The 2017 World Junior Championship gets started Boxing Day and Sportsnet gets you prepared with threee players to watch on each nation at the event:
Dylan Strome: The Erie centre has something to prove after Arizona returned him to junior last month. Strome was one of the better players if not the best for Canada in last winter’s tournament. It’s his team more than anyone else’s.
Mathew Barzal: The second wave of offence starts with the Seattle centre, a swift, skilled playmaker who, if such things are fairly second-guessed, should have played more for the team that was knocked out by Finland in the quarter-finals in the 2016 championships.
Carter Hart: It’s the history of Canadian teams at the world juniors—they live or die by goaltending and in recent years it has been more painfully the latter. The Everett netminder comes into the tournament with scouts raving about his competitive fire and consistency.
Clayton Keller: The Boston University centre is maybe 5-foot-10 and maybe 170 pounds but at the speed he moves that only makes him harder to hit. The 2016 Arizona first-rounder has been lining up on left wing beside Colin White in the exhibition games but once the puck drops he’s all over the ice. He was the most exciting and probably best player at the under-18s last spring.
Tage Thompson: There was a lot of second-guessing the U.S. team sending Alex DeBrincat back to Erie. If you’re going to see the picture in full, it came down to a choice between three players for two spots: Thompson, a St. Louis first-rounder; Jeremy Bracco, a Leafs’ second-rounder; and DeBrincat. If Thompson disappoints on the first line, USA Hockey will get roasted.
Colin White: The Senators’ first-rounder in 2015, White tore it up in his freshman year at Boston College, scoring 19 goals and 43 points in 37 games. He has picked up right where he left off this season. Easy to see him being the second-line NHL centre on a playoff team.
Mikhail Sergachev: Last spring one scout told me that the Windsor defenceman had a chance to be the best player in his draft class. Ok, maybe Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have changed that conversation but still the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Sergachev, Montreal’s first rounder (ninth overall), will look like a man against boys on the Russian blue line. Struggled for a bit when he went back to the Spitfires after Habs’ camp.
Ilya Samsonov: The top goaltender in the class of ’97 birthdays, the Washington first-rounder turned aside 26 of 27 shots in a tense 2-1 victory over the U.S. in the semis in Helsinki and then curiously watched the final from the bench. Had a .925 save percentage with Magnitogorsk in the KHL last season. On form, the tournament’s top goaltender.
Denis Guryanov: The big ’97-born right winger was drafted by Dallas in the first-round in 2015 and has been playing for the Stars’ AHL affiliate. While it seems like a player moving down from the AHL to world juniors is a fighter squaring off with someone in a lower weight class it doesn’t always work out that way. Dallas’ defenceman Julius Honka was an example of that two years ago.
Olli Juolevi: The Canucks’ first pick in the draft last June, Juolevi pulled off a rare feat last winter—as a draft-eligible 17-year-old, he was the best defenceman on a gold-medal-winning team. Last tournament he was smooth and consistent more than flashy, but the London blueliner might be a little bolder this trip.
Eeli Tolvanen: Tolvanen, a skilled winger in his second season with Sioux City in the USHL, is the Finns’ top candidate to reprise the roles played by Laine and Puljujarvi in Helsinki in January. Was the leading scorer (seven goals in seven games) for the Finnish team that won the world U-18s.
Vili Saarijarvi: A Red Wings draft choice in 2015, Saarijarvi has missed most of the season with the Mississauga Steelheads and might not have been in the mix if not for his performance in last year’s tournament. If he’s healthy, he’s a top-four defenceman.
Karlis Cukste: Cukste, a pro-sized blueliner, put in a year with the Chicago Steel in the USHL, before enrolling at Quinnipiac University this fall. A fifth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2015, he has played a fair bit for a frosh but will have his work cut out for him in this tournament.
Martins Dzierkals: A Leafs’ third-rounder from 2015, Dzierkals was the third-leading scorer on Rouyn-Noranda last season, a point-a-game LW with 24 goals. He impressed with his two-way game, a plus-13 in Rouyn’s QMJHL post-season run to the Memorial Cup. At 170 pounds you wonder about him being a little too slight for the pros, but definitely an intriguing prospect at this point looking to break out.
Rudolfs Balcers: Another fifth-rounder by San Jose in 2015, Balcers, a left winger, has been lights out for Kamloops in his first season with Kamloops: 20 goals in 35 games. Like Dzierkals he’s under six-feet and slight, but that matters less in this tournament than it will in the pros.
Nico Hischier: NHL Central Scouting had the Swiss centre ranked as an A prospect in the pre-season and in his first trip with Halifax through the QMJHL he has more than lived up to the billing, leading rookie scorers in the league (23 goals and 25 assists in 31 games) including a six-point game against Acadie-Bathurst.
Jonas Siegenthaler: Washington picked the massive (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) defenceman in the second round, 57th overall, in the 2015 draft. Siegenthaler put in a six-game cameo performance with Hershey in the AHL as an 18-year-old, but has spent the season with Zurich SC of the Swiss-A league. No big power-play upside but still a physical force—he even competed against pros in the A league when he was barely 16.
Calvin Thurkauf: Nobody saw Thurkauf in his draft year, the 2014-15 season—the left winger didn’t play much with Langenthal of the Swiss-B league and so his name wasn’t called at the draft. Even after a 45-point season in Kelowna last year he was an afterthought, taken by Columbus in the seventh round. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Thurkauf has broken through this year though and is on pace to score 40 goals.
Joel Eriksson-Ek: The 20th overall pick of the 2015 draft, Eriksson-Ek managed to stick around with Minnesota for a few weeks, picking up six points in nine games before the Wild sent back to Farjestad of the SEL. Gets high marks for hockey sense and vision, finding his wingers in traffic.
Alexander Nylander: Maybe William got all the buzz going into the 2016 Under-20s, but the little brother impressed—in fact, you could make a case that he had a better tournament than Willie Ny did in his draft season. After drafting him with the eighth overall pick last June, Buffalo decided to send him to Rochester of the AHL rather than return him to Mississauga where he tore it up (57 games, 28 goals, 75 points) in 2015-16.
Oliver Kylington: Kylington started his draft year in the conversation as a top-10 or even top-5 selection for the 2015 draft. The defenceman almost fell out of the first two rounds, landing in Calgary with the 60th pick. Kylington has righted the course and logged regular shifts with Stockton in the AHL this season. The U-20s might turn around his stock completely.
Jakub Zboril: In Saint John the past three seasons Zboril has frequently played beside Thomas Chabot, the likely leader of the Canadian blue line. A first-round pick of Boston in 2015, Zboril has less offensive upside than Chabot but otherwise they’re pretty comparable talents.
Filip Chlapik: A second-round pick of the Senators in 2015, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound centre has enjoyed a breakthrough in his third season with the Charlottetown Islanders in the Q. He picked up 12 goals and 54 points in 52 games last season, but already has 20 goals and 44 points in 26 games. Might project more as a winger than a centre at the next level
Michael Spacek: Winnipeg selected the centre from Pardubice in the fourth round of the 2015 draft and, like Chlapik, Spacek has raised his game in his 19-year-old junior season. In Red Deer last year Spacek scored 18 goals in 61 games, but this season he has 16 in just 30 games so far. In contrast to Chlapik, Spacek might not have pro size but again that doesn’t have such a big impact in the U-20 tournament.
Alexander True: The Seattle centre is a towering project (6-foot-5 and maybe still growing) who wasn’t drafted in his first two seasons of eligibility. He lacks pro strength and speed but gets points for hockey sense and play-making. In his third go-round with Denmark he might earn himself a look from an NHL club.
Joachim Blichfeld: The Mr. Irrelevant of the 2016 draft (that is, the last pick made as teams were packing up), the left winger has been a revelation with Portland in his first season in North America: almost a point-a-game player with more of a two-way game than might have been expected. Again, a pick of San Jose, the Sharks casting their net wider internationally than most.
Lasse Petersen: The undrafted 19-year-old netminder has more of a Canadian pedigree than other Danish players—he moved to Canada with his family three years ago. In two seasons in the WHL he has bounced around, landing in the line-up for brief stints with four clubs, Calgary, Spokane, Everett and most recently Red Deer.
Radovan Bondra: Bondra was Chicago’s fifth-round pick in 2015. He played a supporting role on the Slovak squad that won a bronze at the under-20s two years ago but figures to be a first-liner this trip.
Erik Cernak: A second-rounder in 2015, Cernak signed an entry-level deal with the Kings and is in his second season on the Erie Otters’ blue line. At 6-feet-3 and 220 pounds, Cernak can dish out big hits but manages to avoid the penalty box. He was considered a phenom as a 16-year-old in Slovakia but without a power play game he maxes out as a depth defenceman as a pro prospect.
Matej Tomek: The likely starter in net for Slovakia, Tomek spent the entire season as a back-up to the back-up at the University of North Dakota and is still looking to see some action this season, not exactly what the Philadelphia Flyers had in mind when they drafted him in third round of the 2015 draft. An athletic 6-foot-3, 185-pounder, Tomek tore up the NJHL with Topeka, posting an impressive .928 save percentage.