The 2015 WJC was a must-see for NHL scouts

Connor McDavid talks about how long it took for the final seconds of the gold medal game to wind down, improving each game of the tournament after his hand injury, and being on the same list as other historic gold medal teams.

The World Junior Championship has been, was and will forever be a tournament for 19-year-olds and its impact on drafts the following spring or two springs down the line are most often exaggerated. In fact, in years past, a lot of NHL amateur scouts would take a pass on the WJC and head to the under-17s to do a little advance work on drafts 18 months in advance.

This WJC was an exception, however. It wasn’t just the shift of the U-17s to November. The WJC was a must-see for the NHL’s top amateur scouts.

Yeah, it was billed as the showdown between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the top two prospects eligible for the NHL Draft this June–the top two by far, a degree of separation between the top pair and the field that we haven’t seen since, well, I guess Ovechkin, Malkin and Cam Barker.

Here’s a survey of professional opinion about some of the more notable draft-eligibles who skated in Toronto and Montreal these past 10 days.

Connor McDavid, Canada/Erie Otter: Scouts were largely forgiving when McDavid had no big impact in the Canadians’ first two games in Montreal–wins against Slovakia and Germany. To a one, however, he played to raves in the games that were most important: victories over Finland and the U.S. in the prelims and wins over Slovakia in the semis and Russia in the final. Coach Benoit Groulx was locked in with Curtis Lazar on McDavid’s right side but shuffled a few players on the left, starting with Nick Ritchie, going to Jake Virtanen and winding up with Nic Petan.

Said one scouting director: “He was better and better with every game, which you’d expect with the time he spent off [recovering from a hand he broke in November]. The skating was always there. The semi and final were really indicative of what he was doing [in Erie].”

True that. Earlier in the tournament, scouts talked about McDavid’s hands trying to catch up to his feet. With lightning dekes for goals against the Slovaks and Russians in the semis and finals, the rest of the world has to try to catch up to McDavid.

Said one scouting director: “I’d hear that Eichel was closing in on McDavid but I never bought it. Maybe Eichel has pulled away farther from the rest of the field but that doesn’t put him any closer really to McDavid. He was raising his game before he got hurt and he picked up where he left off here.”

Lawson Crouse, Canada/Kingston Frontenac: Crouse had a chance to stretch Canada’s lead over Russia to 6-4 with about seven minutes to go in the third period Monday night but Ilya Sorokin went down like James Brown, sliding across the stage to kick out a save. If he had managed to get the puck past the Russian, it would have capped a hugely successful tournament for the kid who played on the right side of the checking line beside Frederik Gauthier and, in the last games of the tournament, Nick Ritchie. A couple of NHL scouts here volunteered that Crouse has entered the conversation for the third-overall pick in the draft next June. Said one scout:”I was surprised that he was named to the roster but he looked like he belonged out there. He played a bigger role than a lot of draft eligibles have [in past tournaments]. I think that he might have the skill to be a 30-goal scorer at the next level and with the physical stuff he brings to the table that would make him a real big asset.”

Jack Eichel, U.S./Boston University: The other name atop the billing was back in Boston by the time the puck was dropped in the semifinals, a crashing disappointment for the American team and Eichel, who USA Hockey executive Scott Monaghan described as “the best example of what our program is all about. Said one U.S. based scout who had seen Eichel several times before the WJC: “Against Canada and the Russians in the quarters, he just tried to do too much. The Americans had two lines that had no business being in this tournament, a bunch of kids who can’t play at this level. He didn’t show a lot of composure but he was in a difficult situation. Against the Russians he really broke down. He had hit a bit of a flat spot with BU in the last couple of games before he reported [to the U.S. team] and really he didn’t bounce back the way I thought he would. He was more impressive in last year’s tournament and in the under-18s than he was here. A big disappointment.”

Noah Hanifin, U.S./Boston College: Like Eichel, the BC defenceman was set up to fail simply by circumstances. It’s hard for a draft-eligible defenceman to come in to play, never mind be a top pair guy. Said one amateur scout: “You could see parts of his game that you liked. He’s a great skater and he’s mobile. But he struggled trying to read plays and he had trouble physically handling some of the bigger 19-year-old forwards. He really shouldn’t be thinking that he’s playing in the NHL next season and no team that drafts him should think that either.”

Vyacheslav Leshenko, Dmitri Yudin, Zait Paigin, all Russia: On the silver medalists’ roster other undrafted 95-birthday Russian prospects playing back home might have generated some interest from scouts but these were the three names that came up most often. One scout described Leshenko as “a honest, hard working kid, not the biggest or strongest Russian forward but smart and more skilled than a lot of others.” Yudin and Paigin played as a pairing on the blueline–it’s hard to say that the Russians really had a top pairing as the Russian coach spread ice time pretty evenly among his D-men. “They might have second-pair upside but Paigin’s size [6-feet-6 listed] makes him jump out. He skated pretty well for a big man in this tournament.”

Ivan Provorov, Russia/Brandon: If Hanifin disappointed on the blueline, Provorov exceeded expectations. said one western-based scout who has seen Provorov several times in the WHL this season. “He’s a smart defenceman who doesn’t jump up into the rush or try to go end to end. His game isn’t skating–it’s not a minus, strong on his skates. He’s not the fastest guy but it doesn’t matter. He just sees the ice and manages the game so well. He played in all situations and for a ’97 birthday that’s doing a lot here. When comes back to this tournament next year, he’ll be the lead guy on the blueline if not for the whole team. He reminds me of the Orlov kid the Russians had [at the WJC] in Buffalo a few years back.” That would be Dmitri Orlov, who figures to be a key for Washington down the line but has missed this season with injury and illness.

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