NHL Network analyst Craig Button recently returned from the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Sochi, Russia, and came away impressed by a number of players eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.
Among them was a quartet of players who helped Canada win the gold medal -- goaltender Philippe Desrosiers, defensemen Madison Bowey and Samuel Morin, and forward Laurent Dauphin.
Desrosiers, who played this season with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, allowed four goals in five games, and led the tournament with a 0.80 goals-against average and .970 save percentage. NHL Central Scouting placed him seventh among North American goaltenders in its final rankings for this year's draft.
Looking toward the future
As good as the players eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft were at the this year's World Under-18 Championship in Sochi, Russia, the players who stood out the most to NHL Network analyst and long-time NHL scout Craig Button was a pair of players eligible for future drafts.
Sam Reinhart, expected to be the first pick of the 2014 draft, had three goals and four assists in seven games and was named team captain. And 16-year-old Connor McDavid, who likely will hear his name called first at the 2015 draft, led the tournament in goals (eight), assists (six) and points (14), and was named the tournament's best forward and MVP in helping Canada win the gold medal.
"If they're not the first overall picks in the next two drafts, just tell me who's there; please point me in the direction of where the better players are because I'll be happy to go see them, because they're special players if they're better than Sam and Connor."
McDavid stood out not only because of his numbers, but because he produced them while being two years younger than most of the players he was skating against.
"I've watched him for 18 months now and I knew he was a good player," Button said of McDavid. "I'm wrong -- he's better than I thought. He's two years younger than the vast majority of every player there and was the best player. It's not just going to that tournament and being the best player -- he's two years younger than everybody."
-- Adam Kimelman
"He just put himself blinking brightly on the radar screen," Button told NHL.com. "The biggest thing about Philippe that's always impressed me is I love the way he reads the game. I don't think he's a get-into-position-and-let-the-puck-hit-him guy. I think he's a guy that reads the play, that understands there's different ways to make saves, there's not a cookie-cutter method."
Bowey, who plays for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, scored the game-tying goal against the United States in the gold-medal game, and earned rave reviews from Button, who said, "Outstanding is the only word I can use."
He added of Bowey, No. 32 among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings: "The way he skates, the way he competes, the way he thinks, his confidence on the ice. He's not as rugged as [former Kelowna defensemen] Luke Schenn and Shea Weber, but he's every bit as competitive. He's competitive in a different way. He gets there with his skating, he recognizes the play. He's just so sharply attuned with what's going on in the game."
Button believes Morin, the 6-foot-6.25, 202-pounder from Rimouski, compares favorably to another plus-size blueliner -- Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Morin is No. 23 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters.
"I don't know where you find 6-foot-7 defensemen that can skate, that are tough physically, that are rugged, that can make a play with the puck," he said. "I don't know where you find them. … I saw Zdeno Chara play at that age. Zdeno was raw and I don't think Zdeno was as polished at that age as this kid. We know what Zdeno has become. He's one of the smartest players in the National Hockey League and we know the physical attributes. I think that I do believe that Samuel can develop that part of his game."
Laurent Dauphin, who scored the opening goal and added an assist, also stood out to Button for straight-forward, effective style of play. He's No. 28 on Central Scouting's list.
"Laurent is a quiet competitor," he said. "Don't be fooled by him. There's not this over the top, outwardly bubbly competitor, but still waters run deep. And this guy is a big-time competitor. He doesn't get pushed away from the game, he doesn't get pushed away from the hard areas, he makes plays when it matters, he makes plays against difficult opponents, he makes plays under challenging circumstances. He's smart. You talk about hockey sense … he's got exceptional hockey sense. I think he's got exceptional competiveness.
"The important areas on the ice, the important areas in the game, the critical points, he's there. He's always there. He's not going to wow you with these end-to-end rushes, but you talk about incredibly functional and a big-time competitor."
Among the silver medal-winning U.S. squad, Button was most impressed by Steven Santini, who was named the best defenseman at the tournament. Ranked No. 47 by Central Scouting, he was a plus-8 in seven games and was a big reason the U.S. allowed a tournament-best 22.7 shots per game.
"I always compared him to [New York Rangers defenseman] Dan Girardi," Button said. "This guy is a real player. He plays against everybody else's best players. There's a reason why the U.S. didn't give up very many shots. It starts with him. We're talking about a big-time competitor. In the semifinal game the Russians had a four-on-three power play in overtime and his stance on the ice, his body language, his effort was, 'You want to try and score? You better get to the other side of the ice because you're not getting the puck through me, you're not going to beat me. You're not going to get any ice or any opportunities in my area.' He's a big-time competitor. He's a guy that digs in and competes. That's why I compare him to Dan Girardi."
Another U.S. team standout was center John Hayden, who Button noted showed good creativity with the puck in the offensive zone. Hayden is No. 29 on Central Scouting's final list.
"John Hayden really, I thought, showed that he's capable of being a lot of things," Button said. "He's big, he's strong, he was skating more, plays with the puck. When he was shooting he was going in there with ideas how to make goalies think. He was shooting at different spots at the goalie, playing good down low. I think I've really seen him expand his game."
Button added he already knew U.S. forward J.T. Compher (No. 34) was an outstanding prospect, but the tournament cemented one thing about him: "Everything matters to him. He wants to be a catalyst for winning."
There also were a number of European players who Button took note of, among them Russia forward Valeri Nichushkin. Central Scouting's second-ranked European skater on its final list had four goals and three assists in six games, but some viewed his performance as underwhelming. However, Nichushkin arrived at the tournament after helping Chelyabinsk reach the KHL finals, and then during the tournament he was traded from his hometown team to Dynamo Moscow. It added up to a lot of stress; however, Button still sees Nichushkin as an elite prospect.
"When I watch him play and I see the things he's capable of doing, he reminds me so much of [Rangers forward] Rick Nash -- 6-foot-4 power skilled wingers, they're not in abundance. … I've watched him play 15 times and I've watched him perform at the highest level. He's a top player."
Also earning rave reviews was Finland goalie Juuse Saros, Central Scouting's top-rated European goaltender. He made 24 saves against Russia in helping Finland win the bronze-medal game, and was named the tournament's best goaltender after finishing with a 1.86 GAA and .946 save percentage while playing every minute of his team's seven games.
His brightest moment came in the final preliminary-round game against the U.S., when the Americans out-shot Finland 49-17, but Saros stopped 48 shots as Finland won 2-1.
"I know the thing about size [5-10.25, 178], but this guy is a good goaltender," Button said. "He doesn't compromise his position, he's alert, he's competitive, he's skilled. It might look like there's room, but he doesn't give it to you. He's got everything I love in a goaltender. I can't control his size, but I know this -- when I watch him play in the net, he doesn't look small to me. He doesn't play small to me He was really, really good."