As the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship gets ready to start, people always ask questions such as Who is the favorite? or Who are you picking to win?
as fans always do before any major event. Some early consensus in the mainstream media is that Team USA is the favorite because they are the defending champions. However, was the United States even the best team last year? To be honest, I dont even think they were one of the top three teams in the tournament, but due to the structure of the competition with it being a short preliminary and a one and done playoff format, there is a wide possibility of options and teams manage to do things they probably wouldnt be able to do in a long series. Heck, Switzerland knocked out Russia last year!
The United States has a good program, and Ive been an advocate of USA Hockeys progression and the new American Development Model theyve implemented, but even with all their returning members from a gold medal squad, I wouldnt say they are the best team even though they are in the upper tier. If I had to go out on a limb and say who I felt the favorite was, Id go with Team Canada based on their combined team skill level being the highest. Canada does suffer though from lack of chemistry, but because it is hard to pinpoint a quantifiable impact thereof, Im inclined to look at pure skill level as a more determining factor. Canada does have their Program of Excellence which lets their players get some time together, but it pales in comparison to programs like the USNTDP and how much the eastern nations put their top players together in international competition.
In terms of the rest of the pack, if I had to rank teams, Id have them like this:
6. Czech Republic
Theres no scientific process to how I did the rankings, its mainly based on my subjective opinion after evaluating the rosters. And as previously mentioned due to how this tournament is built, any sort of pre-tournament rankings dont hold much value as a bounce one way, a fluke shot the other, and your top team is sent packing. I should also mention that while I think Canada is the top team, I dont think they are a significant favorite, but I also dont believe its a 50/50 coin flip between them and the United States.
Thats the last of youll hear me talk about the tournamentfrom a results standpoint, in all honesty I dont really care who wins or loses, the WJHC to me is more about the prospects and a rare mass viewing opportunity.
The following are notes on several notable prospects on every team outside Canada, Russia, Sweden and the USA, which were all previously covered in detail. Not every notable prospect is covered, but I got to a fair bunch of them.
Team Czech Republic
Martin Frk, Right Wing Eligible in 2012
Touted as a player who can go high in the 2012 draft, Frk hopes to maintain a high level of performance on the international stage after playing very well as a 16 year old at last years U-18s. Frks a feisty player with great hands and finishing ability. And just to get this corny joke out of the way a year and a half ahead of his draft date, the only thing he doesnt have is a vowel.
David Musil, Defense Eligible in 2011
Projected as a first round pick in the upcoming 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Musil is a well-built physical package who is a plus thinker and advanced well beyond his years. His absolute offensive ceiling is questionable, but he manages to produce with heady passes and by reading the game well.
Petr Straka, Right Wing, Columbus 2nd round, 55th overall in 2010
Straka hasnt been as productive in the QMJHL as he was last season but is still a decent scoring prospect. Last season a NHL exec I talked to was very high on Petr and his skill set, but he still needs to significantly improve his physical game.
Sami Aittokalio, Goaltender, Colorado 4th round, 107th overall in 2010
One of the more (if not the most) touted European goalie prospects in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, one pro scout I talked to praised Sami for his pure skill set. But hes still somewhat raw and has a ways in his development to go.
Joel Armia, Right Wing Eligible in 2011
Armia has steadily climbed up the 2011 NHL Entry Draft rankings with his play in Finlands top pro league. He is an above-average puckhandler and scorer with a good frame who will only get better as he gets older. As a negative, he lags in the skating department.
Mikael Granlund, Center, Minnesota 1st round, 9th overall in 2010
The top ten pick last summer has been hampered this season by a concussion injury, but there is a chance he can partake in the tournament and would thus be a major asset for Finland. Hes a plus-plus puckhandler who is extremely crafty and can create highlights at any given moment.
Erik Haula, Center, Minnesota 7th round, 182nd overall in 2009
Haula has come along very well since his draft year and will likely provide NHL value on that 7th round pick. This pro-level skater who can play a physical game, is good defensively and has fair offensive upside is someone that any U-20 team could use.
Joonas Nattinen, Center, Montreal 3rd round, 65th overall in 2009
Joonas is never going to pose as a scorer at the pro level, but what he is going to be is a physical, solid defensive centerman with around league average skating ability. This is his third time on Finlands U-20 team, so expect a fair amount of minutes from the tournament veteran.
Teemu Pulkkinen, Right Wing, Detroit 4th round, 111th overall in 2010
Once touted as a surefire first rounder in the 2010 draft, after a bad draft season Teemu fell to the fourth round for Detroit. Hes shown this season though why he was such a touted scorer, as hes 22nd in the SM-Liiga in goals and 10th in points as an 18 year old. His skating is an issue, but the rest of his skill set is great. He has the potential to end up as a tremendous steal.
Toni Rajala, Left Wing, Edmonton 4th round, 101st overall in 2009
Rajala created a lot of noise for himself two years ago when he demolished the U-18s, however even with his solid skating and puck skills, his tendency to be a perimeter player and his below fringe physical game has hampered his production.
Sami Vatanen, Defense, Anaheim 4th round, 106th overall in 2009
Vatanen is a very skilled player with plus skating ability, and as he showed in the previous U-20 tournament, can create a highlight reel moment at any given time. His physical game, though, is a 30 on the 20-80 scale and is a huge obstacle for him to overcome to advance his career.
Philipp Grubauer, Goaltender, Washington 4th round, 112th overall in 2010
Grubauer enters his third U-20, and his second in the top division. Hes a very athletic goalie with a plus glove hand but is still trying to round out the finer aspects of his game like his rebound control and positioning.
Tom Kuhnhackl, Right Wing, Pittsburgh 4th round, 110th overall in 2010
Playing in Germany all of last season in his draft year, lack of exposure was a partial reason for Kuhnhackl dropping to the fourth round, but after going to the OHL and strutting his stuff, I doubt hed go that low in a redo. Tom is an above-average skater with a good shot; his body is still filling out but at 62 in a few years he could have a quality physical game to add to his skill set.
Tobias Rieder, Right Wing Eligible in 2011
A personal favorite of mine going into the summers draft, Rieder is an above-average skater who is agile and quick on his feet. His hands and shot project to be NHL level or better but its the physical game that will be questioned: even though he is tough and shows the determination to go to the high percentage areas, his frame is quite diminutive. Hes one of the more skilled Germans prospects to come along in a while and you only have to look to his 113 goals and 177 points in 34 games as a 14 year old in Germanys U-16 league as an indicator to why that is.
Sondre Olden, Right Wing, Toronto 3rd round, 79th overall in 2010
Olden is a raw, toolsy prospect who has shown flashes of above-average play, but has yet to consistently put it together for a long stretch. Hes a big guy with a thin frame, and has some pro-level puck skills but still a ways to go in his development.
Tomas Jurco, Right Wing Eligible in 2011
Jurco is a plus puckhandler who has shown solid-average net presence and finishing ability. In my viewing of Jurcowhich is a minute sample of a handful of gameshe has displayed a really good backhand which is an asset that is rare in todays NHL. His scoring ceiling isnt first line high, but he projects as a decent scorer.
Martin Marincin, Defense, Edmonton 2nd round, 46th overall in 2010
Marincins development curve has been trending upwards for a while and he came into this season looking much better than his did at this point last year. His skating, based on my observations, improved tenfold and it has allowed him to become a significant weapon from the blueline in the WHL.
Richard Panik, Right Wing, Tampa Bay 2nd round, 52nd overall in 2009
Panik was pegged early on in 2009 as a first rounder but dropped to the second, with a major reason being his intangibles. His skill set is great though and had some thinking at one point hed be a top 15 pick; hes a plus puck-handler who is very elusive, with an above-average shot. In his third U-20, he should be a first liner for Slovakia.
Sven Bartschi, Left Wing Eligible in 2011
Bartschi is a 1992 birthdate who has just exploded offensively this year in the WHL. His goal and points per game rates exceed his Portland teammates Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, who were the 4th and 5th overall picks, respectively, in the last draft. Bartschi is a plus skater, with solid puck skills and scoring ability. Hes a little raw and undersized, but hes been skyrocketing up draft boards this year and should look to add to his draft case in the tournament.
Nino Niederreiter, Left Wing, NY Islanders 1st round, 5th overall in 2010
After a short stay with the Islanders before being sent down, Nino is playing about as well as he was last year statistically in the WHL and will get another chance to play in this tournament. Hes an above-average physical player with a plus shot. His very well rounded game projects well to the pro game. Despite his performance at the previous U-20, Niederreiters skill set doesnt suggest he can dominate, however in short samples, anything can happen.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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