Top 14 Canadian NHL team prospects at the World Junior Championship

The Maple Leafs selected Timothy Liljegren with the No. 17 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The World Junior Championship is not only a fantastic way to see some of the world’s best young hockey players compete, but it’s also a great way for Canadian fans to see how their top young prospects stack up. Each of Canada’s seven NHL teams have players who will get an opportunity to perform on the big stage in Buffalo starting on Dec. 26.

Here are a few to keep your eye on:

14. Alex Formenton, Ottawa Senators: Formenton made the Sens out of camp, but had trouble getting into the lineup when Ottawa got off to a strong start. Rather than let him simmer in the press box, the Senators asked Formenton to go back to London, play big minutes, continue to develop, and make a push to play for Canada. To this point, he’s checked all of those boxes. His speed will jump right out at you, he will be difficult to handle on the forecheck and will play a big role on Canada’s penalty kill.

13. Joseph Woll, Toronto Maple Leafs: Woll will be given a legit chance to be a starter for Team USA. He got into two games in 2017, but was overshadowed by the brilliant play of Tyler Parsons. That experience and the fact he’s had a good, though not spectacular, year at Boston College should provide enough motivation for him to take the ball and run with it. I’m a big fan of drafting college netminders as it gives an organization plenty of time to see the player mature before having to make a decision on him. Woll seems to be on a solid developmental curve that includes a bit of adversity, some international experience and plenty of practice time.

12. Ryan Poehling, Montreal Canadiens: There’s a lot to like about a young man who fast-tracks through high school in order to get to the NCAA as an underager. In his first season at St. Cloud State he looked like a younger player, but has already surpassed his point totals from a year ago in less than half as many games. Poehling is a safe pick with his ability to play a 200-foot game. Team USA head coach Bob Motzko also coaches Poehling at school, so there will be a high level of trust there. Poehling has offensive upside to his game, but when looking at the US roster, he will likely play in a third line/checking role where he will be relied on in PK situations.

11.Dmitri Samorukov, Edmonton Oilers: A fascinating prospect for the Oilers, who see size and offensive upside as Samorukov’s most favourable assets. He has performed admirably when representing his country, having worn an “A” for Russia at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka tournament. Adjusting to life in North America, Samorukov put up pedestrian numbers in his OHL rookie season (4-16-20, -24 in 67 GP). He’s come back in 2017-18 with a physical game, is producing points and has generally been a force for Guelph. Russia has had success in recent years with underaged defencemen such as Ivan Provorov and Mikhail Sergachev. While Samorukov is not in the same class as those two, he should be a serviceable player for coach Valeri Bragin on the back end.

10. Mikhail Berdin, Winnipeg Jets: Has true goalie quirks about him, but there’s nothing quirky about his numbers with Sioux Falls in the USHL (9-4-2-1, 2.63 GAA, .930 SP). He was brilliant for Russia at the 2015 World Junior A Challenge, where he earned all-star honours and helped his team to a silver medal. Berdin made a positive impression in his one appearance in the CIBC Canada-Russia series, leading his country to a 4-3 win in Game 2 of the series. He has good size (6-foot-2), is athletic and seems to be at his best when the pressure is on.

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9. Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs: By the time the draft came around, Liljegren had moved from a surefire top five pick to a guy who wasn’t picked until the second half of Round 1. A gifted skater and puck-mover, the question surrounding Liljegren’s game was puck sense. His move to North America to play in the AHL should have him perfectly placed jump out strong at the WJC. Sweden has plenty of firepower up front, so a puck mover such as Liljegren should be in line to garner a bushel of apples.

8. Juuso Valimaki, Calgary Flames: According to one of my great friends and colleagues, Peter Loubardias, Valimaki made a favourable first impression and almost made the Flames in his first pro camp. It hasn’t been as rosy in WHL Tri-City, where injuries have forced him to miss games in each of the first four months of the season. When he’s been healthy, he’s produced at a point-per-game rate. Look for him to push the pace and be part of Finland’s attack at even strength and on the power play.

7. Logan Brown, Ottawa Senators: Won a bronze medal as part of the US U18 team two years ago, so he is familiar with the age group. Brown has good hands for a big lad (6-foot-6, 220 pounds), he skates well and has a wicked shot. Another player who started the season in the NHL, the Senators are hoping another winning experience to go along with his 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup ring will help propel Brown into their lineup full-time next season.

6. Kristian Vesalainen, Winnipeg Jets: A fascinating character to say the least, Vesalainen is hugely talented. He performed well in the Swedish League last season, but has since moved back to his home country to play for HPK. With 19 points in 26 games, the numbers are good, but expect Vesalainen to use his size, strength and experience to impose his will on the opposition at the WJC, especially now that he’s back to playing with players his own age.

5. Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers: A speedy, smallish forward, Yamamoto got into nine NHL games before being sent back to WHL Spokane in the first week of November. Yamamoto established himself as a goal-scorer with an endless motor. Back in Spokane he has just two goals, one upon his return and another just before he left for USA’s camp, so it hasn’t been perfect. But if he can play like he did coming out of camp with the Oilers, he’ll be a big part of Team USA’s offence.

4. Dillon Dube, Calgary Flames: Dube played in a third line, energy/agitator role for Canada in 2017, but in WHL play he’s made his mark as a top-notched point producer. Dube himself admitted he wants to be more like his Kelowna self at this WJC, yet not lose the edge that made him so difficult to play against at last year’s tournament. He’s got the speed, the skill and the moxie to do both and if he can battle through a nagging shoulder issue, he should be a go-to player for Canada.

3. Olli Juolevi, Vancouver Canucks: Set to play in his third WJC tournament, Juolevi will be fascinating to watch in that a good chunk of his draft class has already played in the NHL and some of them are stars. In 2016, Juolevi tied for the defencemen scoring lead at the WJC with nine assists. In the 2017 tournament he followed the same pattern as the rest of the Finnish team, notching just two assists as the country narrowly avoided relegation. Sent back home to play in the Finnish League this season in part under the tutelage of former Canuck Sami Salo, Juolevi will get a chance to participate with his peer group which should put him in a comfortable frame of mind. The Canucks are hoping for more of the 2016 Juolevi and less of the 2017 version.

2. Victor Mete, Montreal Canadiens: Released by the Habs to get the WJC experience, Mete should fit in perfectly with how Canada wants to play. Fast paced, “five guys in the frame” and “quick up” are key phrases preached by the coaching staff. Mete has elite skating ability and will be motivated as he was cut from this team one year ago. He’s underrated in terms of his ability to defend, but 27 games in the NHL with a plus-5 rating does carry weight.

1. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks: A bit of a surprise pick at No. 5, Pettersson opened the season in the Swedish League and immediately began to have success. In fact, at the age of 19, he’s producing at historic rates and has 35 points in 26 games for a share of the league scoring lead. Playing 16:24 per game, Pettersson is also plus-11. While he looked overmatched at times in the tournament last year, Pettersson should challenge for the tournament scoring lead this time.

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