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World Junior provides a glimpse into the future

by Chuck Gormley
The 2009 World Junior Championship, which runs Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ottawa, offers an opportunity to see the NHL's future stars before they sign the big-money contracts that carry even bigger expectations.

They also offer a chance for draft-eligible players to improve their rankings for the 2009 Entry Draft, where Canada’s John Tavares and Sweden’s Victor Hedman are expected to battle for the top spot.

Four of the five Atlantic Division teams have a top prospect competing in the 10-team tournament. Here’s a closer look at the division’s top five prospects.

Philadelphia Flyers --
James van Riemsdyk, U.S., right wing, selected second in 2007 Entry Draft.

If the Flyers had their way, van Riemsdyk would be midway through his first pro season. General Manager Paul Holmgren tried signing van Riemsdyk over the summer, but was turned down by the University of New Hampshire sophomore, who didn't see room on a roster that included right wings Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul.

Van Riemsdyk leads the NCAA at 1.53 points per game (9 goals, 26 points in 17 games), leading many to speculate he could be in an NHL uniform by the end of this season, if not sooner. Last year, the Islanders convinced top prospect Kyle Okposo to leave the University of Minnesota for the NHL midway through his season.

"Our concern," said Flyers President Peter Luukko, "is whether he's getting strong enough competition."

Van Riemsdyk, who will turn 20 in May, led all scorers in last year’s World Junior with 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists). Many believe the Americans’ top line of van Riemsdyk, Nashville Predators top prospect Colin Wilson and draft-eligible Jordan Schroeder is the best in the tournament.

This will be van Riemsdyk’s third crack at a World Junior gold medal. The native of Middletown, N.J., won a bronze in 2007 and failed to medal last year.

New Jersey Devils --
Mattias Tedenby, Sweden, left wing, selected No. 24 in 2008 Entry Draft.

While most fans will be glued to teammates Victor Hedman and Los Angeles Kings rookie Oscar Moller, Tedenby will be difficult to miss.

An incredible skater who can weave through traffic better than a Manhattan cab driver, Tedenby reminds NHL scouts of a young Saku Koivu. He was rated the third-best European in the 2008 Draft and could be in a Devils uniform as early as next season.

"Mattias is excellent on every shift," said Goran Stubb, the NHL director of European scouting. "He has outstanding speed, stick work and work ethic. He is small but fearless -- he takes hits and always comes back. He creates scoring chances with his outstanding skating and is very difficult to stop when he is at full speed."

"Mattias is excellent on every shift. He has outstanding speed, stick work and work ethic. He is small but fearless -- he takes hits and always comes back. He creates scoring chances with his outstanding skating and is very difficult to stop when he is at full speed."
-- Goran Stubb, the NHL director of European scouting

If there is a knock on Tedenby, it is his play away from the puck. That's something the Devils almost certainly will correct, but not at the expense of his offensive talent.

At 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, Tedenby relies on his speed, tenacity and finesse and could be Sweden’s first player off the bench in the event of a shootout. He is creative enough offensively to be an effective power-play specialist when he arrives in North Jersey.

New York Islanders --
Jyri Niemi, Finland, defenseman, selected No. 72 in 2008 Entry Draft.

Think Bryan Berard in his prime. Like Berard, Niemi can bring the heat from the blue line. His blasts routinely get clocked in the high 90s and some have topped 100 mph.

"He has an offensive flair to his game and he's entertaining to watch," said NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire.

The 18-year-old native of Hameenkyro, Finland scored 14 goals last season for the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League and is expected to be the Finns’ biggest power-play threat. But he is far from a one-trick pony. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, Niemi plays with an edge that will force opponents to think twice before they cross the Finnish blue line.

Like many Europeans, Niemi (pronounced nee-EM-ee) is grooming himself for the NHL by playing in North America. Now in his second year in Saskatoon, he speaks fluent English and likely will spend another year or two at the junior level before turning pro.

New York Rangers -- Tomas Kundratek, Czech Republic, defenseman, selected No. 90 in 2008 Entry Draft.

The highest drafted player on the Czech junior team, Kundratek celebrated his 19th birthday Friday by getting stomped 8-1 by Canada in the tournament opener.

The Czechs are thin on talent up front, which will put more pressure on Kundratek to hold off the more powerful Canadians, Americans and Swedes.

Currently in his first season in North America, Kundratek got off to a rough start with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, breaking his hand in a preseason game. Since his season debut Oct. 31 he has a goal and 6 assists and is a plus-5 through 21 games.

Kundratek will not wow fans at either end of the ice, but he can become a solid NHL blueliner if he continues to develop in Medicine Hat.

The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have a prospect playing in the World Juniors, but you can bet their fans will keep a close eye on the progress of Angelo Esposito, who was taken by the Penguins with the 20th pick of the 2007 Draft and then traded to the Atlanta Thrashers last February in the Marian Hossa deal.

Esposito, who turns 20 in February, was heralded as the next Guy Lafleur three years ago. But when his offensive production dipped, he fell to the Penguins at the bottom of the first round.

Adding insult to Esposito’s declining stock was his distinction of being only the second player to be cut from Canada’s World Junior roster three times. He made it this year and scored a goal in his first game, Friday’s 8-1 rout of the Czechs.

Esposito is reaping the benefits of playing alongside Tavares, whom many consider the best player not in the NHL.

"I just have to get myself open because he'll find your tape," Esposito said.
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