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U-18 World Championship loaded with 2009 prospects

by Bill Meltzer
The annual IIHF World Under-18 Championship may not garner as much publicity as its Under-20 counterpart, but the event usually provides a good preview to the upcoming Entry Draft.

This year is no exception, as the tournament comes to the United States for the first time. Preliminary-round action starts Thursday in Moorhead, Minn., and Fargo, N.D.

The two biggest names in the 2009 Entry Draft -- Canada's John Tavares and Sweden's Victor Hedman -- will not be playing, however.

Both players have long since reached the point where they have more to gain playing in the Under-20s -- or at the senior level -- than against players their own age. Plus, Tavares is still involved in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs as a member of the London Knights.

Likewise, some other potential top-10 picks in the draft, such as Team USA regular Jordan Schroeder, have already moved on.

But there will still be an impressive array of young talent on display at the U-18 tournament.

The following is a preview of the tournament's medal contenders, with a look at the top prospect to watch on each squad. In addition to medal candidates Russia, USA, Sweden, Canada, Finland and Czech Republic, the tourney will also feature Slovakia and Switzerland. Germany and Norway enter the tournament primarily hoping to avoid relegation to Division I.

Team USA

While Team Canada is the undisputed king of the Under-20 Worlds, their neighbors to the south have become a perennial powerhouse at the Under-18 level. The National Team Development Program (NTDP) created by USA Hockey provides selected young players with high-level instruction and the chance to train and play together all season.

The NTDP provides the backbone of a U-18 national team that has won medals in five consecutive tournaments, including three gold medals. But Team USA has been upended by Russia in each of the past two tournaments -- once in the gold-medal game and once in the semifinals -- and will be looking to regain the gold on its home ice this year under head coach Ron Rolston.

Player to watch: Jeremy Morin is arguably Team USA's most dangerous player when he gets the puck on his stick. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward is very shifty and has a quick shot release.

Team Canada

The Canadians have run hot and cold at the Under-18s in recent years, as much of the country's attention centers on the Under-20 event. In addition to Tavares, Team Canada will not have the services of likely top-10 picks Evander Kane, Matt Duchene or Brayden Schenn at the Under-18s.

Even so, Team Canada is always a threat to take away a medal at this event, especially after copping gold last season. Head coach Mike Johnston's team is one of the deepest in the tournament and is the biggest and most physically punishing entry.

Player to watch: Red Deer Rebels center Landon Ferraro has emerged as a goal-scoring force at the WHL level and figures to continue his success at the Under-18s. Ferrraro scored 37 goals this year in his second full major-junior season. He is ranked No. 13 in NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings.

Team Russia

In the past two tournaments, Russia was led by superstar talents such as Nikita Filatov and the late Alexei Cherepanov. The teams also had solid depth. This time around, the roster does not seem as strong, at least on paper. Head coach Vladimir Plyushchev's team will have to spread around the scoring.

The Metallurg Magnitogorsk junior development program is arguably the best one going today in Russia, and the Under-18 national team roster often features a large number of Metallurg prospects. This year is no exception, with four Metallurg hopefuls on the roster, including goaltender Igor Bobkov.

Players to watch: Offensive-minded defenseman Dmitri Orlov has captained Russia's Under-18 team and has already cracked the Continental Hockey League with Metallurg. Dynamo Moscow forward Nikita Dvurechensky will also draw considerable attention from NHL scouts at the tournament. Orlov is ranked No. 10 among European prospects by NHL Central Scouting, while Dvurechensky is at No. 9.

Team Sweden

The Swedes stand a good chance of reaching the gold-medal game this year and boast a deep, experienced roster led by several players who will be playing in their second, or even third, Under-18 tourney.

Coach Stephan Lundh's team may be the best skating entry in this year's tourney. The squad figures to have a dangerous power play. The Swedes have also been producing a more aggressive brand of player than they did in the past.

Players to watch: Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson will be playing in his third and final Under-18 tournament while also playing in the past two Under-20 Worlds and competing in the Swedish Elite League for the past two seasons. Known for his speed, ice vision and deft touch with the puck, the Timra IK wunderkind stands a good chance of being a top-five pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. He is ranked No. 2 among all Euro prospects. Team Sweden also boasts likely first-rounder Jacob Josefson, top-rated goaltender Robin Lehner and Paajarvi's gifted TIK teammate, Anton Lander.

Team Finland

Earlier in the decade, Team Finland routinely iced Under-18 squads that were serious medal contenders. The quality and depth of players have fallen off a bit in recent years, and most of the rosters have been filled with role-playing types of prospects. 

Head coach Mika Marttila will need to get the combination of grit, opportunistic offense and strong defense and goaltending, which are Team Finland hallmarks at the higher international levels, to compete for a medal at this tournament.

Players to watch: If Team Finland is to make noise in the tournament, it will need strong performances out of both Toni Rajala and Joonas Nattinen. The pint-sized Rajala is a pure offensive talent who scored a pair of goals in the Under-20 tournament and is already an SM-Liiga regular for Ilves Tampere. He is ranked No.14 among European prospects. Likewise, Nattinen played in the Under-20s and saw time in the top Finnish pro league with the Espoo Blues. He's not as explosive offensively as Rajala but he's a more well-rounded player, ranked No. 11.

Team Czech Republic

Two years ago, the Czechs were humiliated at the Under-18s. The squad found itself relegated to Division I, shocking the entire hockey world. It's no secret that the Czech -- and Slovak -- junior programs have been in disarray because of mass defections of talent to North American junior teams; but the extent of the decay did not become totally evident until the relegation.

Last year, the Czechs had little trouble earning a promotion back to the top level. The real test for coach Marek Sykora's team will come when it faces the elite squads in this year's tournament. The Czech roster is mostly composed of players from the domestic junior league -- in part by design but also due to the decline in depth and quality of prospects. Nevertheless, on any given day, the Czechs are capable of beating any team in the field.

Player to watch: Michal Hlinka showed promise in his first season at the QMJHL level. The Chicoutimi Sagueneens left winger produced 34 points in 41 games, and figures to continue improving. Although sometimes knocked for not using his size to its full advantage, Hlinka sees the ice well and can create time and space for himself and his linemates.

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