Now that preliminary-round play at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship has concluded, there's no better time to check in on those top players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft making the most of their opportunity to impress NHL scouts entering medal-round play Thursday in Malmo, Sweden.
The 2013 WJC in Russia featured 11 players among the 10 participating teams who went on to be picked in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft -- Seth Jones (No. 4, Nashville Predators) and Ryan Hartman (No. 30, Chicago Blackhawks) of the United States; Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1, Colorado Avalanche) and Jonathan Drouin (No. 3, Tampa Bay Lightning) of Canada; Elias Lindholm (No. 5, Carolina Hurricanes) and Alexander Wennberg (No. 14, Columbus Blue Jackets) of Sweden; Aleksander Barkov (No. 2, Florida Panthers) and Rasmus Ristolainen (No. 8, Buffalo Sabres) of Finland; Valeri Nichushkin (No. 10, Dallas Stars) of Russia; Mirco Mueller (No. 18, San Jose Sharks) of Switzerland and Marko Dano (No. 27, Columbus Blue Jackets) of Slovakia.
"When a 17- or 18-year-old is able to play in the World Juniors it is a considered a positive factor which does carry weight in the player's overall evaluation even if he doesn't get a lot of ice time," NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said. "If the player contributes while playing at this level then it lends favorably toward his NHL projection. In the final rankings it sometimes aids in determining the ranking order."
NHL Central Scouting will release of its midterm rankings of the top 2014 draft prospects later in January.
Below are six players competing at the WJC considered to be possible first-round candidates at the 2014 NHL Draft, plus five more on the cusp of attracting the attention of NHL scouts and general managers:
THE A LIST
Ivan Barbashev, LW, Russia: Barbashev is playing a bottom-six forward role on a team loaded with top talent. He has one goal, two points and a plus-2 rating in four games.
In 29 games with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the 6-1, 185-pounder has 13 goals and 37 points in 29 games.
"Ivan is a very good playmaker with quick hands and he has a very good shot," Marr said. "He has an effective physical game and isn't afraid to mix it up. He's used in all situations and will battle for loose pucks."
Aaron Ekblad, D, Canada: Canada coach Brent Sutter thinks so highly of the A-rated prospect from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League that he has him in a top-four role along the blue line, pairing him with Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh Penguins). Ekblad has one goal, two points a plus-1 rating and six shots on goal in four games.
Ekblad has 10 goals and 25 points in 29 games for the Colts.
"He's smart and an excellent all-round skater for his size [6-3.5, 216]," Marr said. "He handles and distributes the puck well in all zones, passes with authority and possesses an accurate shot from the point."
Julius Honka, D, Finland: He's played the role of fifth or sixth defenseman in the tournament, paired mostly with Mikko Vainonen (Nashville Predators) to form a pretty solid unit. Though he doesn't have a point, he has seven shots on goal and is very active.
NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb refers to Honka as a "Reijo Ruotsalainen copy." Ruotsalainen spent seven seasons in the NHL, and won a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1990. He also was named best defenseman at the 1980 World Junior Championship for silver medal-winning Finland.
Honka has 12 goals, 36 points, 32 penalty minutes and a plus-9 rating in 35 games with the Swift Current Broncos in the Western Hockey League.
"He's smallish but an excellent skater with great balance," Stubb said. "He's an offensive-minded defenseman with good vision and a high skill level. Quick moves, reads the game very well and loves to join the offensive rush. Used in all game situations."
Ondrej Kase, RW, Czech Republic: The 5-11, 165-pound right-handed shot received a B-rating from Central Scouting in the December players to watch list. He's earned a top-six role for the Czechs and has a goal and two assists in four games.
In 21 games with Chomutov in the top Czech professional league, he has two goals and five points.
"Ondrej is a good, mobile skater with speed and acceleration," Stubb said. "He's a very good playmaker with excellent puckhandling skills. He's tiny and rather light and he needs to bulk up, but he's still a fearless competitor who leads by example."
David Pastrnak, RW, Czech Republic: The A-rated forward, who plays for Sodertalje in Sweden's second division, was one of two players from the Czech to score in the shootout against Canada in a 5-4 upset in preliminary-round play. The 6-foot, 167-pound right-handed shot has one goal, one assist and a plus-1 rating. He's played on the team's top line for much of the tournament and has seven shots on goal.
"David is an offensive-minded player with smooth hands, great instincts and a very quick shot," Stubb said. "He's an excellent skater with speed and acceleration. He's very smart on ice but will need more weight and strength to excel at the next level."
Sam Reinhart, C, Canada: The 6-0.75, 185-pound right-handed shot has worked in a top-six role, striking for two goals, five points and a plus-3 rating in four games. Reinhart hasn't looked out of place on a line with Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) and Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators), and his performance so far only has solidified his position as a top-two pick in the 2014 draft. Reinhart, an A-rated skater on Central Scouting's December players to watch list, has 16 goals and 50 points in 33 games for the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.
"He can dish the puck with laser-like passes," Marr said. "He's very good at taking what is given to him and finishing the play."
Lukas Bengtsson, D, Sweden: The 5-foot-9.5, 172-pound right-shot defenseman has been steady for a team that allowed seven goals in four preliminary-round games. Bengtsson has a goal, two points and a plus-2 rating in four games. A C-rated prospect on Central Scouting's December players to watch list, Bengtsson has six goals, 16 points and a plus-8 rating in 26 games for Mora in the Allsvenskan, Sweden's second-highest professional league.
"He's been a seventh defenseman on a strong Swedish team in the tournament," Stubb said. "As he is smallish, his chances to get drafted are not too big even though he has some skills."
Kevin Fiala, LW, Switzerland: There's a lot to like about the B-rated skater who has 24 points in 26 games for HV71 in Sweden's under-20 league. The 5-10, 180-pounder has one goal and four points in four WJC games.
"Fiala is doing fine; he's a key player among the Swiss forwards," Stubb said. "He's a quick, smart playmaker with good hands."
Joni Nikko, LW, Finland: The C-rated skater on Central Scouting's players to watch list has earned a top-six role for the Finns. He scored his second goal of the tournament in a 4-1 victory against Russia on Monday while working the power play.
"Nikko is a power forward, hard worker and a late bloomer," Stubb said. "A team or two might like his straight-for-the-net style and his shot."
Lucas Wallmark, C, Sweden: The B-rated prospect has four assists and a plus-3 rating for the host country.
In 28 games with Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League, Wallmark has two goals and seven points in 28 games.
"Wallmark's skating and lack of a first-step quickness is probably the reason why he was not drafted in 2013," Stubb said. "He's a smart, skilled player. His playmaking ability and passing skills make him a prospect."
Sandro Zangger, RW, Switzerland: The 6-foot, 185-pounder, who serves as an alternate captain, leads his team with four points (one goal, three assists). Zangger is a C-rated prospect and plays for Zurich in the NLA, Switzerland's top pro league. He has a team-high 17 shots on goal.
"He's a guy with tons of talent and skills, but we're still waiting for his breakthrough on international ice," Stubb said.
WJC MEDAL ROUND SCHEDULE (All times ET; all games on NHLN-US)
Quarterfinal Round - Thursday
United States vs. Russia, 6 a.m.
Finland vs. Czech Republic, 8:30 a.m.
Canada vs. Switzerland, 11 a.m.
Sweden vs. Slovakia, 1:30 p.m.
Semifinal Round (Saturday):
Semifinal 1, 9 a.m.
Semifinal 2, 1 p.m.
Bronze medal game (Sunday): 9 a.m.
Gold medal game (Sunday): 1 p.m.
BLAZING IN BRANDON
The Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League are in the running to return to the postseason after missing out last season for the first time since 1999-00.
Playing a part in that process are three prospects eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, all highly regarded and who also rank among the top three on the team in scoring.
Forwards Jayce Hawryluk and John Quenneville are B-rated prospects on Central Scouting's December players to watch list, and Richard Nejezchleb recently was added as a C-rated skater. The trio has combined for 50 goals and 108 points for the Wheat Kings.
Central Scouting's David Gregory recently had the opportunity to view Quenneville and Nejezchleb during a swing through Western Canada.
"I liked [Quenneville] a lot," Gregory said. "The day I saw him it wasn't his greatest game but you can tell he has the pro makeup. He's a hard worker; works hard to possess the puck. He makes good plays very quickly and is good at moving the puck. I'd like to see more consistency from him, but I like the way he finds open spaces and his ability to make any kind of pass."
Quenneville, a second cousin to Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and nephew (through marriage) of Boston Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk, has 16 goals (seven on the power play), 37 points and 39 penalty minutes in 39 games.
Nejezchleb, a 6-foot-2, 203-pound right wing from the Czech Republic, has a team-high 21 goals (eight on the power play) and 34 points in 36 games. He was chosen by the Wheat Kings in the first round (No. 35) of the 2012 CHL import draft. He was eligible for the past two NHL drafts but wasn't selected.
"He was really dynamic when I saw him; I don't know why he wasn't selected but sometimes it takes a while for these young kids to learn the ropes," Gregory said. "He showed quick feet on every shift, created chances and played at a good pace with good instincts. Because the draft is a bit thinner this year maybe he'll draw some interest in the later rounds."
Hawryluk is serving a three-game suspension he received Dec. 27 for checking from behind in an 8-0 victory against the Regina Pats. He is eligible to return Jan. 2 against the Calgary Hitmen. The 5-10.25, 190-pound center leads his team with 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists).
TOP PROSPECT CLARKE TRADED TO SAGINAW
Blake Clarke, a B-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list for Ontario Hockey League prospects, changed teams last week when the North Bay Battalion traded the left wing to the Saginaw Spirit in exchange for forward Zach Bratina.
Clarke, a native of St. Louis, sustained a shoulder injury in the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Pittsburgh in September that has limited him to 24 games. He has five points this season, but two assists in three games since arriving in Saginaw.
He will participate in the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Calgary on Jan. 15. He has 20 goals and 55 points in 91 games in the Canadian Hockey League.
"Blake is a good-sized wing who can really skate, is strong and fluid with NHL speed," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL.com. "After a strong rookie season [19 goals, 32 assists in 68 games last season], he's been hampered by injuries this season and is slowly working his way back into form. He has a strong shot and that's something he needs to utilize more."
PROSPECTS ON THE RISE
1. Jacob Randolph, Omaha Lancers (USHL): The 5-foot-9, 174-pound left wing leads all scorers in the United States Hockey League with 52 points (14 goals, 38 assists). A C-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list, Randolph has 19 power-play points, three shorthanded points and a plus-26 rating.
The University of Nebraska-Omaha recruit was passed over in the 2013 NHL Draft but there's a good chance he could hear his name called in the later rounds at the 2014 draft.
"This is his second time through; maybe because of his size," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "He's a pretty dynamic player, can shoot the puck effectively from all areas and get it to the net. He's gotten stronger, can play in traffic and get to spots on the ice. I think he's got the potential to be drafted."
2. Lawton Courtnall, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL): The son of former NHL player Russ Courtnall is sometimes compared to Darren Helm of the Detroit Red Wings. However, Lawton's skill set and skating remind many of his father, who spent 16 seasons in the League. The 5-11, 172-pound left wing recently returned to the lineup after sitting out most of the season with a high ankle sprain. The California native has one assist and seven shots on goal in nine games.
"He's struggled since returning; it's difficult to jump in after an injury at this part in the season," Gregory said. "He does have dad's qualities. He looks like dad when he skates. He was flying and looked really good when I saw him; he has great speed and creates chances off the rush. I had him as B watch earlier in the season, but it might be tough to rank him since he's missed so much time."
3-Billy Sweezey, Nobles & Greenough (HIGH-MA): Gregory acknowledged that there's a lot to like about the 6-foot, 190-pound junior defenseman. According to the veteran scout, Sweezey just now is beginning to realize how dominant a player he can be. Sweezey has been compared by some to Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik.
"He's a big defenseman starting to use his size well and can make a pro pass," Gregory said. "He's beginning to understand that he can and should dominate games at the high school level. His mobility is good and he loves to hit. If he hit all the time and laid kids out he'd really get scouts excited about him even more because he's a really thick and strong kid."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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