Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will head an impressive group of 2015 NHL Draft prospects playing at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Both players gained valuable experience at the 2014 WJC in Sweden, McDavid for Canada and Eichel for the United States. The expectations will be ramped up this year as the players, expected to be the first two picks of the draft, will be playing in the tournament in the hockey hotbeds of Toronto and Montreal, starting Dec. 26.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad was selected by the Florida Panthers with the first pick of the 2014 NHL Draft in part because of a nice showing at the 2014 WJC; he had one goal, two points and eight shots on goal. Canada coach Brent Sutter thought so highly of Ekblad that he had him in a top-four role.
Could another player earn a bump in draft status based on a strong tournament? Here are nine 2015 draft-eligible players that scouts will be watching closely at the WJC:
Lawson Crouse, Canada: The physically imposing 6-foot-4, 211-pound left wing protects the puck well for a big man, sees the ice and can move well. Crouse will make life tough on opposing players, in addition to playing a consistently strong two-way game. If he scores a few goals, that's a bonus. Chris Edwards of NHL Central Scouting said Crouse may be the hardest hitter in the Ontario Hockey League. He has 12 goals, 16 points and 55 penalty minutes in 24 games for the Kingston Frontenacs.
Jack Eichel, United States: The Boston University freshman leads the NCAA with 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) and a 1.69 points-per game average in 16 games. The 6-2, 196-pound center reaches top speed in two strides and is effortless in getting to where he needs to be on the ice. He has great hockey sense, vision and plays with an edge. Boston College coach Jerry York compared Eichel to Mike Modano at a similar age.
Noah Hanifin, United States: The 6-3, 203-pound defenseman is considered by many to be the best player at his position in the 2015 draft. He understands the importance of playing defense first and allowing the offense to work off the transition; he can skate well and make precision passes while moving laterally and backwards. Hanifin rarely makes mistakes while playing in top-two role as a freshman at Boston College. Experience at higher levels will be his best teacher. Hanifin has offered to maintain a blog for NHL.com leading up to the 2015 NHL Draft.
Jens Looke, Sweden: With top defenseman Oliver Kylington out of the tournament because of an undisclosed injury, Looke is the top Swedish draft-eligible player. The 6-foot, 180-pound right wing has made a big improvement this season with Brynas in the SHL. He is a good skater with great acceleration and is a highly skilled playmaker, according to NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb. He sees the ice well and can pass the puck in traffic; he's alert and dangerous around the net and plays a competitive two-way game. He is an A-rated prospect on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list.
Connor McDavid, Canada: The projected No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft had 16 goals and 51 points in 18 games for the Otters before sustaining a broken right pinky finger in a fight Nov. 11. The 6-1, 195-pound left- shot center returned to the lineup Sunday in a pre-tournament game against Sweden; he had an assist in a 5-2 Canada win. He is the fastest pure skater and best point producer of this draft class.
Ivan Provorov, Russia: After he had six goals and 32 points in 56 games with Cedar Rapids of the United States Hockey League last season, the 6-foot, 191-pound left-shot defenseman now is excelling in the Western Hockey League with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He has 10 goals and 37 points in 35 games, plays top-pair minutes and plays on the first power-play and penalty-killing units. He's a smooth skater, strong on his feet with good mobility and acceleration. He will get physical and has the ability to separate opposing players from the puck.
Mikko Rantanen, Finland: A physically strong power forward with very good playmaking ability. Rantanen is smart, active and involved on every shift, has great speed and quickness for a big man and plays with authority. The 6-3, 211-pound right wing is difficult to knock off the puck and uses his size to his advantage by going hard to the net and finishing checks. He has one goal and 10 points in 30 games with TPS in Liiga, Finland's top professional league.
Zach Werenski, United States: The freshman defenseman is considered one the best skaters at the University of Michigan despite being only 17 years old. He has good size (6-2 206), mobility and quickness yet still plays a physical game and will block a ton of shots. He has a calming presence on the ice and the bench, offers a great stick and excels in his own end.
Pavel Zacha, Czech Republic: The Sarnia Sting center has high-end skill, is an excellent competitor and plays a steady two-way game. He plays physical (41 penalty minutes), ranks among the top five players on the Sting in scoring, and leads Sarnia in power-play goals. He has the size (6-3, 210) and speed needed to separate opposing players from the puck.
Denis Malgin, Switzerland: The 5-8, 163-pound center, born in Switzerland to Russian parents, found his game in the higher Swiss league with Zurich this season. He is rather small in stature but stocky and physically strong. He has a great skill set and creates a ton of chances for his linemates because of his great speed. He has the ability to produce a few highlight-reel moves and will be a big fan favorite.