United States forward Auston Matthews will be in the spotlight when the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship starts Saturday in Helsinki, Finland.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound left-shot center is expected to lead the U.S. team at the WJC as well as set in stone his status as the top player available for the 2016 NHL Draft.
Matthews opened eyes last season when he broke records for goals (55) and points (117) held by Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team.
This season Matthews is starring for Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league, National League A. He leads Zurich with 14 goals in 22 games, and had four goals and six points in eight games after missing six games because of an upper-body injury.
"His skating always stands out. His changing gears and directions plus his small dekes with his feet that allow him to win split seconds of time," said NHL Central Scouting's Thomas Roost, who evaluates prospects in Switzerland and Germany. "His positioning in the offensive zone is also really good as he tries to be open whenever entering the zone without the puck."
Matthews received an A rating on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list for the 2016 draft. Some felt if Matthews had been eligible for the 2015 draft he, rather than Jack Eichel, would have been the No. 2 pick; Matthews missed the cutoff for the 2015 draft by two days.
While Matthews is the standout, there will be a number of top 2016 draft prospects playing significant roles at the 2016 WJC.
"When a 17- or 18-year-old is able to play in the World Juniors, it is considered a positive factor which does carry weight in the player's overall evaluation even if he doesn't get a lot of ice time," NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said. "If the player contributes while playing at this level, then it lends favorably toward his NHL projection. In the final rankings it sometimes aids in determining the ranking order."
Here are 11 players eligible for the 2016 draft to watch at the tournament besides Matthews. Each has been rated as an A prospect, or potential NHL first-round draft pick, by NHL Central Scouting (players listed alphabetically):
Rasmus Asplund, C, Sweden: A smooth skater and excellent competitor, Asplund (5-11, 176) has three goals, five points, and a plus-3 rating while averaging 12:43 of ice time for Farjestad in the Swedish Hockey League. He is considered to be more of a finesse player than an aggressive performer; he has 26 shots on goal and 12 hits in 25 games.
Alexander DeBrincat, RW, United States: U.S. coach Ron Wilson said DeBrincat is the perfect top-line complement to Matthews. "[Matthews] is bigger and plays really hard all the time, so DeBrincat seems to be a guy who hides in the weeds. But he's effective, smart and he'll be a good linemate," Wilson said. DeBrincat (5-7, 163) has played well when skating with top offensive players. This season he has 33 goals and 56 points in 30 games with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League while playing with center Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes), the third pick of the 2015 draft; last season he was linemates with Connor McDavid and had 51 goals and 104 points in 68 games.
Julien Gauthier, RW, Canada: The 6-3, 225-pound power forward is the only player on Canada's roster eligible for the 2016 draft. He leads Val-d'Or in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 29 goals and eight power-play goals. He also has 37 points and a plus-17 rating in 30 games. "He can skate and hit and finds ways to get open and shoot the puck," NHL Central Scouting's Troy Dumville said. "He has better playmaking skills then his eight assists indicate, and plays both ends of the ice."
Carl Grundstrom, RW, Sweden: Grundstrom (6-0, 194) is a high-level energy player who skates extremely well, has good balance and is a threat around the net. He has two goals, seven points, 44 shots on goal and 20 penalty minutes in 25 games while averaging 13:05 of ice time for Modo in the SHL.
Olli Juolevi, D, Finland: The 6-2, 179-pound left-shot defender moved from the Jokerit program in Finland to London of the OHL this season and has excelled. Scouts like his skating, poise and composure with the puck, and excellent hockey sense. He has four goals, 23 points and a plus-23 rating in 27 games and can play in any situation.
Chad Krys, D, United States: As one of the top defensemen for USA Hockey's Under-18 National Team Development Program in the United States Hockey League, Krys (5-11, 185) has made major strides since development camp in August. He exhibits plenty of poise and can transition well. Krys, who has one goal and 17 points in 24 games, will attend Boston University in 2016-17. "He's done a nice job defensively; everyone knows he has great feet but what they don't understand is he also has a great stick defensively, so his angling has been good," U.S. national junior assistant coach Danton Cole said.
Patrik Laine, RW, Finland: A typical power-forward, Laine (6-4, 206) has an intriguing combination of size, skill and strength to complement his soft hands and big shot. Laine has eight goals, 16 points, 136 shots on goal and a plus-2 rating in 24 games for Tappara in Liiga, Finland's top professional league. He averages 16:25 of ice time and is viewed as a two-way player with great offensive instincts and a nose for the net.
Charles McAvoy, D, United States: The 6-foot, 208-pound right-shot defender already plays a pro-style game. He might not be flashy but consistently has been steady as a freshman playing a top-four role at Boston University. McAvoy has one goal, six points, 18 blocked shots and 32 shots on goal in 15 games.
Alexander Nylander, C, Sweden: The son of former NHL player Michael Nylander will get the chance to play alongside his brother, William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs), for Sweden. The younger Nylander (6-0, 179) has displayed high-end skill and the ability to make plays at top speed with Mississauga of the OHL. Scouts like his shot and his excellent release. He has 21 goals and 47 points in 31 games,
Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Finland: Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) is an all-around threat each time he's on the ice. A powerful skater with good speed and balance, Puljujarvi has five goals, 12 points and a plus-4 rating in 31 games with Karpat in Liiga. Puljujarvi, who averages 14:30 of ice time per game, has outstanding hockey sense, is strong in 1-on-1 situations and will take advantage of his long reach. He should form a dynamic combination with Laine for Finland.
Matthew Tkachuk, LW, United States: With elite vision, work ethic and hockey IQ, the son of U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Keith Tkachuk will bring his intensity to the top line alongside Matthews and DeBrincat. Tkachuk (6-1, 195) has 13 goals and 53 points in 27 games for London of the OHL. He excels playing inside the dots and has shown a willingness to go to the hard areas to score goals. Tkachuk brings a physical element and is able to get under the skin of his opponents.