I’m not going to sit here and tell you I have watched all of the World Juniors so far this year, but I’ve certainly had my eye on it and watched as much as I could. In particular, I’ve made it a point to watch any of Canada’s games for obvious reasons. They are stacked with top draft picks and soon-to-be NHL superstars. That obviously does not translate into a guaranteed gold medal however, since we saw Russia clip them 6-5 last night. But as someone who is always looking forward to watching promising young talent enter the NHL, here are some players that caught my eye in particular.
5. Nail Yakupov - Russia (6gp, 0 goals, 9 assists)
Yakupov is the can’t miss prospect of the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League that has fans of bottom dwelling NHL teams starting their “Fail for Nail” campaigns. Team Russia is set to face off against Sweden for the gold medal and Yakupov has been a huge part of that. Although he has not scored a goal yet, his 9 helpers have been pivotal playing on Russia’s top line. The thing that has impressed me the most is Yakupov’s skating and energy level. He seems to thrive on physical contact and the up-tempo pace of the game. So far he reminds me of an Ovechkin-Bure hybrid. If that’s the case, the team with the #1 overall pick in this year’s draft should consider themselves very lucky.
4. Jonathan Huberdeau - Canada (5gp, 1 goal, 8 assists)
Huberdeau was the third overall pick in last year’s draft by the Florida Panthers. He has returned to his junior team in the QMJHL, the Niagara Ice Dogs, and has continued to shine. I wanted to keep an eye on him this tournament because he was such a high draft pick last year. Every time he is on the ice, he seems to be around the puck generating big time scoring chances. He is known as more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, and if you’ve watched any of Canada’s games thus far you can certainly see why. Look for him to be a big-time assist man in the NHL for years to come and a strong candidate for the Calder next season.
3. Mikael Granlund - Finland (6gp, 2 goals, 9 assists)
Granlund has led team Finland to a shot at the bronze medal against Canada in this years tournament. He was selected by the Minnesota Wild with the 9th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and many people argue that he might be the best player not in the NHL on the planet right now. In Finland’s SM-liiga with HIFK he has 38 points and 30 games and is setting the league on fire as a 19-year-old. He’s certainly a guy that you notice when watching Finland play. He’s a dynamic skater and always seems to be generating offense which is certainly evident in his lofty numbers thus far. Keep an eye on Granlund when he breaks into the NHL and to become the new face of Finland hockey.
2. Mark Stone – Canada (5gp, 7 goals, 2 assists)
Mark Stone is not like any of the other players on this list. He was not and will not be a top 10 draft pick the in the NHL. In fact, Stone was not drafted until the 6th round of the NHL Draft in 2010 by the Ottawa Senators and they may very well have a steal on their hands. Stone was leading the WHL in scoring (before leaving for the World Juniors) with the Brandon Wheat Kings and he has picked up where he left off in the World Juniors. Playing on a line with the aformentioned Huberdeau and 2011 5th overall draft pick Ryan Strome, the big-bodied Strome does nothing but score. He plays with a ton of energy and uses his body well around the net where he is always in position to bury the puck. I can see him fitting nicely with a guy like Jason Spezza up in Ottawa just feeding him pucks in the slot.
1. Brett Connolly – Canada (5gp, 5 goals, 1 assist)
So I know Connolly’s numbers are not as great as the rest of the players on this list, but I have been extremely impressed by his play. This may be a little tainted since I have seen him play with the Tampa Bay Lightning this year, but I love his style of play. He seems to play with a bit of an edge and attitude and does not mind driving the net like all good power forwards should. He probably could have more points than he does if the puck bounced his way a little more, but he and Stone have been the most dangerous forwards for Canada so far in the tourney. It will be interesting to see how he resumes his play with the Lightning this year because his confidence should be sky-high right now.