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Top prospects showcase skills at Hlinka Tournament

Wednesday, 08.12.2009 / 9:55 AM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

"During the season, we usually try to see the player several times. You can't go too much off one game or even one tournament. You get an impression of the player but you have to continue to evaluate. On the other hand, it's not good to see someone more than 10 times, because then you start to focus only on the negatives. With the Hlinka Tournament, it's a short tournament but there are a lot of games in a few days."
-- Detroit Red Wings European scout, Håkan Andersson

Formerly known as the Under-18 World Cup of Hockey, the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia has become an important proving ground for young players with hopes of being chosen in the 2010 Entry Draft. From humble beginnings, the tournament has grown to become the biggest international junior hockey event outside of the Under-20 and Under-18 IIHF World Championships.

The 2009 Hlinka Tournament is taking place in Breclav, Czech Republic, and Piestany, Slovakia. Piestany is one of the traditional host sites, having hosted the Slovak portion of the tourney since 2002. The Czech towns of Hodonin and Breclav rotate the honors, although Hodonin hosted the previous two tourneys.

The eight-nation tournament kicked off Tuesday and will conclude on Saturday with the gold-medal game in Breclav and the bronze-medal match in Piestany. The participating national teams are defending gold medalist Canada, Sweden, Russia, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The teams are divided into two separate preliminary-round groups and seeded according to their IIHF U18 rankings, although the tournament itself is not officially sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation. For obvious reasons, the two host nations, Czech Republic and Slovakia, never play in the same group and their national teams always play on home ice during the first round. The winners of the two groups then proceed to the gold-medal game, while the runners-up play for the bronze, fifth place and seventh place.

The first day of action in the 2009 tournament saw Team Canada emerge with a hard-fought 3-2 win against Sweden, Highly touted Russian prospect Kirill Kabanov scored a hat trick en route to a 4-3 Team Russia win against Team USA, Slovakia shrugged off an early two-goal deficit to pound Finland, 7-2, and the Czech Republic shut out Switzerland, 2-0 behind strong goaltending from Petr Mrazek. With the Canadian and Russian wins in the opener, it appears likely that the traditional archrivals are destined for another gold-medal showdown.

Each year, the Hlinka Tournament attracts widespread attention from scouts across the NHL as well as from Central Scouting. While all eyes are on the tournament’s big names – alumni of the tournament include the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Rick Nash and more recent top draftees such Nikita Filatov and Victor Hedman – scouts are also looking to see which other players they’ll want to follow up on over the course of the season. Seasoned scouts have learned not to read too much into what they see in any single game.

"The Hlinka Tournament is one where you want to see how players do not just when they think everyone is watching them in the big games, but also at practice and in the so-called lesser games," said veteran Detroit Red Wings European scout Håkan Andersson. "During the season, we usually try to see the player several times. You can't go too much off one game or even one tournament. You get an impression of the player but you have to continue to evaluate. On the other hand, it's not good to see someone more than 10 times, because then you start to focus only on the negatives. With the Hlinka Tournament, it's a short tournament but there are a lot of games in a few days."

The tournament was founded in 1991. In the early years of the event, the competition had trouble finding an identity or drawing much interest, even within the hockey community. Originally dubbed the Pacific Cup, four of the first five events took place in Japan, with a one-year sojourn in Mexico. After undergoing subsequent name changes to the Nations Cup and Under-18 World Cup of Hockey, the event found a permanent home in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Following the death of Ivan Hlinka in 2004, the tournament was renamed to honor the Czech hockey legend and former Vancouver Canucks player and Pittsburgh Penguins coach.

No matter what the tournament has been called, Canadian domination has been a constant. Team Canada has won 10 of the last 12 gold medals, interrupted only by a Team USA victory in 2002 and a Swedish gold in 2007. Overall, the Canadians have won a dozen gold medals in the tourney, with Team Russia winning the other three.

With their victory against Sweden in the opener, the Canadians appear well-situated to push for their 13th gold medal. This year's roster features potential first-round picks in the 2010 Entry Draft such as forwards Brett Connolly, John McFarland and Tyler Toffoli and defensemen Mark Pysyk and Erik Gudbranson.

Among the other nations, Russia's Kabanov is the featured attraction. Some of his countrymen who are also likely to receive widespread scouting attention are forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Stanislav Galiev and blueliners Stefan Stepanov and Alexei Marchenko. Well-regarded prospects Evgeni Kuznetsov and Roman Berdnikov had to withdraw from the tournament due to injury.

Sweden has had a bumper crop of excellent prospects in recent years. While this year's tournament roster is in a transitional phase (six players were born in 1993 and won't be draft-eligible until 2011), there is still considerable talent on the roster. Throughout the season, fans are likely to hear the names of goalie Johan Gustafsson, right winger Gabriel Landeskog (now with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers after cracking the Swedish Elite League with Djurgården last season), left winger Victor Öhman and center Fredric Weigel.

The Swedes' traditional archrivals, Finland, have had a fallow period in recent years at the junior level. Early in the decade, it was the Finns who were regularly producing strong NHL Draft prospects in greater quantity than the Swedes. Far and away, the most highly regarded prospect on Team Finland at the 2009 tournament is Mikael Granlund of HIFK Helsinki.

The Czech and Slovak development programs have been in steep decline for the last five years. Both teams, however, have some notable talents in this year's Hlinka Tournament. For the Czechs, defenseman David Musil is a name to remember for the 2011 Entry Draft. The Slovaks are led by forward Tomas Jurco. Meanwhile, Switzerland's Nino Niederreiter of the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks is the Swiss player whose name is the most likely to come up in draft discussions.

As usual, Team USA is dominated by youngsters from the National Team Development Program. One notable player who has been added from the CHL is well-regarded forward Austin Watson. Defenseman Ben Marshall and goaltender Cody Campbell are among his teammates whom the scouts are watching closely.
Quote of the Day

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