Boxing Day means two things in the hockey world – one, it means you can probably head down to your local hockey shop and stock up on gear at reduced prices as the new lines begin to roll into stores.
Two, it means you get that shopping done early so that you’re back in time to kick back with a beer to catch the opening of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championships – or just call them “World Juniors,” like most people do.
The World Junior tradition of starting on Boxing Day is almost a way of giving hockey fans an extra Christmas present once the initial “Christmas high” wears off. It’s also good timing for the competition itself, as the NHL will be on its holiday break during the majority of the round robin portion of the tournament (and the IIHF is not worried about ratings for the playoff rounds, especially in Canada).
For keener fans, the World Juniors also provides an opportunity to see the game’s brightest young stars from across the world shine under the most intense spotlight they will ever be under before reaching the National Hockey League. Some strive under the intense pressure of carrying a nation’s hopes and dreams on 19, 18, 17, and sometimes even 16-year-old shoulders. Others falter, their one chance to dazzle on junior hockey’s biggest stage providing a load too heavy for some – but those who do step up are remembered as heroes forever, no matter what happens during their professional hockey career.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that the World Juniors present an on-ice product that is as close to “pure” as we will get in today’s hockey landscape. No fighting, no grinders, and an emphasis on speed and skill – the best in the world under twenty years old with an inextinguishable fire burning in their eyes, a flame that a select few can harness and use to lead their team to gold. The names on this list are players their countries hope will be able to do just that.
15. David Pastrnak, Czech Republic
David Pastrnak comes in “last” on the list, not because he is not worthy of a higher ranking, but because the crop of players in this year’s World Junior Championship is pretty outstanding. Pastrnak has been solid in the AHL thus far this season, with 27 points in 23 games with the Providence Bruins, and will be looking to lead the charge for a Czech team that isn’t expected to do much damage in the 2015 tournament. Pastrnak has the tools to take over a game, but he won’t flash the way some of the other players on the list will be able too.
14. Kasperi Kapanen, Finland
For the first time in awhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins only have one prospect to look at during the World Juniors – so Kasperi Kapanen better bring his A-game, because all eyes (at least those belonging to members of the Penguins’ brass) will be on him. Kapanen is a fleet-footed forward with a ton of skill, and despite being a bit undersized, the Finn will be looking to carry the hardworking underdogs to another impressive podium finish in this year’s tournament.
13. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Denmark
Believe it or not, Denmark might be the proud (and surprising) owner of the tournament’s top “Dynamic Duo.” Oliver Bjorkstrand, a 2013 third-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is currently playing for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, so he’s used to the “North American” style and ice-surface. What remains to be seen is what he’ll be able to do matched-up against the best players in the world night-in and night-out. Denmark’s slim hopes rest on Bjorkstrand and another young Dane, who we’ll talk about in a moment.
12. Jacob de la Rose, Sweden
Jacob de la Rose is one of the rare cases of a player who has some American Hockey League experience under their belt before coming to the World Junior tournament. Currently a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs, de la Rose was released so he could have the chance to play in the tournament (it probably helped that it’s taking place in Canada). He only had 5 points in 23 AHL games this season, but it’s his size, skating ability and 200-foot game that land him a prominent role on the Swedish roster.
11. Ivan Barbashev, Russia
Ivan Barbashev is the latest in a long line of Russian players who are ridiculously talented. Barbashev doesn’t come with the same luster as an Ovechkin, Malkin, or Datsyuk, but the 19-year old Moscow native has shown a flair for the offensive in the Canadian game with 49 points in 29 games playing for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Barbashev will be counted on to bring that pop to the always potent Russian roster.
10. Nikolaj Ehlers, Denmark
Nikolaj Ehlers is the other half of the mysterious Denmark Dynamic Duo that was mentioned earlier in the article. Ehlers is the higher-touted prospect of the two, having been selected 9th overall in last year’s NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets. Ehlers will be expected to carry the load for the Danes, who aren’t expected to do much to begin with, but if they do surprise, though, it’ll likely be because of Ehlers.
9. Sam Reinhart, Canada
The second overall pick from last year’s draft was unable to stick in the National Hockey League right off the bat, and it’s probably best that he did stay in junior hockey so that he could develop physically and mentally (on and off the ice) – not to mention that he wouldn’t have learned much on a pretty awful Buffalo squad. Reinhart will be expected to be an offensive force for the Canadians and he’ll also be looked upon as a team leader as he was handed an assistant captains “A” earlier in the week.
8. Ilya Sorokin, Russia
Ilya Sorokin might not have been a name too familiar to many earlier in the week in North America (aside from those who cheer for the Islanders, at least), but after his performance against the Canadians in Russia’s exhibition game earlier in the week, the entire hockey world has been put on notice. Sorokin, like many other Russian goalies before him, relies on pure athletic ability and reflex to come up with big saves, and with a background in the KHL, he should have a decent handle on the junior-level talent he’ll be up against over the next two weeks.
7. Noah Hanifin, United States
Noah Hanifin is known relatively well around the U.S. and the hockey world, but he’ll be able to finally shine on the brightest stage come World Junior time. He’s widely regarded as the next best prospect in this year’s draft after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, but he might be just as valuable if he lives up to his billing as a top-flight defenseman. Hanifin is considered a force at both ends of the ice, and while his numbers so far this year at Boston College haven’t shown his offensive prowess, it will no doubt be on full display during the tournament.
6. Max Domi, Canada
Max Domi might be the player everyone will have the most fun watching during the 2015 World Junior tournament. I was close enough to the action during the team’s pre-camp exhibition games in Montreal to hear Domi on the ice. He was chirping teammates, opponents, and referees from the penalty box, so it’s clear that not only does he have his father’s (Tie Domi) ability to get under the skin of those around him, but he also has the added benefit of being an incredible talent. Domi will be a force to be reckoned with in this tournament.
5. Jack Eichel, United States
Jack Eichel could very well end up being this year’s Tyler Seguin – a marvelous talent with unlimited potential, yet overshadowed by another more prominent, seemingly more talented prospect. Eichel finds himself in the shadow of Connor McDavid the way Seguin found himself in the shadow of Taylor Hall in 2009-2010. Eichel, like Seguin, will want to prove that he’s the better player and that he’s the one who should be selected first overall in the 2015 Entry Draft. Seguin never got the chance to show his mettle on the international stage, but Eichel will – and he’ll get to do it against his arch-nemesis on New Year’s Eve when the Americans face Canada.
4. Connor McDavid, Canada
One of the highest-touted draft prospects since Sid “The Kid” Crosby himself, Connor McDavid put the hockey world (but mostly Canadians) in a tizzy when he lost his cool and dropped his gloves to fight a couple of months ago, only to break a bone in one of his (literally) precious hands. Don’t mistake this for sarcasm – the kid’s hands are in fact made of gold, with the ability to weave through defenders with the ease of a needle through a piece of fabric. McDavid is “young,” but will still shoulder a heavy burden as a returning player, a year older, wiser, and better. Expect McDavid to be at his best with a chance to solidify his billing as the sport’s next generational talent.
3. Curtis Lazar, Canada
Some may wonder why McDavid and Eichel are not topping this list. Why, you ask? It’s because guys like Curtis Lazar are on the team. Lazar was doing fairly well with the Ottawa Senators, and while he only had seven points in 27 games with the Sens, he showed enough to warrant sticking around for that long in the first place. Lazar will now be asked to lead Team Canada as their captain in what might be the most pressure a Canadian team has felt in quite some time. They must bring gold home…at home. In the two biggest hockey cities in the world.
No pressure, kid.
2. William Nylander, Sweden
Barring something catastrophic happening (knock on wood), William Nylander will have the entirety of the Toronto Maple Leafs nation salivating and banging down the door for him to be brought to the NHL immediately. Nylander is one of the most talented players at the tournament, and there’s no doubt that he’ll want to put on a show for his future hometown crowd. The Swedes might not be as daunting a squad as in year’s past, but having a talent like Nylander on the roster certainly helps their chances of doing some damage.
1. Anthony Duclair, Canada
Anthony Duclair lands at the top of this list for a couple of reasons. For starters, he’s not a junior player – he’s an NHLer on loan to the junior team. He was good enough to crack the New York Rangers roster and stick around for 18 games. While he only put up 7 points, he showed he could at least keep up – so he’ll be skating circles around the other “kids” at the World Juniors. Duclair has blazing fast speed and a knack for the net – he only scored one goal in the pros, so, as a guy who scored 50 times last season with the Quebec Remparts, you know he misses the feeling, and he’ll be taking advantage of the softer opposition as much as possible over the next couple of weeks.
And he’s a Montreal boy – he’s got to put on a show for the family!
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