Five to watch at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament

Aaron Ekblad (left) will be Canada's captain at the tournament while Roland McKeown is a good bet to be his defence partner (CP,OHL)

The Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament is designed to be the last showcase for the best players eligible for the National Hockey League draft before the season, yet the 2013 rendition lacks the star power of past years.

Last season, the Canadian gold medal contingent included the likes of projected future NHL superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, and loaded with numerous other first-round picks from the 2013 draft.

Yet the team that will kick off their road to six-straight Ivan Hlinka gold medals on Monday against the Czech Republic has a distinctive lack of star power. One part of that is certainly because of the absence of potential future first overall picks Sam Reinhart (2014) and Connor McDavid (2015) – both busy at the National Junior summer camp taking place Aug. 4-10.

But there is more to it than that. The 1996 birth year is simply not an extremely strong one for Canada, and more than that, it is not an exceptional one worldwide either.

Nevertheless, there are still gems to be found and follow from the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Under-18 tournament as they will form the basis for next year’s NHL draft in Philadelphia.

Here are the top-5 players to watch for at the event.

Aaron Ekblad, Canada, D

Ekblad, a defenceman from the Barrie Colts, was the second beneficiary of the so-called ‘John Tavares rule’ – behind Tavares himself-  allowing exceptional 15-year-olds to play in the Ontario Hockey League. At six-foot-four and 213 pounds, the Belle River, Ont., native is rugged, mobile, and athletic and was as fine a shutdown defender as anyone in junior hockey last season. He has put up solid offensive numbers on a prolific Barrie squad the past two years, but the jury is still out on whether his offence is dynamic enough to translate to the next level, and subsequently to make him a candidate for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.

William Nylander, Sweden, F

Actually born in Calgary while his father Michael (a former 13-year NHL veteran) played for the Flames, Willy Nylander is a puck-handling wizard with tremendous speed and hockey sense. He’s not very big (five-foot-10 and 170 pounds), and his defensive game is far from polished, but much like his father, he projects to be an elite offensive producer in the NHL. Many scouts have the Sodertalje product as the projected No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft as he has scored at every level he has ever played at.

Jakub Vrana, Czech Republic, F

One of the best Czech products in years, Vrana is as shifty and offensively lethal as anybody in his draft class. After cruising through the youth hockey levels in his homeland, the six-foot, 165-pounder decided to take a step up in competition two years ago by moving to Sweden; the move paid off as he ended up appearing in five games for Linkoping of the top Swedish league as a 17 year old. He was an understudy on the Czech National Junior team at the World Juniors in Russia and looks to be a star in this tournament.

Roland McKeown, Canada, D

Only Connor McDavid went before McKeown in the 2012 OHL Draft (actually, the two were teammates on the Toronto Marlboros minor midgets), and the latter has more than rewarded the Kingston Frontenacs for taking him with the second overall selection. A fantastic skater with high-end puck-moving abilities, he is a very composed defender with a strong work-ethic. He has polish to add to his play in his own end, but Frontenacs in general struggled to keep the puck out of their own net. McKeown will very likely be the second blue liner taken in the 2014 draft and should be a dynamite partner for Ekblad on Team Canada.

Kasperi Kapanen, Finland, F

The son of former NHLer Sami, Kapanen is an elite skater and playmaker that, much like his father, has a very high hockey IQ. He is quite small (pushing five-foot-10 and 165 pounds), but there were periods of time last year that he was a regular for KaIPa in the Finnish senior league, meaning that he is not a liability in his own end. Kapanen is a smart player and looks a strong bet to be a top-10 pick in the 2014 draft.

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