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Pens Prospects Fight for World Junior Championship Roster Spots

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship will be held Dec. 26, 2012 to Jan. 5, 2013 in Ufa, Russia. And several Penguins prospects are expected to participate. But first they must earn a spot in their country’s lineup. Here are Pittsburgh’s prospects vying for a chance to wear their country’s sweater in the WJC.

Team Canada invited 37 players to their National Junior Team selection camp, which takes place Dec. 11-13 at Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary.

While nothing is ever guaranteed, defenseman Scott Harrington is considered to be a lock to make Team Canada’s roster. Harrington, Pittsburgh’s second-round pick (54th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, is hoping to make his second-straight WJC team after helping Canada earn a bronze medal in last year’s tournament.

Photo courtesy: Pittsburgh Penguins

“He was a bit of a surprise making that World Junior team (last year),” Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “They needed a player to fill a certain shutdown, PK role. That’s what he did. He’s gained a lot of experience over the last year.”

Harrington, 19, is captain of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Under Harrington’s leadership the Knights boast the best record in the OHL with a 26-5-0-2 mark, and helped steer the club on an active 18-game winning streak.

Harrington (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) served as a Knights alternate captain last season and helped lead the Knights to the OHL championship and a runner-up finish in the Memorial Cup Final. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Harrington is in consideration for wearing a “C” with Canada at the WJC.

“Coming in and being the captain this year for a very good junior team, he could be the captain of Team Canada,” Fitzgerald said, “because of his experience in the Memorial Cup and last year’s World Juniors.”

Fitzgerald expects Harrington to fill a similar role with Canada in the 2013 WJC as the Pens defensive prospect occupied in the 2012 tournament.

“I see him being that guy to fill the same role, be a good complimentary defenseman,” he said. “He could be a real good fit for a more offensive-minded defenseman. He’ll have their back while they go. That doesn’t mean he’s not capable of pushing the puck north to create offense as well. I see him filling the same type of role.”

Derrick Pouliot, a Penguins’ first-round pick (eighth overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft, will be attending his first Team Canada camp and will be competing with 36 other players for a spot on his country’s roster.

Pouliot, 18, certainly has solid credentials to consider. He’s been a prominent leader and contributor to the Portland Winterhawks’ current first-place record in the Western Hockey League with a 25-5-1-0 record. Pouliot also helped the Winterhawks reach the WHL Final in back-to-back seasons in 2010-11 and ’11-12.

Photo courtesy: Portland Winterhawks

“I think it’s a great step for him that he got invited as an 18-year-old; it’s really a 19-year-old tournament,” Fitzgerald said. “For Derrick to get invited to the camp and have a chance to make the team, I think it’s a great experience for him. He’s a guy they’ll look at as an offensive, power-play type of guy for their team. Whether he makes it or not, it’s the experience in itself. Playing with all eyes on you, everyone is coming to watch, you’re under the microscope. It’s a good opportunity for him.

“If it doesn’t happen that’s OK, too. It doesn’t change how we feel about him as a prospect by any means. It’s just a hurdle, a little adversity. Moving forward it’s going to help him.”

Pouliot (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) has a brilliant blend of offensive talent and defensive abilities that could make him a valuable asset for Team Canada.

“This kid can really skate. He generates a lot of offense through his legs,” Fitzgerald said comparing him to current Penguins blueliner Kris Letang. “He really can pass the puck. He zips pucks. These are quick-thinking plays through seams in the offensive zone. I think he’s going to be a real good offensive defenseman. He has a lot of poise for a young man. When he wants to go and generate offense, he can do it with his legs.

“He has as good a chance as anyone else. At the end of the day he’ll play well and show them that he’s there to make the team. His attitude will be great.”

Penguins defensive prospect Olli Maatta is expected to be named to Team Finland for the third-straight tournament. Maatta served as captain of Finland’s summer evaluation camp.

Maatta, a Penguins’ first-round pick (22nd overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, has been a defensive leader with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League – and a teammate of fellow Penguins prospect Scott Harrington.

Photo courtesy: Claus Anderson
“Man, he’s such a likable prospect,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s young, turned 18 in August. He’s very mature for his age with his game. He has the big body. He can skate well. He can defend. He can move the puck. He gives you offense and defense. He does both equally well. He just gives you everything.”

Maatta has a lot of experience with the WJC. He played for Team Finland the past two tournaments, making his debut at just 16 years old in 2010-11.

Maatta (6-foot-2, 206 pounds) played his first season of North American hockey in 2011-12. The No. 1-overall pick by London in the CHL Import Draft played an integral part in the team’s success. The Knights won the OHL championship and came up just one game short of a Memorial Cup title, losing in the Final to Shawinigan.

The things Maatta has learned playing in pressure games and situations, plus another World Junior Championship against the best teenagers in the world, will only make him a better player.

“He got the experience from last year,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a big thing playing for your country. He’s just chomping at the bit to get going. He brings a wealth of experience for such a young kid, too. Think about coming to North America and having the year he’s had, going to the Memorial Cup Final, being drafted in the first round, then going back. He’s got a lot of experience in a short time.”

Another Penguins’ prospect that is a lock to represent his country in the World Junior Championship is forward Teddy Blueger. The 18-year-old played for Team Latvia in the WJC last year.

Photo courtesy: Getty Images
“He played last year so he’ll play this year,” Fitzgerald said. “He should be able to go over there and get a chance to play high minutes against top kids in the world. That doesn’t go unnoticed.”

Blueger relocated to America to play prep hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota (the same school that produced Sidney Crosby). In his final two seasons in 2010-11 and ’11-12, Blueger helped lead his school to back-to-back USA Hockey National Under-18 championships. Last year, his senior campaign, he led the team in scoring with 88 points (24G-64A).

Blueger, the Penguins second-round pick (52nd overall) in 2012, is playing college hockey with the Minnesota State Mavericks this season.

“He’s taking a different path than his countrymen, coming over and playing prep school hockey and (going) from there to the WCHA,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s a real big jump. With every week you get more comfortable with college hockey. I don’t think any of us thought he’d have an impact as a freshman, which expectation-wise is unfair to think that anyways. It’s baby steps and you think long-term with guys like that. The path that they’ve chosen, particularly Teddy, going to college is a longer path. That’s OK. Kids develop at different ages. He’s gaining some momentum with confidence.”

The final Penguins prospect looking to earn a spot in the World Junior Championship is 2012 seventh-round pick Anton Zlobin. The Russian forward is one of 31 players invited to participate in Team Russia’s National Junior Team selection camp, Dec. 7-20 in Novogorsk, Russia.

“He has a chance. I think he can make that team,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a real slippery player. He can shoot the puck. He’s smart in the offensive zone. He gets into holes. His skating has improved. He’s a skilled player. He sees the ice well. He’s not the biggest fellow. He just thinks the game well.”

Zlobin, 19, has been an offensive force in the Qubec Major Junior Hockey League. He’s tallied 40 points (15G-25A) in 30 games, including a 15-game scoring streak, with Val d’Or. Last year with Shawinigan, Zlobin notched 76 points (40G-36A) in 66 contests and helped his squad capture the Memorial Cup by scoring both goals, including the overtime winner, in a 2-1 triumph over London in the final game.

“You can’t replace that experience,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re put into situations to succeed and you can go either way with it. This kid succeeded. He helped take a team that didn’t finish well, but because they hosted the tournament they got the bid. You could have easily packed it in or chucked it away, but his group, with his involvement, they stuck it out and came together at the right time. He was a huge part of that.”

Zlobin played for Russia in the summer's Canada-Russian Challenge. Playing again for Russia would be a huge honor for Zlobin, considering that the WJC tournament is taking place in Russia. It would be Zlobin’s first experience in world junior play, but he has represented his country before in the Subway Super Series.

“I saw him play in that Russian Subway series,” Fitzgerald said. “He played with (12th-overall draft pick Mikhail) Grigorenko. They were good. He did well. All indications are that he has a real good chance of making the team.”

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