Five Tampa Bay Lightning prospects will come one step closer to developing into NHL-ready players today in Ufa, Russia.
The 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships kicks off today, in which Bolts prospects Andrey Vasilevskiy, Nikita Nesterov, Nikita Kucherov and Artem Sergeev will suit up for Team Russia, while forward hopeful Tanner Richard will represent his native country of Switzerland.
Considered by many pundits as one of the sport's most entertaining traditions, the annual competition showcases many of the world's best hockey players under the age of 20, representing their home countries as they battle other nations in their quest for gold.
The tournament, in addition to fueling longstanding rivalries between nations and exposing prospects to world-class talent, also factors in to determining seeding for other big tournaments such as the Winter Olympics.
This year, the tournament just might prove to be powered by a bit more motivation for some, especially the Tampa Bay prospects representing Team Russia.
All four Russians in the Lightning system made last year’s team, only to fall to Team Sweden in the gold-medal game. While both are considered to be among the top squads again this year, the Russians are especially exalted as one of the best teams in this year’s tournament in particular, falling short of gold by just a single goal in 2012.
Lightning prospect Nikita Nesterov suits up for Team Russia.
Russia, however, does have home-ice advantage working on their side, not to mention, the team is deep.
It's success up front relies heavily on superstar prospects Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, but don’t be surprised if Kucherov compliments both players nicely, as he notched a pair of goals and seven point in seven games last season for his native country.
In addition, Bolts defensive prospects Nesterov and Sergeev have developed their games further thus far this season, and should provide a strong presence in front of their fellow Lightning hopeful in goal. That would be Vasilevskiy, of course, who is one of the best goaltending prospects in the world, and after posting a .953 save percentage in last year’s tournament, is considered arguably the best netminder in the 2013 World Junior Championships.
“He’s very big and he’s very athletic and he makes great saves with his feet and hands,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said previously during the team’s development camp in July. “The trend in the NHL the last few years is that goaltenders have both of those traits, and you see his ability to move in the net, and he has a good style and structure about him.”
Perhaps making sure Vasilevskiy is on top of his game throughout the tournament is Richard, who doesn’t score a lot, but does have an uncanny ability to dish the puck and set up teammates. Statistically, Richard has notched only three goals, but has racked up 36 assists for a total of 39 points, which leads all skaters on the Guelph Storm of Canada’s Ontario Hockey League.
It remains to be seen as both Russia and Switzerland begin their respective journeys Wednesday.