Players say there's no prouder moment for them than pulling on their national team's sweater. But for four players in the 2009 World Junior Championship, they have experienced a very close second -- pulling on an NHL sweater for the first time.
Zach Boychuk (Hurricanes), Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Nikita Filatov (Blue Jackets) and Oscar Moller (Kings) all made their NHL debuts this season, but all currently are in Ottawa with their national teams.
It may not be the ideal situation -- there's nothing better than playing in the greatest hockey league in the world -- but competing for a WJC gold medal makes for a nice consolation prize.
"They (the Kings) told me that they were going to let me go and they asked if I wanted to go and I said yes because I think we have a really good chance of winning this year," said Moller, who will be a top-six forward for Sweden. "… They told me, 'If we're going to let you go, will you go?' That was their question and I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to go.' "
It was a hard choice for Moller, who has had a productive first season with the Kings. A 2007 second-round draft pick, Moller has been with the club all season, totaling 13 points in 30 games. When he left the Kings, his 5 power-play goals led all rookies, and his 58 shots were third.
"Making the NHL, making the Kings, it was my dream coming true," Moller said. "It's been a fun ride so far. My thoughts after making the team were to make sure I stick there now and improve my role because I want to be a part of that team; I want to be a big part of that team."
For now, though, he'll be a big part of Sweden's World Junior team.
"It is a special opportunity for young kids to play in that tournament," Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi told reporters. "The pressure in that tournament for a young player is pretty significant, and it's a big thing for their growth to play in that tournament. It's a great thing for his continued development, especially because they told us he was going to be one of their captains."
The same development opportunity is there for Boychuk. The Hurricanes took Boychuk with the 14th pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, and he made the opening-night roster despite being on injured reserve following wrist surgery during the summer. The Hurricanes supervised Boychuk's rehabilitation, and then played him in two games in mid-October, in Los Angeles and Anaheim. On the flight back east, Boychuk got the news that he was being returned to his junior team, the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League.
"It was tough leaving Carolina," Boychuk said. "My options were I stay in Carolina, play for them, or come back to Lethbridge and try to win a Memorial Cup and try to win another (WJC) gold medal. Coming back to Lethbridge and Team Canada has made me a better player."
The numbers bear that out, as Boychuk has 12 goals, 26 points and a plus-18 rating in 21 Western Hockey League games. Despite missing 15 games, he's fourth on the team in scoring.
He'll be expected to play a similar starring role for Team Canada. Boychuk is one of four players on the Canada roster who won gold last year in the Czech Republic. He had a minor role on that team; this year, thanks in part to his NHL experience, he'll be expected to contribute far more. He'll play on the top two lines, and coach Pat Quinn named him an alternate captain.
"As a smaller guy, he competes hard and he doesn't get stationary," Quinn told Sportsnet.ca. "He uses his quickness to be a good player."
Quinn is hoping Pietrangelo has a similar showing in Ottawa. The fourth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft started the season in St. Louis. He was scoreless and a minus-2 in the season's first three games, and then was knocked out of the lineup for three weeks with a back injury after being cross-checked from behind by Toronto's Ryan Hollweg. Pietrangelo played better when he returned, picking up his first NHL point, an assist, and going plus-2 in five games.
Still, the Blues thought it best for his development to send him back to the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara Ice Dogs, and in his first nine games, he had 5 goals and 15 points. In the NHL team's eyes, making Team Canada only further accelerates his growth.
"We are excited for Alex … to be named to Team Canada as this will be a highly skilled tournament in Ottawa," Blues President John Davidson told the team's Web site. "This is the next step for Alex to compete with players his age and we anticipate watching him."
The Blue Jackets have similar feelings for Filatov. The sixth pick of the 2008 draft, Filatov started the season with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. After scoring in his first two games, he earned a four-game NHL promotion. He scored in his first game, but was sent back to the AHL on Oct. 28. In 23 AHL games, Filatov has 7 goals, 17 points and a plus-6 rating.
At last year's World Juniors, Filatov led Russia with 9 points, 10 penalty minutes and a plus-7 rating.
While those numbers are nice -- as are the 3 goals Moller scored last year for Sweden -- what will make their World Junior team better is what they gained from playing in the NHL, no matter how brief.
"It was good to get that experience when I was up there, learn from guys who have been in the NHL for a while," said Boychuk. "It was a lot of fun to learn from a guy like Rod Brind'Amour, guys who have put a lot into the game. It's made me a better player."
And their teams at the World Juniors are hoping to reap the benefits.Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer