After seeing some of the first games of the IIHF U20 World Junior tournament in Ufa, Russia, I can without hesitation say that I almost forgot how much I love hockey. Sure, I have tuned in to some of the Springfield Falcons’ games this year (Saturday night’s game is shown live on the Blue Jackets’ website) and they have been fun to follow, but watching the World Juniors gets me excited at a whole other level. I am not really sure what it is about this tournament, but other than the Olympics, no other International tournament has the "it" factor quite like the World Juniors. To cheer for your national team is a special feeling and to route against your choice of foe is sometimes even better – Sweden if you are from Finland, Russia if you are from the Czech Republic or Canada if you are from anywhere else.
There is also the notion of watching future NHL superstars and being able to say “I remember watching that guy in the World Juniors” and this year is extra special if you are a Jackets fan. Not only do we have many good prospects playing in the tournament, but we also have 3 first round draft picks in the 2013 draft which makes it fun to see which of the 2013 draft eligible players will make a splash. Here is my prediction of who the medalists will be and some observations about our current and potential future prospects.
Gold: Team Russia – I must admit that watching Russia struggling against Slovakia in their opener (3-2 overtime win) gave me some serious doubts about this team. I almost had the feeling that Russia playing at home could actually be more of a hindrance than a help. However, in their 2-1 win against the US they played much more cohesively and the goaltending from Makarov was simply outstanding, stopping 41 of 42 shots. They have a very good goalie tandem in Vasilievsky and Makarov and ultimately this is what will win them the gold, coupled with the home team advantage.
The Russians also have plenty of fire power up front with Yakupov, Grigorenkov and 2013 draft eligible dynamo Valeri Nichushkin, but as evidenced by their 3-2 overtime win against Slovakia, they don’t always play a good team game. Nail Yakupov was simply selfish in that first game (and he was far from alone), doing his best Nash impersonation while trying to beat 4 guys at the offensive blue line without a hint of trying to pass the puck. Last year he was the Russian team’s best playmaker, but against Slovakia he looked determined to be their big star. Maybe his benching in the waning seconds of overtime made him realize that you have to play as a team to win this tournament, because he was much better against the US. The key to victory for this team lies within their ability to play as a team, but if Yakupov and the other Russian “stars” play for individual glory, they may even finish without a medal.
Also of note is that Grigorenko, who fell from being a top 3 shoe-in at the 2012 draft to being picked about ten spots further down, seems to be one of Russia’s best players right now (better than Yakupov?), after finally getting rid of a really bad bout of Mononucleosis, which made some people call him “lazy”. Good for him!
In terms of sheer talent and physical attributes, Nichushkin is a very promising prospect. He is a big (6’-4”, 200 pounds) and very skilled winger with amazing hands. His talent was on full display when he carried the puck from his own goal line, stickhandling through the neutral zone and then powered past Seth Jones to set up the game winning goal against USA. The problem is that he has already signed a 3 year deal with Traktor of the KHL, which makes it very unlikely that the Jackets (or any other NHL team) would select him early in the first round, especially when there are so many other great forward prospects in this year’s draft. It’s really too bad, because he has such special top end skill for a big guy, although his passing ability is probably not as good as his goal scoring touch.
Silver: Team Canada - As many goals as they have scored against Germany (9-3 win) and Slovakia (6-3 win), they still need to tighten up defensively and Malcolm Subban need to be sharper in goal. In Subban, I see some of the same tendencies that are common with other tall, athletic goalies like Steve Mason. Positioning is not as good as it could be and because of his long limbs he leaves rather larger holes, especially between his pad and his arm when he goes post to post. Some of the softies he lets in seem to happen exactly in those places, where shorter goalies tend to be a bit tidier.
Good to see 2013 draftee Jonathan Drouin being so successful (please see Mike’s Mooseheads updates for more info). What a cool behind the back pass he made to set up that goal against Germany. The kid has such great vision and soft hands, that you just have to marvel at what he does. The only question I have about Drouin is whether he is just a perimeter guy or if he has what it takes to go to the hard areas.
Projected No.1 2013 draft pick Nathan MacKinnon has looked solid so far on the fourth line, but to make a bigger impact he will need to be moved up in the lineup. However, with the extraordinary depth that Canada has at pivot, I just don’t see him taking a center position from anyone else, especially with Boone Jenner coming back after his suspension. I think that this will be more of a ”learning experience” for MacKinnon which is unfortunate, because it may be his only opportunity to play in the U20 Junior Worlds, since he will probably play in the NHL next year.
If there is one issue that I have with team Canada, it is that they continue to insist on finishing checks, even if the situation doesn’t call for it. I think this may come back to haunt them in this tournament, because the suspensions are starting to mount. The team USA junior program has made great strides in the last few years to get rid of dirty hits that might lead to concussions, but not so in Canada.
The fact that the Canadian team has seriously injured (we don’t yet know the full extent of the injuries to the Slovakian players) three opposing players in their last three games speaks for itself. I am all for tough play, but these are 18 year old kids we are talking about, who may have their careers jeopardized because this is the “Canadian way”. I am not saying that it is only a Canadian problem, nor am I saying that the Canadian players intend to injure with their hard hits, but there seems to be some serious denial about this issue in Canada.
Overall Canada is the deepest team with an amazing first line, but they showed in the pre-tournament games that they can be victimized on the larger ice due to poor positioning and taking bad penalties. In the end I think that their goaltending and defensive breakdowns will let them down, but a silver medal is nothing to sneeze at (at least not outside of Canada).
Bronze: Team Sweden - With all the injuries on the defensive side (Klefbom, Brodin, Lindholm and Mattson) and not being able to field Mika Zibanejad, last year’s golden goal hero against Russia, team Sweden is not projected to repeat as winners. However, their forwards are actually a little bit more skilled and faster this time around and the back end still includes some decent puck moving d-men. The main difference seems to be that the grit and physicality, which led the 2012 team to the first gold in some 30 years, is now partially lacking.
However, if the first game against the Czechs is any indication (4-1 win), this team can still hang with anyone. The puck movement and speed is second to none, except for maybe the US team, and they have some top end talent in Filip Forsberg, Richard Rakell and projected top 5 2013 draft pick Elias Lindholm.
Lindholm has really impressed me with his speed, great hands and an almost unstoppable will to go to the net. I love how he blows by defenders and either takes it straight to the net, goes for a quick wrap around or finds the open trailer. I rarely see him make a bad play or trying to do too much (hello Yakupov!) and his compete level is almost MacKinnon-esque. This guy just hates to lose and doesn’t mind taking punishment in front of the net, as evidenced by his power play tip in against the Czechs. Elias is simply an outstanding prospect to watch and I get the sense that he wants to prove that he is just as good as the likes of MacKinnon and Barkov, although that may be a tall order.
Another very interesting 2013 draft eligible player on team Sweden is Jacob de la Rose. He is a big power forward who likes to play a physical brand of hockey, with a good all-around game. Jacob is projected to be picked in the 10-20 range in the first round and I feel that he would be a very good choice for the Jackets, especially if we use our second or third first rounder on him. The reason is that we are seriously lacking in the area of prospective power forwards and de la Rose fits the bill. For team Sweden he is asked to do a little bit of everything, but is primarily used physically to give opponents fits in both zones as well as for secondary scoring. He is not yet a prolific scorer, but has more than held his own playing for Leksand in the Swedish second tier professional league. Craig Button’s take on de la Rose is simply “a player that winning teams have”, referring to how hard he is to play against, and who doesn’t want that?
Unfortunately it looks like CBJ prospect Oscar Dansk is currently the third goalie for Sweden. Joel Lassinantti started the first game and was solid, but was not as impressive against the Swiss team (3-2 SO win). Barring a complete breakdown from him and Niklas Lundstrom (who are both a year older than Oscar), Dansk is mainly in Ufa to learn the ropes for next year where he will probably be the starting goaltender.
Lassinantti actually makes for an interesting goalie comparision with Malcolm Subban, the Canadian goalie, in terms of size and style of play. Joel is pretty small for a modern goalie, but is very smart positionally and has good reflexes. It’s hard to beat him from the outside, but he does have some weaknesses in his game. The Czech goal, scored by CBJ prospect Lucas Sedlak, showed me how you beat this guy. In the butterfly Lassinantti is very quick with his pads and stays square to the shooter, but due to his rather diminutive stature, he can’t cover the top corners with his shoulders like larger goalies can. So if you get up close and elevate the puck quickly you will score just about every time. He also doesn’t have the leg strength of some bigger goalies as evidenced by Jonathan Huberdeau’s pre-tournament penalty shot, where he just simply pushed the puck into the net by jamming at the outstretched pad of Lassinantti. This is why Dansk, who is bigger and more athletic, is a much more interesting NHL level prospect goalie than Lassinantti, but that doesn’t mean that Oscar is necessarily better right now.
Sweden will have a really hard time repeating their golden performance from last year, but I give them the bronze, because they hardly ever have a bad international tournament and I feel that they are actually somewhat underrated. At this point I’m writing off their poor showing against the Swiss as a one off, but that game did indicate that the Swedish defense needs to improve.
4th place: Team Finland – This team may have been a serious medal contender, if it wasn’t for the loss of Miro Altonen, who was their best player against Latvia (5-1 win). However, this is still a good team with very good balance between defense and offense as well as some true top prospects. Their loss to a rather weak Czech (3-1) team does however put a dent in my belief that they may even contend for the gold this year. I am very much looking forward to seeing how they bounce back against arch rival Sweden, as the Swedes tend to have the psychological edge. If Finland wins the group and gets the automatic by to the Semis, they might still surprise some people.
Joonas Korpisalo looked very solid between the pipes against Latvia, but didn’t have as good of an outing against the Czech Republic stopping only 18 of 20 shots. Of the two goals, one was a deflection and the other a hard wrister in the top corner, so he can’t really be faulted for the loss. I think he will eventually give Forsberg and Dansk a run for their money and it will be exciting to see who will emerge as our best young goalie.
I have also been praising the talents of Aleksander Barkov here on The Cannon lately (a potential top 3 2013 draft pick), but he was relatively quiet in the games against Latvia and the Czechs. I will be keeping a close eye on him, as I think that he is the kind of player that could be a cornerstone of any NHL team in a few years. This kid is just something special.
A guy who did have a very good game against Latvia was defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, 1 goal and 1 assist. The big Finn, 6’-3”, 210 pounds, can really move and has great hockey sense as well as a very good shot. This player has first pair NHL defenseman written all over him and had it not been for Seth Jones he would have been considered the best 2013 draft eligible d-man. I think he will go top ten in the draft and he could go as high as 5-7 if a team really needs a d-man. Rasmus may not have quite the offensive upside of Jones, but otherwise I don’t see any major difference between the two.
We all know that we are not in need of defensive prospects, but I can’t help but being very intrigued by Ristolainen. Of all of our current d-prospects we just don’t have a guy that can dominate physically like Rasmus. If he is still on the board towards the 10-15 spot in the first round and we have a chance to grab him, I would say go for it, but I doubt he lasts that long. I will not be a shocked if he gets voted as the best defenseman in the tournament, even though he is a year younger than most and has the likes of Seth Jones to contend with.
5th place: Team USA - Okay, so I know what you are thinking. How in the world (juniors) could you leave team USA out of the medals when they are considered to be one of the top favorites this year? Team USA is possibly the fastest team at the Junior Worlds, with the best skating defensemen, and showcases some elite talent with the likes of Galchenyuk and Jones. Many observers see the US team as the favorite team along with the Russians and the Canadians and if that is based on their recent U18 performance (winning the last five years) I would certainly agree. But the U20 tournament is a different animal and often the US team does not perform well in Europe. The 4-1 loss to Finland in a pre-tournament game recently showed me that this team still has some major kinks to iron out before they can be considered gold medal contenders, and being put in the same group as Canada and Russia will make for a pretty tough journey.
One of the biggest question marks in mind is weather this team is physically tough enough to beat the best teams. For the US to medal, there are simply too many things that have to go their way, like superb goaltending, scoring by committee and being able to burn the opponents on the rush. I think that this US team can be very dangerous, especially if they get the first goal and the opposing team is forced to chase the game, but if they fall behind it may be a different story. I sincerely hope that the US will surprise me and take home the gold, but I don’t think that this is their year.
Against Russia (2-1 loss) they looked very good and carried the play for long stretches of the game and if they can build on that momentum, the US team might do better than I predict. John Gibson was also very goal in goal, but was simply outplayed by his Russian counterpart Makarov.
Regarding prospects I will keep an eye on the defensive pairing of Seth Jones and Jackets 4th round 2011 draft pick Mike Reilly. They didn’t look at all comfortable in the pre-tourney Finland game, but seemed to have fixed whatever was ailing them for the Germany game. As discussed previously on the Cannon, Seth Jones is a prospect that will probably not fall out of the top three of the 2013 draft and if he does, the Jackets would almost have to take him with the No.4 or No. 5 pick (hypothetically of course), regardless of our greater needs at other positions. His exceptional skill was on display on his goal against Germany, where he skated quickly into the slot with the puck and fired a hard and accurate wrister into the top corner. Not many guys of his size can make that kind of play look so easy.
As far as the the Czechs, Slovaks and the Swiss are concerned, they may be able to surprise some teams in the early group play, but I don’t see any of them making it past the quarter finals. Regardless if you agree with my predictions and prospect analysis for the U20 World Juniors, I think we can all say that we are in for a heck of tournament and lots of great hockey. Let’s go (insert your favorite team) and let’s go CBJ prospects!