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Opening Faceoff: Top 15 WJC prospect list

by Shawn P. Roarke

Crashing the Net has been waiting almost a full year for this WJC. As soon as last year’s tournament ended in Sweden, CTN has been counting the days until the 2008 version, played in the Czech Republic.

The World Juniors are almost like a continuation of Christmas for CTN, a present you can open over and over, savoring it again and again until the final whistle in the gold-medal game shrills too loudly in early January.

CTN loves the drama and the passion engendered by this tournament. CTN loves the players called to take part in this spectacle -- the best and brightest the universal hockey community has to offer. And, because of the passion with which CTN embraces both the WJC and prospects in general, CTN considers himself a minor expert on what will happen in the next few weeks.

Today, CTN shares some of that expertise, highlighting 15 players that CTN believes will bask in the spotlight during the holidays. Fifteen players that will believe in themselves and grab the opportunity presented. Fifteen players that will find it is time to shine!

CTN would also like to hear about what players the readers are looking forward to seeing in a few weeks’ time. Feel free to drop CTN a line at and let us all know who you believe will star in the Czech Republic and why. We’ll post the best responses in next week’s Penalty Box.

Now, on to CTN’s list:

Lars Eller, Denmark -- This young player, selected last season by the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, is reason alone to watch the Danish side play in this tournament. Eller can do it all on the ice, and does do it all for Team Denmark. At last year’s World Junior Division 1 Championships, Eller had seven points and was a plus-6 as the Danes won the title and earned promotion to the main pool. Eller is projected to be an elite two-way forward at the NHL level.

Viktor Hedman, Sweden -- Considered Sweden’s most promising defenseman prospect in several years, Hedman will be under a microscope at the WJC. But intense pressure is nothing new for the ’90-born Hedman, who plays for MoDo in the Swedish Elite League. Already 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Hedman has all the tools to dominate a game. He was a member of the All-Star Team at last year’s U-18 World Championships.

Jan-Mikael Juutilainen, Finland -- A late-round choice of the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2006, Juutilainen was one of the first Finns to come to North America as a junior-age player to make a name for himself. He plays a gritty, North American game and was very good for Team Finland in Lake Placid this summer. He played for the Finns in the U-18 Championships last summer and scored five points in six games.

Robert Mayer, Switzerland – The Swiss will have a chance to shock a few teams if Mayer duplicates his performance from last year’s U-18 World Championships. The goalie opened eyes in the scouting community with his patient, technically flawless game. He posted a 2.17 GAA and a .924 save percentage in the U-18 tournament. Now, though, he is struggling in the QMJHL and looks confused. The Swiss have their fingers crossed that Mayer finds his form by pulling on the national team sweater again.

Oscar Moller, Sweden -- A second-round pick of Los Angeles, Moller can score goals. He has 25 in 32 games this year for Chilliwack in the Western Hockey League. Last year, as a WHL rookie, he had 32 goals for the expansion Bruins. Now, he will be asked by his country to score goals just as emphatically at the WJC. If he delivers on that request, the Swedes will be a very dangerous team.

Juuso Puustinen, Finland – Another later-round pick from 2006 -- this time by Calgary -- Puustinen is very adept at the North American style of play. He scored 32 goals last year, his first in the Western Hockey League. This year, he is struggling a little more, with just 12 goals in 32 games, but Puustinen can offensively carry Team Finland if he finds his groove. Puustinen, who played for the U-18 team last year, has been relied on as a sniper throughout his international career.

Tyler Ruegsegger, USA -- Ruegsegger does not have the pedigree of many of the players on the Team USA roster, but nobody in the red-white-and-blue sweater will compete harder than this University of Denver sophomore. His motor is always on and he can make game-changing plays with his hustle. A lack of a smooth skating stride is countered by above-average hockey intelligence and a willingness to sacrifice his body for the good of the team. He was very strong this summer at the Team USA selection camp in Lake Placid.

Bobby Sanguinetti, USA -- A first-round selection of the New York Rangers, Sanguinetti has been passed over by USA Hockey on a few occasions. But the national program could not afford to ignore the New Jersey-born defenseman this time around. Sanguinetti is dominating the Ontario Hockey League with Brampton and could well be the best puck-moving defenseman playing in this tournament. He is a stone-cold threat to score any time the United States is handed a power play.

David Skokan, Slovakia -- A late-round selection of the New York Rangers last year, Skokan is in his second year of play in the QMJHL. Playing for Rimouski, Skokan has developed into a prototypical two-way center, good in his own end with a fair bit of creativity in the offensive zone. His ability to play virtually any style of game – from run-and-gun to tight-checking – will make him an invaluable asset to the Slovakian team.

Jeremy Smith, USA -- This American-born goalie has been the toast of the Ontario Hockey League for the first few months of the 2007-08 season. Playing for Plymouth, Smith leads the league with a .931 save percentage. He had a stellar selection camp in Lake Placid this summer, standing out despite a strong collection of goalies on hand. If he can maintain his club form with the national team, Smith should assume the No. 1 job in the Czech Republic.

Brandon Sutter, Canada -- CTN loved watching Sutter play in the Super Series. Sutter does all the little things that are telling in a victory. He is a dynamo in his own end, kills penalties with abandon, hits like a freight train and is underrated offensively. So far, Sutter has done very little to sully his impeccable hockey bloodlines. Don’t expect him to start on junior hockey’s biggest stage later this month.

Magnus Svensson Pääjärvi, Sweden -- The only 16-year-old to ever be selected to the Swedish Under-20 team, Svensson is already playing for Timra in the Swedish Elite League. He was a dominant force at last year’s U-18 World Championships, scoring nine points in seven games. It will be interesting to see how much of a role he is given in the tournament, but it is a safe bet that he will earn serious ice time.

John Tavares, Canada -- Assuming he makes the team, which should be a given, Tavares will be the most-watched player in the Czech Republic. Not eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until 2009, Tavares appears to be NHL ready now. He is dominating the OHL and could eventually break many of Wayne Gretzky’s junior hockey records. He will be under intense pressure as a member of Team Canada, but this special youngster has shown over and over again that he is up to the task.

Vyacheslav Voinov, Russia – Considered to be the top Russian prospect in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Voinov was one of the rare bright spots for Team Russia in its disappointing showing against Team Canada in this past fall’s Super Series. Despite his youth, Voinov has extensive international experience and will be a stabilizing force on the Russian blue line. His ability to dominate this tournament will go a long way in determining Russia’s fortunes.

Jakub Voracek, Czech Republic -- Voracek has very little left to prove. He was chosen in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, seventh overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets last season and had an extended stay at training camp. Plus, he is dominating the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for a second-straight year, averaging two points per game with Halifax. But, for all his success at the club level, Voracek has rarely dominated at the international level. This could be the year for one of the most talented offensive players in the world.

The Opening Faceoff | The Breakaway | The Penalty Box


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