I've covered a lot of key names for Team Canada, USA, Russia and Sweden for the upcoming IIHF Under-20 World Championship, as they are the teams filled with the most talent, but here are some names to know from the remaining rosters and my predictions on how the tourney will shake out.
These notes on some top NHL prospects are based on my own observations and from discussions I've had with scouts and front office executives:
Mikael Granlund, C, Minnesota Wild: It's pretty humorous Granlund is still eligible for the U-20 level after being one of the top scorers on the World Championship stage last spring. He's been first or second in scoring in Finland's top pro league all year, an unprecedented feat at 19, and has emerged as one of hockey's top-drafted prospects, if not the best overall. His possession skills are special, as his puck skills, vision and overall hockey sense are elite and at times look unique. He's a small guy who's just an average skater, but those limitations just keep Granlund from reaching generational prospect levels.
Joel Armia, RW, Buffalo Sabres: Armia is an interesting prospect. When he's on, he's one of the better prospects you'll find, with tremendous puck skills -- never mind the puck coordination he shows for a 6-foot-3 player -- and good finishing ability. However, when he's off, he coughs the puck up and makes poor decisions with an alarming frequency, which has led to an up-and-down season in Finland. He will be a primary scoring option for Finland and will likely either blow people away this tournament or leave observers underwhelmed.
Miikka Salomaki, C, Nashville Predators: Salomaki is a versatile two-way player who has shown significant improvement this season. Scouts who watched him last year saw him as a good third-line type of prospect who could play all the forward positions, but Finnish scouts this year say his offensive game now looks like he could be a projectable top-six player in the NHL. He's a gritty, hard-working player who shows decent to solid abilities in all the individual offensive aspects of the game.
Aleksander Barkov, C, 2013 eligible: Barkov is one of the younger players you will ever see suit up for a major nation at U-20 tournament, having just turned 16 on Sept. 2. He is scoring at around the same point-per-game rate as Armia in Finland's top pro league. Barkov has high, high-end puck skills and hockey sense at the same levels of countryman Granlund. He is a below-average skater, but that hasn't stopped him from skyrocketing up the 2013 draft board. While QMJHL forward star Nathan MacKinnon and USA defense product Seth Jones are considered the favorites for the top of the 2013 class, don't count Barkov out, as he certainly has the skill set to challenge them.
Team Czech Republic
Radek Faksa, C, 2012 eligible: This Czech team has two possible first-round picks in the upcoming entry draft, with one being Faksa and the other being Tomas Hertl. Faksa is an above-average puck-handler and passer. While he still needs to develop his body a lot, he shows effort in the physical game and will attack the high percentage areas.
Tomas Hertl, C, 2012 eligible: Hertl has had a pretty impressive season in the Czech Republic's top men's league, with 15 points in 23 games as an 18-year-old. Hertl is good with the puck and exhibits plus hockey sense in regards to his playmaking. He can make plays in open ice and is decent using his body to make plays off the cycle. The major issue with Hertl is skating, and it keeps him from being a true high-end weapon.
Tomas Jurco, RW, Detroit Red Wings: During his draft year last season, Jurco displayed all-world puck skills and great offensive instincts, but the knock on him was poor in-game physical effort and lackadaisical defensive work. This season there have been no knocks. NHL scout after scout has sent me reports on significant improvement in those areas on top of the great offensive skills, which have more or less led to glowing scouting reports. This year has been a steady climb for Jurco into becoming one of the better drafted forward prospects out there, and he will be the scoring weapon for Slovakia.
Nicklas Jensen, LW, Vancouver Canucks: The first-round pick last summer got a lot of positive reports last season for his offensive skills, but there were questions about how he would handle the physical game. This season, Jensen has put those concerns to rest and showed a very good all-around game in regards to his vision, puck skills, skating and good effectiveness along the wall that has caused some scouts in the industry to call him a partial steal for the Canucks. On a team lacking in talent, Jensen will likely be the boat, paddle and rower for Denmark.
Sven Bartschi, LW, Calgary Flames: Bartschi has had a tremendous season, scoring at more than a two-point-per-game pace for Portland in the WHL. Based on conversations I've had with scouts and what I've seen of Bartschi this year, he doesn't project as a high-end player despite those gaudy scoring numbers but will still certainly be a good player. He's a high-end thinker and shooter who works hard, with above-average skating and puck skills. Switzerland has started to become somewhat of a name in this tournament, but how far they go this year will more or less hang on Bartschi's shoulders.
Making predictions at the Under-20s is usually a futile effort, as in a small sample tournament, good teams get knocked out and bad teams advance just due to random chance as opposed to their true talent shining through.
Hockey is not a sport built to determine champions through a single-elimination process. Thus this tournament is a bit of a crapshoot, although the good teams usually do get to the final four. I'm not going to predict who will win but rather will rank the team's talent levels.
Tier one: Canada
Tier two: Russia, USA
Tier three: Sweden, Finland
Tier four: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland
Tier five: Denmark, Latvia
I wouldn't read these tiers as significant separators between the teams, as the marginal differences between levels is small but notable enough to determine some separation. The U.S. and Russia have a very legitimate chance to defeat Canada; Sweden and Finland have fighting chances as well.
RW Brett Connolly - Canada (Tampa Bay)
C Mikael Granlund - Finland (Minnesota)
C Evgeny Kuznetsov - Russia (Washington)
D Jonas Brodin - Sweden (Minnesota)
D Brandon Gormley - Canada (Phoenix)
G Johan Gustafsson - Sweden (Minnesota)
Most Valuable Player
RW Brett Connolly - Canada (Tampa Bay)
As always, if you have any questions about a player not mentioned or would like to ask about other players, leave a comment below.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Corey by clicking here or click here to see Corey's other articles.