When Marco Scandella
took the ice for his first NHL game in November of last year, he was prepared. And when he helped lead the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals in the Spring, the youngster was, in some respects, already a veteran of high-pressure hockey. He’d played in big games before. He knew what to expect thanks to his experience gained one season earlier.
Scandella is one of 10 current Wild players to have suited up for their home nations at the IIHF World Junior Championships, arguably the most respected international hockey tournament in the world for players under the age of 20.
For the players, the World Juniors is a chance to win gold for their home countries, but the playing experience in a high pressure environment can often be the greatest reward.
Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr says the World Junior tournament is the closest experience to NHL playoffs for a young prospect, and it can be instrumental in helping young players prepare for the NHL.
“It’s a big stage for these kids to play on,” he explained. “For those fortunate enough to play in it, it’s a huge learning curve.”
This year, those fortunate few will likely include a record number of Minnesota Wild prospects. And for a batch of youngsters that has already been ranked second in the NHL by ESPN, having a few more players gain World Juniors experience can only benefit the players, and the team.
A staggering eight Wild prospects have the potential to make their national teams and play at the tournament, which will be held Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Calgary, Alta.
Both Zack Phillips
and Brett Bulmer
, forwards who are currently racking up points in the QMJHL and WHL respectively, have been invited to team Canada’s selection camp.
In Sweden, goaltender Johan Gustafsson
, winger Johan Larsson
, and first-round draft pick Jonas Brodin
have been named to the team. NCAA forwards Charlie Coyle
of Boston University and Jason Zucker
of Denver represented Team USA last year and have both been named to this year’s preliminary roster of 29 players. Of course Finland’s Mikael Granlund
is a lock to represent Finland.
All are enjoying outstanding seasons thus far in 2011-2012. Since October 14, Phillips has recorded at least one point in every game for a 22-game point streak. After an impressive performance in nine NHL games before a reassignment to Kelowna, Bulmer has shot to fourth on his team in scoring (9-10=19) despite playing in just 13 games. While playing in one of the best leagues outside of the NHL, Brodin is a +4 with four assists, Larsson has tallied 22 points and Gustafsson owns a paltry 1.99 goals against average.
Zucker has been on a tear, posting four goals and six assists over a six-game point streak and owning a team-leading 20 points (8-12=20). Coyle is averaging just under a point per game with 13 (3-10=13) in 14 games with BU. And all Granlund has done is lead the entire Finnish League in points (36) and assists (22) through 28 games.
“If we could get all eight – that would be exceptional. It’s not something that happens very often,” said Flahr, who noted that no team he has been a part of has had that many prospects skate in the tournament.
The players who make their teams will be exposed to what is likely the highest level of hockey they have played. Often, World Juniors forces players into new roles.
“A lot of these kids play on juniors teams where they’re the best player, where they play all the important minutes,” said Flahr. “Some of them have to put their egos in check playing for [their country].”
While the level of play is a jump, the immense pressure of World Juniors can be the greater challenge. The hundreds of thousands of fans who attend each year expect their teams to perform – and to win.
Flahr said that holds especially true for Team Canada. “Up there, it’s a cultural thing,” he said.
That is something Scandella knows too well. When he played at World Juniors in 2010 in Saskatchewan, Team Canada played Team USA for gold. In front of their home crowd, the Canadians lost 6-5 in overtime in one of the most memorable World Junior games in recent memory.
But that’s just the type of experience that helps prospects grow into NHL mainstays.
Despite the loss, Flahr said Scandella’s stock as a prospect jumped when he showed success at that level.
“To see a player handle the pressure of that tournament and play well is a pretty good indicator that he can play at [the NHL] level,” he explained.
Of course, winning the whole thing, as Zucker did two years ago, is a pretty good experience as well. If Canada, the United States, Finland or Sweden come away with gold this year, it's likely another Wild prospect will have tasted victory on the World Junior stage. Those high pressure experiences can only help them when they eventually pull on a Minnesota Wild sweater.