The World Junior Championships are the premier showcase for NHL prospects to compete for their countries and test their skills against the worlds'' top players under the age of 20. The tournament was a rite of passage for a host of today's stars, including the Flyers' Peter Forsberg (Sweden, 1992 and 1993), Simon Gagne (Canada, 1999), Joni Pitkanen (Finland, 2002 and 2003), Alexei Zhitnik (Russia, 1991 and 1992) and Robert Esche (USA, 1997 and 1998).
This year's tournament was held in Sweden in the towns of Leksand and Mora. Three Flyers prospects participated in the tournament.
Right wing Steve Downie, the Flyers' first round pick (29th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, played in his second tournament for defending gold medalist Canada. Defenseman Joonas Lehtivuori, drafted in the fourth round (101st overall) in 2006, made his WJC debut for Finland, while goaltender Jakub Kovar
, also taken in the fourth round of the 2006 draft (109th overall), saw his first Under-20 Championships action for the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, yet another Flyers prospect, defenseman Oskars Bartulis, starred for Latvia at the Divison I World Junior Championships, in a tournament played in Denmark. At the Division I level, the national teams compete for the right to be promoted to the elite WJC tournament the next year. Bartulis, who was drafted by the Flyers in the third round of the 2005 Entry Draft (91st overall), played in his third and final Under-20 tournament for the Latvians.Downie a Catalyst for Canada
The 2006 World Junior Championships were a turning point in Steve Downie's junior career. A surprise first-round selection by the Flyers, the feisty winger earned a spot on Team Canada's roster. His constant hustle, tenacity around the net, hard-nosed checking and refusal to back down against larger opponents helped propel Canada to its second consecutive gold medal.
To top it off, Downie was selected to the tournament All-Star Team by the attending media in Vancouver. Traditionally, the WJC has been dominated by 19-year-old players. For Downie to make the squad and excel as an 18-year-old was quite an accomplishment. Downie, however, downplayed the significance of the individual honor.
"The only thing I'm focused on is (another) gold medal for Canada," he said after a game at this year's tournament. "Last year is last year. The big thing to me is that we won the gold medal and had a great team. Winning is a great feeling, and I want us to get back there again."
This time around, Downie was a shoo-in to play for Canada. Although Flyers' fans were disappointed by the news that Claude Giroux
(Philly's first round pick, 22nd overall, in 2006 and one of the leading scorers in the QMJHL this season) was cut from the Canadian roster, Downie's inclusion was never in doubt.
"Steve is a catalyst for our team," said Craig Hartsburg, Team Canada's head coach and a former Flyers assistant. "He sets the tone with his work ethic and competitiveness."
Although Downie came away without a point or a shot on goal in Canada's opening game 2-0 win over the host Swedes, the statistics don't tell the story of his involvement. The Tasmanian devil-like Downie hounded Swedish forwards Nickas Bergfors (a New Jersey Devils first-round pick in 2005) and Patrik Zackrisson throughout the game.
Downie, who was previously involved in a butt-ending incident in a pre-tournament game against the Swedes, was able on several occasions to get his Swedish opponents to lose their customary cool. The more the partisan Swedish crowd whistled derisively at Downie and pleaded for penalties, the more he instigated. To his credit, however, he didn't retaliate. Downie drew two penalties on Sweden without taking any himself.
In the next tilt, an emotional 6-3 win over the USA, Downie was even more aggressive. He got Canada on the board first with an even-strength goal in the latter stages of the first period, and later added an assist on the final empty net goal. While Downie's emotion got the better of him and he was lost to Canada for 12 minutes on a roughing minor and misconduct after a confrontation with Team USA's Pat Kane, he returned to play a strong third period.
Next up was a dangerous match against Germany. The Germans had already shocked the Americans in overtime and then beat Slovakia. They were a team with nothing to lose. Meanwhile, Canada was primed for a letdown after marquee games with Sweden and the USA.
In a virtual carbon copy of the Team USA tilt, the Germans hung around while being badly outchanced. When Buffalo Sabres prospect Felix Schutz scored midway through the second period to tie the game 1-1, Germany smelled its biggest upset yet.
Enter Steve Downie. The winger answered right back on the powerplay less than two minutes after Schutz scored. Canada resumed control of the game and went on to win by a 3-1 score. Downie then completed Canada's unblemished preliminary round with a powerplay goal and an assist in the Canadians 3-0 whitewashing of Slovakia.
By virtue of winning its preliminary pool, Canada earned a bye in the medal-round quarterfinals. In what will we be remembered as one of the best WJC games ever played, Canada and the USA played to a 1-1 deadlock at the end of overtime, with the Canadians prevailing in a shootout. Although he didn't register a point, Downie was a key cog in the Canadian lineup and finished with five shots on goal.
For the third straight year, Canada met Russia for the gold medal. The Canadians rode a dominating first period out through the remainder of the game, jumping out to a 3-0 lead and holding on to win 4-2 and claim another championship. The pivotal point of the game occurred over 33-second stretch late in the first period. Not surprisingly, Steve Downie was involved.
Seconds after Brian Little backhanded a shot past star Russian goalie Semen Varlamov to give Canada a 2-0 lead, Russian defenseman Pavel Valentenko got the gate on a careless highsticking penalty. With Canada on the powerplay, Downie made a nice hesitation play to freeze the defense and send the puck to linemate Jonathan Toews, who buried the puck in the far corner of the net.
In the middle stanza, Downie hung tough to take a big hit at the blueline and got the puck to Toews, creating a two-on-one rush finished off by Brad Marchand. Although Downie was not awarded an assist on the goal, his gutsy play made it all possible.
Throughout the tournament, Downie showed strong chemistry with younger linemates Toews (the third overall pick of the 2006 Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks) and Marchard (a Boston Bruins prospect).
"I'd rather play with him than against him," said Marchard.
Downie, who was signed to a professional contract by the Flyers earlier this year, finished his last WJC with three goals, six points, 16 penalty minutes and a plus-four defensive rating. More importantly, he left Sweden with another gold medal.Lehtivuori Solid for Disappointing Finns
The 2007 World Junior Championships were a valuable learning experience for Joonas Lehtivuori. The eighteen-year-old defenseman still has a year of WJC left and should play an increasingly prominent role for Team Finland in the 2008 tournament. This year, he was one of only three 18-year-olds on the Finnish roster.
"Lehtivuori is a good young defenseman," said Flyers scout Ilkka Sinisalo before the tournament. "He's not real big, but with the way the game is played now, that doesn't matter as much. We like the way he moves the puck. For a young defenseman, he handles pressure with poise."
Last year, Lehtivuori played a strong World Under-18 Championships last year (three points, plus-two rating) for Finland. He has earned a spot on SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) team Ilves Tampere and was impressive at Team Finland's WJC training camp.
This year's WJC installment of Team Finland lacked the depth of previous teams and it showed up in Finland's disappointing sixth place finish.
The Finns started and ended on the wrong foot, losing 4-3 to Belarus, before sandwiching a pair of convincing wins over Switzerland (4-0) and the Czech Republic (6-2) in between a 5-0 thumping by Russia. Lehtivuori played arguably his best game in Finland's win over the Czechs, breaking up a Michal Frolik scoring chance and recording a pair of shots on goal.
In the medal round, Finland's lapses in discipline led to 6-3 quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Team USA. After Finland staged a pair of comebacks to tie the game 3-3 in the third period, Lehtivuori took a slashing penalty, followed quickly by an Oskar Osala hooking minor. The USA scored on the ensuing 5-on-3 advantage to regain the lead for good.
The Finns played listlessly in a consolation game finale with the Czechs for fifth place in the tournament, and lost 6-2. To his credit, Lehtivuori was not out for any of the Czech Republic's goals.
Lehtivuori, who was paired with Joonas Jalvanti throughout the tournament, finished with an even plus-minus rating and four penalty minutes. He did not register a point. Although he is not generally considered an offensive defenseman, Lehtivuori's puck moving ability should come in useful with another year of WJC experience.Kovar the Heir Apparent to Czech Net
Eighteen-year-old Jakub Kovar
knew he wasn't going to see much playing time for the Czech Republic team at this year's World Junior Championships. Ondrej Pavelec, selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the second round of the 2005 draft, was the obvious choice to start in goal for the Czechs.
Nevertheless, it was an impressive accomplishment for Kovar to earn a spot on the Czech roster, beating out 19-year-old Alexander Salak in the process. Veteran Czech league observers say that Kovar has the potential to an NHL goaltender in the future, and were not surprised that he made it to the WJC this year.
"Kovar has very fast feet and quick reflexes. He is still playing at the junior level in the Czech Republic, but he should be in the Extraliga (top league) next year," says David Schlegel, the director of E-Sports Czech Republic, who covered the World Juniors for his native country.
Kovar plays in the Ceske Budejovice system, the same program that once produced former Flyers center Vaclav Prospal. Last year, Kovar was outstanding at the World Under 18 Championships for the Czechs, turning aside 96 percent of the shots he faced and allowing a mere 1.14 goals per game.
This season, he's posted a 1.87 goals against average, three shutouts and a .933 save percentage for Budejovice. Although he is a strong candidate to move up to the Extraliga, Kovar is blocked behind veteran Roman Turek and 23-year-old year old Jan Chabera.
Kovar got into two games for the Czechs at the 2007 World Junior Championships. He mopped up for Pavelec in the Czech Republic's 6-2 preliminary round loss to Finland, playing the final 35 minutes in goal and turning back 10 of 12 shots.
With the Czechs knocked out of the medal round in the quarterfinals by Sweden, coach Vladimir Bednar decided to give Kovar the nod for the consolation game against Finland. Eager to prove himself for next year, Kovar played an impressive game, stopping 29 of 31 shots to earn the victory for the fifth-place Czechs.Bartulis Dominates Division I
Oskars Bartulis has been one of the best defensemen in the QMJHL all season and had already played in two World Junior Championships (one at the top level, one at Division I) for Latvia. He has already been signed to a pro contract by the Flyers.
There wasn't much left for Bartulis to prove at the 2007 Division I World Juniors in Denmark, but he was playing with the motivation of trying to help Latvia earn a trip to the top 2008 World Junior Tournament.
Although Latvia fell just short of its goal, losing on a tie-breaker to host Denmark, Bartulis did his part. He was the top-scoring defenseman in the round-robin tournament, posting seven points (all assists) in five games, a plus-four rating and registering 29 shots on goal. Not surprisingly, Bartulis was honored as the best defenseman in the tournament by the International Ice Hockey Federation tournament directorate.
Bartulis and Downie will be at the Flyers training camp next fall, competing for jobs on the big club. Both players should get long looks from the coaching staff.