U.S. loss raises questions about team selection

USA's goaltender Thatcher Demko is consoled by teammate John Hayden after their 3-2 loss to Russia in the quaterfinals. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

In a day jammed-packed with action at the World Junior Hockey Championship, here are some early scouting returns from the quarterfinals:

1) After the American loss to Russia in the quarters, a few NHL scouts were lamenting USA Hockey’s selections for its under-20 roster. It seems like at every world junior tournament it’s a sore point with scouts—they’ll say that good players get left behind because of politics rather than merit.

The one American player left behind who scouts most frequently cite is Michael McCarron of the London Knights. Said one scout (not affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens who drafted McCarron in the first round of the 2013 draft), “Based on last season I could see that they’d be down on him. McCarron really struggled. But he’s been really good this season. [The U.S. team] really didn’t have anything past their first couple of lines. Maybe McCarron wasn’t going to be a big difference maker, but he was better than guys on the third and fourth line.”

2) With the under-20s going to Finland next year, it might be a showcase event for Jesse Puljujarvi, a big 16-year-old right winger who looks like a lock to be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft.

He might represent one half of a reprise of the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel showdown. “He has to be in the conversation with [U.S. centre Auston] Matthews for [the No. 1] pick in 2016,” said one NHL scout in attendance yesterday. “These guys are quite in the same category as McDavid and Eichel, but they’re potential franchise players. You can see [Puljujarvi] being Finland’s main player in international competition going down the line.”

According to the insiders, Matthews would get the nod as far as strength goes, but the Finn’s skating is way ahead of the American. In fact, Puljujarvi looked like Finland’s fleetest forward. With the Finns down by a goal midway through the third period Friday, Puljujarvi took off with a burst of speed as explosive as anything you’d see in this tournament, maybe the equal of McDavid’s.

Listed at six-foot-three and 198 pounds, Puljujarvi scored 12 goals and 11 assists in 18 games with Karpat Jr’s last season and didn’t turn 16 until May. Finland brought a young team to this tournament—you’d suspect with the intent of a big push next year as the host team. Puljujarvi, no less than McDavid and Eichel, looks like a talent who could move directly to the NHL from the entry draft. Note: Puljujarvi is a native of Sweden, listing his birthplace as Alvkarleby.

3) Finnish defenceman Julius Honka had a few rough patches early in the tournament, but played in complete control as the tournament went on. “I think he came in and tried to do too much at the start but he settled down as it went along,” said Joe McDonnell, the Dallas Stars’ scouting director who tapped Honka in the first round last year.

It was something of a small controversy in junior hockey circles and a much larger one in Swift Current when Honka latched on with Dallas’ AHL affiliate rather than returning to the Broncos for another year of major junior. Said McDonnell: “He had such a good camp for us and when we spoke to him he didn’t want to go back [to Swift Current]. He really didn’t have much to prove or learn there. If we thought it was the best for him we would have told him so.”

Honka was at his best against Germany, looking like a pro in with boys, making canny breakout passes, managing play in the Finns’ end of the rink. Whatever the implications will be for other CHL imports, the decision with Honka is working out.

4) You might think it’s hard to look good when you’re on the winning side only once in this tournament, but 2015-eligible right winger Miko Rantanen won more fans in the ranks of the scouts when he ripped a shot from the faceoff dot top shelf past Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom. “I like how [Rantanen] competes and he plays a real solid two-way game, but if he can finish like that then he’s in the mix for the top 15 [in the June entry draft],” one scout said.

Rantanen, at just under six-feet-four and over 210 pounds figures to be, along with Puljujarvi, a major player with the Finns in the next tournament.