The World Junior Championship generally is considered a tournament for the best 19-year-olds on the planet. It's a rare occurrence, especially among the elite teams, that an 18-year-old player is added to the mix.
For Canada, which is going for its fifth straight gold medal, there are two such players on the roster.
, a top candidate to be the first pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, was named to the team, as was defenseman Ryan Ellis
, who is a power-play specialist.
A third, forward Evander Kane
, was added as an injury replacement just prior to the start of the tournament. A projected 2009 first-round pick, Kane is among the Western Hockey League's leading scorers with 22 goals and 48 points in his first 28 games.
Tavares making the team was no surprise. He's one of four players returning from last year's team that won gold in the Czech Republic, and coach Pat Quinn
has anointed him the team's top-line center and named him an alternate captain.
Ellis' rise to the ranks of the elite has been as surprising as it's been swift.
The 5-foot-9, 183-pound defenseman started the season ranked as a "B" player on NHL Central Scouting's Futures List, which grouped players into A, B and C categories. Tavares, obviously, was an A-class player.
But after a spectacular start to his junior season with the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires, Ellis zoomed up the rankings. When Central Scouting's Preliminary Rankings were released in November, Ellis was ranked No. 7 among OHL skaters (second among defensemen).
He's earned high marks for spending all season ranked in the top five in the OHL in scoring. With 48 points in 30 games, he's currently fourth in the league and first among defensemen, and his 15 goals are tops among defensemen. He is a plus-31 (second in the league), and Windsor coach Bob Boughner estimates Ellis plays 25-30 minutes per game.
Among the players Ellis trails in the scoring race are Tavares and Windsor teammate Taylor Hall. If he somehow can catch them, he would become the second defenseman to lead the OHL in scoring in 63 years, joining Bryan Fogarty
, who posted 155 points in 60 games with the Niagara Falls Thunder in 1988-89.
"He's got a great shot and he gets it through to the net," said Central Scouting's Chris Edwards. "A lot of guys have their shots blocked, but he's got a real knack for getting it through, and that leads to a lot of tip-in and rebound goals.
"He's a really smart, heady defenseman. His puck movement is excellent. His puck movement and the way he moves the puck around the zone is excellent. He's a real high-end offensive guy."
Despite his gaudy numbers and burgeoning reputation, Ellis was surprised to make this year's World Juniors team.
"I was a little bit (surprised)," Ellis told NHL.com. "Actually, a lot (surprised). It was a tense couple days. It came down to the last days and everyone was pretty nervous. It was a pretty tense time for myself as well as a bunch of other guys."
Ellis was expecting a phone call in his hotel room between 6 and 8 p.m., so he tried to nap to break the tension. It didn't help very much.
"From 6 to 8 they were making phone calls to guys' rooms," said Ellis. "I tried to get some sleep and woke up around 7, and then it was the longest hour of my life to get that phone call."
The phone call never came. Instead, fellow defensemen P.K. Subban and Colten Teubert
came to his room to deliver the news personally.
"I sent my agent and my mom and dad and my sister and my girlfriend a text just saying I made it," he said. "Then we had to get some food and I had to sign some stuff, there were 400 jerseys to sign. Then we were on our way for a skate … it's been pretty dizzying."
Barring injury or poor play, Ellis has accepted the fact that he won't see as much ice time during the tournament as he's used to in Windsor. All that matters, he says, is the gold medal.
"I think my role is not as going to be like it is on Windsor," he said. "More than anything, I want to win the gold medal. Doesn't matter how well I do."
When he does play, he'll be going with and against the elite players in his age group, many of whom are top NHL prospects or have NHL experience, like teammates Alex Pietrangelo
and Zach Boychuk
"Being able to be playing with guys like that, that I can keep up with guys like that, that's a lot to say for myself," Ellis said. "Even though I'm small I can still be at that level."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.