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NHL's future will be on display at World Juniors

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com
While NHL fans fervently watch the present makeup of their favorite NHL teams, they should take a moment and glance at the future.

And for many teams, that future will be on display at the 2009 World Junior Championship, which runs Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ottawa.

Twenty-eight of the 30 NHL teams will have at least one prospect at the elite gathering of under-20 talent in the world.

Sending the most players is the St. Louis Blues, which will have six players spread across three teams. While the present squad might be struggling, their future certainly looks bright as their players will be expected to play major roles on gold-medal contenders Canada (defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, center Brett Sonne), the United States (defensemen Cade Fairchild and Ian Cole, right wing Aaron Palushaj) and Sweden (right wing Simon Hjalmarsson).

"I think it’s a good step in the process," Blues Assistant General Manager/Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen told NHL.com. "It's a good step along the way to the NHL, but the job is not done until they make a career in the NHL. But it’s a good step. It's a great test for the young kids to see where they're at. The guys that are in the elite are in this tournament and will be in the NHL."

The Los Angeles Kings' future on the blue line looks strong. Besides Calder Trophy candidate Drew Doughty and injured youngster Jack Johnson, the Kings will have three defense prospects at the World Juniors. Thomas Hickey, the fourth pick of the 2007 Entry Draft, will captain Canada's entry, a team that includes 2008 first-round pick Colten Teubert. Vjateslav Voinov, a 2008 second-round pick, will play for Russia, where he will join another Kings prospect, center Andrei Loktionov, a 2008 fifth-round choice.

Also playing at the World Juniors is Kings rookie center Oscar Moller. A 2007 second-round selection, Moller made the opening-night NHL roster and had 13 points in 30 games, but was allowed to play for Sweden, where he will get top-line minutes.

"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."

That development opportunity was one reason the Columbus Blue Jackets allowed their top prospect, forward Nikita Filatov, to play for Russia at the World Juniors. The sixth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft has played most of the season in the American Hockey League, but scored a goal in a four-game NHL call-up in October.

"We believe it’s a tremendous opportunity for a team to have their players grow in that situation," Don Boyd, the Blue Jackets' director of hockey operations and player personnel, told NHL.com. "We just feel it's a tremendous learning opportunity for them and tremendous exposure to a situation that hopefully the players can gain some experience from and bring it back to the program. (GM) Scott (Howson) was never hesitant in allowing Nikita play."

The Blue Jackets will receive an extra viewing bonus as Filatov, a right-shooting left wing, will play center for Russia. With the recent season-ending shoulder injury to Derick Brassard, the Jackets once again are looking for a top-line center. Could Filatov be the eventual answer?

"We're curious to see how it goes," said Boyd. "That'll be an interesting twist for us to watch how he performs there. We may play him at both positions before it's over."

The Jackets will have three other prospects at the tournament -- defensemen Cody Goloubef (Canada) and Ted Ruth (U.S.), and right wing Tomas Kubalik (Czech Republic).

Other teams with four prospects at the World Juniors are the Islanders, Canadiens, Panthers and Predators. The Wild and the Penguins are the only teams without a prospect in the tournament.

No matter how many players a team has, all 30 teams' scouts will be watching the proceedings closely.

"Every team is the same," Kekalainen said. "They're looking for winners, guys that rise to the occasion when the stakes are high. … When you want to hit the home run, you want the guys that say, 'OK, give me the puck I want to carry the team.' … The thing that we're looking for is the special occasions, who's got the extra poise, who's got the extra level, who's a winner.

"I think this tournament is always the highlight of the year. It's so intense, so enthusiastic. The skill level is so high. It's just so entertaining. It's great."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.
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