Not only has the World Junior Championship become a thrill a minute for those fans having a vested interest in watching their country go for gold, but NHL scouts have traditionally flooded the event to catch a glimpse of the stars of tomorrow.
While viewing many of the top prospects eligible for the 2012 Draft might be at the top of every scout's agenda, NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr is quick to note that expectations of those young players are usually tempered.
"There's a lot of value if a [draft-eligible] player is able to play a regular role and contribute to the team," Marr told NHL.com. "But just the fact he's selected and chosen for the team is a positive for that player. I think what everyone needs to keep in mind and what NHL scouts understand is that this is a tournament for 19-year-olds, so just the fact a 17- or 18-year-old is selected is very impressive in itself.
2012 WJC EVALUATION CAMP
Adaptability a necessity for U.S. hopefuls
Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
Dean Blais, who will coach the U.S. at the 2012 World Junior Championship, said he'll be looking for players flexible enough to fill different roles than they might be used to. READ MORE ›
"It's difficult for an 18-year-old to go in there and excel because it is a 19-year-old tournament."
The Russians proved that point last year when the country celebrated its first gold medal since 2003 with a roster that consisted of all but one 19-year-old player. Forward Yevgeni Kuznetsov was 18 at the time.
"There were a lot of 18-year-olds on some other teams, but the Russians were able to excel in that tournament because it is a 19-year-old tournament," Marr said.
Marr did say there have been exceptions to the rule in recent years at the World Junior Championship. Three players come immediately to mind -- Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson
, Switzerland forward Nino Niederreiter
and Canadian forward Evander Kane
Kane was an injury replacement for Dana Tyrell
during the 2009 WJC and filled in rather admirably with 6 points in six games in helping Canada to a fifth straight gold medal. Kane would go No. 4 to the Atlanta Thrashers at the '09 Draft.
In Niederreiter's draft year of 2010, he led the Swiss to an upset of the Russians in the tournament quarterfinal round with a pair of goals, including the winner in overtime, in a 3-2 win. He finished the tournament with 6 goals and 10 points to place seventh among all scorers. Niederreiter was selected No. 5 by the New York Islanders
Larsson was a tower of strength along the blue line for Sweden in the 2011 WJC, and also chipped in with 1 goal and 4 points in six games. He went No. 4 to the New Jersey Devils
last June and is already playing a major role in the NHL.
Marr said he is unsure what Russia's roster plans are this year. If it again chooses to go with an older lineup, the odds of seeing top 2012 draft prospects Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting or Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts are slim.
There are a few players he and his staff will be watching closely, however, including Latvian center Zemgus Girgensons of the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the United States Hockey League and Czech Republic wing Tomas Hyka
of the Gatineau Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"As a hockey fan in Canada, this tournament has almost become a holiday tradition," Marr said. "What's interesting to see is how strongly it's embraced throughout all the communities. It just kind of takes over and there's a fevered pitch about it. The kids pick up on all of this and if you put them in that environment for two weeks, they're laying it all out there, game in and game out. It's an exciting brand of hockey and it's a slightly different brand of hockey that the fans are accustomed to, and I think that's one of the reasons everyone enjoys it so much."
The 2012 WJC is from Dec. 26, 2011 to Jan. 5, 2012 in Calgary and Edmonton, while playoff, relegation and medal games will take place at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.
Here's a look at a few of the top 2012 Draft prospects scheduled to join their respective countries for preliminary camp prior to the start of the 2012 WJC on Dec. 26. There's a chance a few of these players might not make the final cut for their respective clubs.
Group A (Calgary)
Nail Yakupov of Team Russia. (Photo: Metcalfe Photography)
The defending tournament champion will have a team loaded with talent, but it still remains to be seen if coach Valeri Bragin will field an older lineup. It's hard to ignore the fact that 2012 prospects Yakupov, Grigorenko or even goalie Andrey Makarov could turn out to be the team's top players.
Yakupov, of the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting, is considered by many to be the top player eligible for the draft, but he's already missed six games this season with a sore back. Despite that fact, NHL Central Scouting's No. 1-rated player in the OHL still leads the team with 46 points and a plus-17 rating in 23 games.
Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts is Central Scouting's No. 1-rated skater from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He leads his team with 23 goals and 50 points in 23 games. Makarov, meanwhile, is the top-rated goalie in the Western Hockey League. In 26 appearances with the Saskatoon Blades, Makarov is 17-9-0 with a 2.90 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
The top-three prospects, according to Central Scouting, are all invited to Sweden's preliminary camp -- No. 1 Filip Forsberg of Leksand at center, No. 2 Sebastian Collberg of Frolunda at right wing, and No. 3 Pontus Aberg of Djurgardens at left wing.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Forsberg was spectacular for his country at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka
Memorial Tournament in August, totaling 4 goals and 10 points in six games for the silver medal-winning Swedes.
"He's a talented, speedy, two-way forward who can score the big goals," NHL Director of European Scouting, Goran Stubb, told NHL.com. "He also has a good selection of shots."
Collberg had 21 goals and 44 points in 35 games with Frolunda HC in 2010-11. In addition to a great wrist shot, scouts love the fact he isn't afraid to initiate contact in the corners.
"He has a great first step … is so quick," Stubb said. "He rushes down the wing and shoots a lot; he's got soft hands and a quick shot. He's a player with great offensive instincts."
Aberg missed being eligible for the 2011 Draft by eight days. He produced 13 goals and 30 points in 41 games with Djurgarden's junior club in the J20 SuperElit league last season and had 7 goals and 14 points in 28 games in the Elitserien this season. Aberg's contract with Djurgarden runs through the 2013-14 season.
"He's played great to open up the fall season," Stubb said. "He's a speedy, hard-working winger with a nose for the net … a sniper with a very good overall skill level."
Switzerland: Joel Vermin
, a 5-foot-11, 192-pound right wing heads the list. Vermin has 7 goals and 12 points in 21 games with Bern this season. Vermin has been limited this season with a foot injury, but he's expected to join the team at the WJC.
The top draft-eligible player on the preliminary roster is 6-foot-1, 194-pound defenseman Patrik Luza of Slovan Bratislava. Luza, who had 12 points in 33 games for Bratislava last season, is the No. 1-rated skater on Central Scouting's preliminary list for Slovaks.
Girgensons, who is committed to the University of Vermont next year, is considered by many to be the best prospect available from the USHL this season. In 18 games with the Dubuque Fighting Saints this season, Girgensons has 9 goals, 20 points and a plus-3 rating. He also leads the team with 8 power-play points and 62 shots on goal.
Group B (Edmonton)
Cody Ceci of Team Canada. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
The team that will probably be considered the favorite has five legitimate prospects that will be drafted relatively early in June. Defensively, there's Cody Ceci of the Ottawa 67's in the OHL, along with Mathew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels and Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips in the WHL. At forward, University of Michigan standout Phillip Di Giuseppe and Tanner Pearson of the Barrie Colts in the OHL could surprise.
Murray, who hasn't played since suffering an ankle injury on Oct. 19, has been skating with the Silvertips.
"I still need to get it a little bit stronger, but it's definitely been nice to get out on the ice and skate with the boys," Murray said. "I'm confident I'll be ready for the World Junior camp, and I'm excited to get to Calgary to compete for a spot. My expectations this year are to definitely make the team. I think it would be a lot of fun to play in that tournament, especially since it is in Canada."
One player who has improved tremendously on the prospect list is Pearson, who has a team-leading 22 goals and league-leading 60 points in 28 games for Barrie this season.
"Tanner has made a steady improvement every season in the OHL," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "This season he has broken out and has led the league in scoring almost from the start. Tanner has become a skilled forward with lots of finish around the net. He has very good hands and can handle the puck very well in traffic. He sees the ice and passes the puck very well, is creative and highly skilled."
After serving as captain for the U.S. National Under-17 Team last year, defenseman Jacob Trouba is in a similar role with the U-18 club this season. He has the potential to one day become a top-pair defenseman in the NHL -- he's got 3 goals and 6 assists in 23 games with the U-18 Team.
"He has offense skills and he really does defend well," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "You can just tell by how he plays in all areas of the ice that he's a big kid who skates really well, he loves to jump into the play and has confidence because he knows his skating can get him back, so he rarely gets caught out of position."
While Trouba is a top 2012 prospect to watch, scouts will also be following the progress of 2013 draft-eligible defenseman Seth Jones, who has looked extremely impressive this season. Jones offers good size and skating.
Jacob Trouba of Team USA. (Photo: Getty Images)
"The more I watched [Jones] at development camp [in August], the more I liked him," U.S. National Team coach Dean Blais told NHL.com. "I would say he has a good chance. He's got size and moves the puck really well and shows confidence."
There's little doubt defenseman Olli Maatta of the OHL's London Knights will look to raise his stock in his second straight appearance in the WJC for his country. In 29 games, the 6-1, 202-pound Maatta has 13 assists and 14 points with a plus-16 rating.
"The first thing you notice is his outstanding skating ability," Edwards said. "He's smooth, agile, just gliding out there."
Halifax Mooseheads right wing Martin Frk, who has been sidelined since suffering a concussion in a preseason game on Oct. 6, is actually slated to play for the first time Dec. 9. His status for the WJC remains a big question, however. The native of Karlov produced 22 goals and 50 points in 62 games as a rookie in 2010-11.
In addition to Frk, there are two other prospects looking to make an impact for the Czechs -- Radek Faksa of the Kitchener Rangers and Tomas Hyka
of the Gatineau Olympiques. Faksa, a 6-3, 202-pound center was rated No. 4 in the OHL on Central Scouting's preliminary list. He's produced 14 goals and 29 points in 28 games with the Rangers. Hyka, a 5-11, 160-pound right wing, was ranked No. 10 among skaters in the QMJHL.
Hyka was actually passed over in the 2011 Draft but held his own in training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers
in September to move back on the radar. A solid tournament could go a long way in boosting his draft stock. According to Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau, Hyka is good on the power play and very skilled.
"We don't usually put guys on the list that were passed over unless they are having a really, really special year," Bordeleau said. Hyka has 10 goals and 30 points in 26 games with the Olympiques this season.
Right wing Thomas Spelling
, who is currently dealing with a hip injury, had 3 goals and 7 points in five games for his country during the 2011 Division 1 tournament at the WJC. He will be counted on to lead the attack in the big tournament this time around. Spelling, ranked No. 1 by Central Scouting among prospects from Denmark eligible for the 2012 Draft, has 14 goals and 24 points in 21 games with Herning this season.
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