justify all of it.
12. Canada - Defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Niagra, OHL) - Hamilton is the final piece to the Kessel trade for the Bruins, having been drafted 9th overall in 2011, and while he may have been drafted as a two-way defenseman, his offense has certainly been a pleasant surprise to Bruins officials thus far this year - he leads the league in points from the blueline! Projecting as a dominant two-way defenseman in the NHL, Hamilton will play a major role on the Canucks blueline in the tourney as well.
11. Canada - Defenseman Ryan Murray (Everett. WHL) - Murray has it all - very good offensive instincts and the ability to run the power-play as well as solid defensive awareness and leadership ability/maturity. He will be a key player on defense for Team Canada, and should be drafted early in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft.
10. Canada - Forward Mark Scheifle - Surprisingly drafted #7 overall by the Winnipeg Jets on the recommendation of Winnipeg Jet and Cornwall Royal legend Dale Hawerchuk, Scheifle proved to be a great pick, and while his outstanding preseason play tailed off in the regular season, his playmaking skills and hockey smarts were evident. He will play a major role on a deep Team Canada squad offensively.
9. Finland - Forward Michael Granlund - The whole package offensively, Granlund has the Minnesota Wild brass salivating at the prospect of his adding his skill set to the goal challenged Wild forward corps. The offense on Team Finland will likewise go through Granlund, and he is likely to come ready to put on a show.
8. USA - Defenseman Jacob Trouba - Projecting as a high first rounder in the 2012 NFL draft, Trouba has been compared to a more physical Cam Fowler, and has lots of international experience with the National Development team. Look for Trouba to stand out on a solid American blueline.
7. USA - Defenseman Seth Jones - Not even eligible to be drafted until 2013, Jones, who is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, displays incredible athleticism and high end skill. While he may not play a major role on this years American World Junior Team due to his age, he will be an interesting player to watch nevertheless due to his intriguing skill set and lineage. He should easily go in the top five in 2013’s draft.
6. Canada - Forward Brett Connolly - Connolly, drafted 6th overall by Tampa Bay in 2010, made major gains in his fledgling NHL career by sticking with the Lightning and demonstrating a determination to score tough goals and the ability to keep up with the Lightnings big guns. Perhaps even more importantly, however, Connolly stayed healthy, which was no small feat given the challenges he has in that regard in his junior career. Look for Connolly to make the world junior stage his coming out party in 2012.
5. Canada - Forward Ryan Strome (Niagra, OHL)- Strome drafted 5th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2011 draft, will very likely be playing alongside his good friend John Tavares in 2012-13, but for now will have to content himself with playing a starring role for the Canadian team. Highly skilled with the ability to put on a stickhandling clinic, Strome should be a big part of the Canadian offensive arsenal this year.
4. Canada - Forward Jonathan Huberdeau - A member of the QMJHL powerhouse Saint John Seas Dogs, Huberdeau is the straw that stirs the drink in Saint John. Recently back from injury, Huberdeau is fully capable of demonstrating the high end skill that saw him get drafted #3 overall in the 2011 NHL draft by the Florida Panthers. A player with huge upside, Huberdeau will be a catalyst for the Canadian squad in 2011.
3. Russia - Forward Mikhail Grigorenko - This big forward is lighting up the QMJHL playing with the Quebec Remparts, demonstrating enough high-end skill to have been rated as the #1 prospect for the 2012 NHL draft by Central scouting. Possessing size and talent in spades, Grigorenko will be looking to prove his early ranking is justified, which brings us to our #1 player to watch.
2. Russia - Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov - (KHL) - Dominant in last years World juniors, Kuznetsov has become a force in the KHL. He is one of the best Russian forwards in a very strong group, and the thought of adding him to the Washington Capitals lineup should be a scary one for opposing teams in the league. Look for Kuznetsov to score early and often in this tournament.
1. Russia - Forward Nail Yakupov - Sarnia (OHL) - All Yakupov has done since entering the OHL is to break Stamkos’s franchise rookie record for goals and points by a rookie, and he has done nothing to disappoint since. While he has been slowed recently by a back injury, Yakupov is as dangerous as they come with the puck, and although he does not possess the size or physicality of countryman Alexander Ovechkin, he is seen by many scouts as having similar upside.