WJC setting stage for interesting 2016 NHL draft

Finland's Jesse Puljujarvi is expected to go high in the upcoming NHL draft. (Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

It would appear we now have at least a two-horse race. Maybe three. Maybe four.

Unlike the 2015 NHL draft, which turned into a coronation for Connor McDavid no matter what Jack Eichel was able to accomplish, the 2016 draft could be a much more interesting race based on what we’re seeing at the world junior hockey championships.

For months, conventional wisdom has suggested American centre Auston Matthews, who is playing his draft season in Switzerland, will be the No. 1 pick. But right winger Jesse Puljujarvi of Finland, who leads the world juniors in scoring with 10 points in three games, now appears poised to challenge Matthews with a half-season still to go.

Puljujarvi, 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, has great size like Matthews, although the American still has the advantage of being a centre, the rarest of commodities in the NHL. It would take a lot for a team holding the No. 1 pick in June to pass on Matthews, but Puljujarvi is making an argument for himself.

The same may be the case for his Finnish linemate, Patrik Laine, who has been dynamic and productive, as well. Laine has seven points and, some scouts already like him better than Puljujarvi.

Meanwhile, London Knights winger Matthew Tkachuk, rated No. 2 in Sportsnet’s Top 30 Prospects this month, has been both productive as Matthews’s winger but also physical with an edge, an element of his game that sets him aside from the other top prospects. When Matthews was elbowed in the head by Switzerland’s Timo Meier on Wednesday, it was Tkachuk who went after Meier, very reminiscent of the way in which his father, Keith, would have responded during his playing days.

So there’s your top four. Sweden’s Alexander Nylander has six points in the tournament but seems unlikely to challenge for the top rung. Defenceman Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting, who grew up playing hockey in Boca Raton, Fla., but holds dual citizenship and was a late cut of Team Canada, hasn’t been in Helsinki to show his talents alongside the others.

One thing seems clear; next June’s draft is likely to be the first this century in which a Canadian-born player isn’t drafted in the top five selections. Indeed, it’s possible no Canadian could go in the top 10 for the first time ever.

The good and bad among NHL draftees

The challenge is figuring out what to watch.

While the draft eligible players like those listed above tend to catch one’s eye, it’s just as interesting to watch players who are older and younger, as well.

Swedish winger Adrien Kempe, for example, looks like another excellent pick for the Los Angeles Kings. Louis Belpedio, a third-rounder for Minnesota, has been good for the U.S., as has Ottawa first-rounder Colin White.

Michael Spacek of the Red Deer Rebels and a draft pick of Winnipeg, is putting up points for the Czechs, as is defenceman Dominik Masin, a key player on the defence of the Peterborough Petes and a Tampa Bay draft pick. Sebastien Aho (Carolina), Roope Hintz (Dallas) and Aleksi Saarela (Rangers) have been good for the Finns, while Russian forward Maxim Lazarev of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles is one of the leading scorers in the tournament after going undrafted last summer. Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom, a 2014 Islanders draftee, was fabulous against the U.S.

Other drafted players haven’t been as good or put up impressive stats, a group that includes Meier (San Jose), Jake Virtanen (Vancouver), Lawson Crouse (Florida), Sonny Milano (Columbus) and Kasperi Kapanen (drafted by Pittsburgh, traded to Toronto).

Meier is likely to be suspended for his hit on Matthews Wednesday. Meanwhile, Washington goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov, a first-rounder, has played in just one game for Russia — an easy 4-1 win over Belarus on Tuesday.

There are a couple of interesting 16-year-olds, as well, who won’t be available until the 2017 draft. Denmark’s Jonas Roendbjerg has the scouts talking, as does Swiss forward Nico Hischier. Much-heralded Finnish blueliner Urho Vaakanainen, also 16, did not make his country’s roster for this tournament.

Canada vs. Sweden

We’re likely to get a much better sense of how good Team Canada actually is on Thursday against the Swedes, who won’t have top Leafs prospect William Nylander again.

Canada has a history in this tournament of being slow out of the gate some years, then finding its feet as players fit into roles and get used to less ice time than they get at home, and as the coaching staff gets a feel for who has the hot hand in the lineup. Already, it’s been interesting to watch Seattle Thunderbirds centre Mathew Barzal, an Islanders draft pick, get more and more ice time over the first few games.

Other than Joe Hicketts and Thomas Chabot, it’s been hard to get a strong feel for the rest of Canada’s blue-line group so far, particularly in one-sided style games against the Swiss and Danes. It will be interesting to see which pair head coach Dave Lowry assigns to check the top Swedish line of Alexander Nylander, Rasmus Asplund and Dmytro Timashov tomorrow, and which pair is assigned to take on Kempe and his line.

Russia not worried about NHL draft

Every country has a different approach to the world juniors, and clearly the Russians went to Helsinki this year without any intent to showcase players for the upcoming NHL draft.

There isn’t a player on the Russian team under 18, and 17 of the players on the roster were born in 1996. So far, that formula has worked with a 2-1-0-0 start.

Two Russians, Windsor Spitfires defenceman Mikhail Sergachev and centre German Rubtsov of Russia’s national under-18 program, are seen to be possible first-rounders next June, with Sergachev a possible top 10 pick. But neither is on the Russian side at the world juniors, and neither is Acadie-Bathurst centre Vladimir Kuznetsov, who was drafted first overall in the CHL import draft this year and is starting to get acclimatized to North America. After a slow start, Kuznetsov now has 34 points in 37 games for the Titan.

Debacle for DeBrincat

While Alex DeBrincat has come out of nowhere the last 18 months to become both a big part of the Team USA program and a possible first-round NHL pick, this world junior competition has been a nightmare for the OHL Erie Otters sniper.

DeBrincat speared Canada’s Travis Konecny and was tossed out of the game in the U.S. opener after starting the game on the first line with Matthews and Tkachuk. He then crashed into the end boards in the first period of the second game against the Swedes and suffered a shoulder injury that also kept him out of Wednesday’s 10-1 rout over the Swiss.

DeBrincat leads all CHL goal scorers with 33 goals in 30 games for the Otters.