Strutting their stuff
To truly understand the pipeline of young talent pouring into the National Hockey League, the World Junior Championships are the perfect starting point.
The two-week tournament, contested right after Christmas annually, is a showcase for players with serious aspirations of landing in the NHL. Some will make that journey in the blink of an eye, while others will emerge after apprenticeships of various degrees in the various professional feeder systems that provide hockey with its natural, and ever-renewing, resource of players.
"It's the premier tournament in the world for players that age," says NHLer Kevyn Adams, who played for Team USA in 1994. "I think everybody that is lucky enough to play in that tournament, realizes what a great opportunity it is."
This year's tournament, to be contested in Canada's maritime province of Nova Scotia from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, promises to be no different from past editions in that it will serve as a coming-out party for players that will be seen as the next generation of stars.
It's best-against-best format allows scouts to see potential draft picks test their skills in the crucible of battle not inherent on a daily basis in league play -- be it the college scene in the United States, or junior play in Canada or Europe.
"I think for the scouts and the players alike, it's a chance to see the players go against the best from all over the world," says Keith Allain, Team USA's under-20 coach last year. "A tournament like the World Juniors is the best players against the best players and it's a chance to see how a particular player or players stack up against that challenge.
"Particularly for guys in their draft year, it's a big showcase for them. For the scouts, it's hard to compare a kid playing in a United States high school league, a Canadian junior league and the Swedish league. This event allows some of those comparisons to be made."
Comparisons will be made every day of the tournament. Undrafted players will be adjudged against their peers. Those already drafted, the first step in a long arduous climb to the NHL, will be probed for weaknesses that might retard their development. The truly elite players, meanwhile, will be looking to prove they deserve a serious shot come September when training camps open.
One needs to look no further than last year's tournament to see how the process works.
Played in the Czech Republic, the 2002 World Junior Championship Tournament was full of wondrous performances by players that will dominate the NHL headlines for the next two decades. Russia defeated Canada, 5-4, in the gold-medal game to take the crown, while Finland beat Switzerland for the bronze.
Three of the six players named to the 2002 WJC All-Star Team already have seen action in the NHL.
Canadian defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the third-overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, is a stalwart for the Florida Panthers. Bouwmeester is averaging more than 17 minutes per game for demanding coach Mike Keenan.