The Christmas break is over, and, with it, all three of our local NHL teams are back in action. Each played Tuesday and will take the ice again tonight. But while we are all closely watching the NHL teams, there is other very important hockey going on–just north of the border. The 2017 U20 World Junior Championships, taking place in Toronto and Montreal until January 5th (and broadcast on the NHL Network), are worth more than a passing viewing.
Not only is this is one of the most exciting tournaments you will ever see, fans get to see the performances of some of the best young players not yet in the NHL. To give you an idea of how big the tournament is, almost every great hockey player of the past 40 years has played in this tournament (it officially began in 1977), including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jaromir Jagr. Forty-four current players on the New York/New Jersey area teams have participated in the U20 WJCs in the past.*
Almost all the NHL team GMs, and many of their scouts, are up at the tournament. This is the time that teams start getting together and comparing notes about potential players to select in next June’s draft. Of particular interest are European players that stand out. And that’s because North American scouts and GMs do not get to view them against high end competition very often. Neither do we. So, for that alone, it is worth watching.
But, there is more. Most of the participants in this year’s tournament have already been drafted by NHL teams, including nine players drafted by our local teams. The tournament itself is divided into two groups of five countries–with each country competing against the others in their group during the preliminary round. After four games in six days, the weakest two teams in each group are eliminated (off to the “relegation round”). The other six teams compete for the gold medal during the last four days of the tournament.
Canada, United States, Russia, Sweden, and Finland all have won the tournament in recent years. But, after two games thus far, Finland is already in danger of elimination from the medals. The team of very talented very young prospects, just could not keep up with older more experienced players. Unless there is an upset against powerhouse Sweden this afternoon, it will be off to relegation for Finland.
If you only get to watch one game though, it should be the traditional New Year’s eve/afternoon match between Canada and the United States. Played this year at 3:30 in the afternoon, the atmosphere in the arena matches that of a Stanley Cup Final. If you can’t watch it live, make sure you watch it streamed later. Given the talent level this year particularly, it should be a tremendous battle.
More generally though, who should New York and New Jersey fans be watching in this tournament? Obviously, those players that have already been drafted by the local teams, which follows.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils have four prospects (one defensemen and three forwards) participating in the tournament.
Yegor Rykov, D, Russia–A good-sized blueliner, in his first full season in the KHL, Rykov has already posted five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in Russia’s first two tournament games. A very good, two-way defenseman, Rykov would be a nice addition to the Devils’ blue line. The problem is that he just signed a three-year extension with the KHL powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg. So, as much as you may fall in love with his game watching the tournament, unless New Jersey buys out his contract, don’t expect to see him at the Rock any time soon. (2016 NHL Draft, 5th Rd, #132)
Blake Speers, F, Canada–Sidelined with a broken wrist earlier this season, Speers has only skated in one game for the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL this year. If last year was any indication, the Greyhounds can expect quite a bit of offensive production going forward from the winger. In this tournament, he serves as a two-way forward for Canada–a player who can be trusted in all situations. (2015 NHL Draft, 3rd Rd, #67)
Michael McLeod, C, Canada–The potential number one center for the Devils in the coming years, McLeod is a playmaker with great speed. He still needs some work prior to be NHL-ready, but McLeod has been posting excellent numbers for the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL this season. (2016 NHL Draft, 1st Rd, #12)
Joey Anderson, RW, United States–While with the NTDP last season, Anderson played on a line with the talented WJC teammates Kieffer Bellows and Clayton Keller. He is not the offensive threat that either of the other two former linemates are, but he has more than held his own at Minnesota–Duluth this season. Anderson was named the NCHC Conference Rookie of the Month in November. (2016 NHL Draft, 3rd Rd, #73)
New York Islanders
The Islanders have three skaters who are playing in the U20 WJCs. All of them are forwards.
Mathew Barzal, C, Canada–Barzal is a very special player, who has the ability to change games with one rush and pass up the ice. A play-making center for the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds, Barzal was a late return from the Islanders to junior hockey. Whatever was thought about the decision to return Barzal to the WHL (I was opposed), he has done well for Seattle. Now in his second stint with the Canadian U20 WJC team, Barzal has recorded one goal and three assists in two games. (2015 NHL Draft, 1st Rd, #16)
Otto Koivula, F, Finland–Koivula was one of the younger players eligible for the 2016 NHL draft, and one of those with lots of pure talent but not a lot of finesse. This season Koivula has shown much more, playing in the Liiga (Finland’s top league) and producing well there. At 6’4″, 220, he has excellent size and good offensive instincts. Like some of his very talented, very young Finnish teammates, he has not shown much offense thus far at the tournament, but Koivula looks like he was an excellent pickup for the Isles this past summer. (2016 NHL Draft, 4th Rd, #120)
Kieffer Bellows, F, United States–Part of a very powerful Boston University contingent on the US team, Bellows is a goal scoring winger. He does not quite have the size to be a power forward, but he will crash the net when necessary. Thus far, he only has one assist in the US team’s two games (11 goals), but expect Bellows to contribute in a big way when the medal games are on the line. (2016 NHL Draft, 1st Rd, #19)
New York Rangers
The Rangers have one goaltender and one defenseman on two non-North American U20 WJCs rosters.
Adam Huska, G, Slovakia–Huska is the number one netminder for a weak Slovakian team. He is having an excellent season at the University of Connecticut, appearing in 10 games, with a 4-3-3 record (2.54 GAA, 92.6% save percentage), but no matter how much he stands on his head, Huska cannot make up for the powerhouses Slovakia is facing in this tournament. He got decimated in the first game he played, 5-0 against Canada, but is expected to do better against Latvia tomorrow. Either way, Huska will be in Connecticut for at least two (and maybe three) more years, so it might be worth taking a trip up sometime to watch him play. (2015 NHL Draft, 7th Rd, #184)
Sergei Zborovsky, D, Russia–Zborovsky is big and mobile, and, before he left for the WJCs, he was a scoring machine for the WHL Regina Pats. Now at 32 points in 28 games, and a plus 51 plus/minus ratio, he posted 16 points in five games earlier this month. He has five shots on goal in two Russian WJC games thus far. (2015 NHL Draft, 3rd Rd, #79)
* FYI, the 44 local (NJD, NYI, NYR) NHL roster players who have previously participated in this tournament include Mike Cammalleri (NJD–Can), Taylor Hall (NJD–Can), Adam Henrique (NJD–Can), Jacob Josefson (NJD–Swe), Sergey Kalinin (NJD–Rus), Kyle Palmieri (NJD–USA), PA Parenteau (NJD–Can), Devante Smith-Pelly (NJD–Can), Miles Wood (NJD–USA), Pavel Zacha (NJD–Cze), Jon Merrill (NJD–USA), Cory Schneider (NJD–USA), Anthony Beauvillier (NYI–Can), Jason Chimera (NYI–Can), Casey Cizikas (NYI–Can), Nikolay Kulemin (NYI–Rus), Andrew Ladd (NYI–Can), Brock Nelson (NYI–USA), Ryan Strome (NYI–Can), John Tavares (NYI–Can), Calvin de Haan (NYI–Can), Travis Hamonic (NYI–Can), Thomas Hickey (NYI–Can), Nick Leddy (NYI–USA), Adam Pelech (NYI–Can), Thomas Greiss (NYI–Ger), Jaroslav Halak (NYI–Svk), Pavel Buchnevich (NYR–Rus), Jesper Fast (NYR–Swe), Marek Hrivik (NYR–Svk), Chris Kreider (NYR–USA), Oscar Lindberg (NYR–Swe), JT Miller (NYR–USA), Rick Nash (NYR–Can), Derek Stepan (NYR–USA), Jimmy Vesey (NYR–USA), Mika Zibanejad (NYR–Swe), Mats Zuccarello (NYR–Nor), Adam Clendening (NYR–USA), Kevin Klein (NYR–Can), Ryan McDonagh (NYR–USA), Brady Skjei (NYR–USA), Marc Staal (NYR–Can), and Henrik Lundqvist (NYR–Swe). Pretty impressive, eh? (with a Canadian accent).