It’s hard to imagine a better pre-season event than the annual Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C.
Hosted in the middle of wine country on a weekend where the temperature is still reliably in the mid-to-high 20s, the setting is picturesque. The hockey has traditionally been pretty interesting, too, and it helps that the South Okanagan Events Centre is a modern arena that nicely accommodates a relatively even cross-section of boisterous Albertan and British Columbian hockey fans.
This year’s tournament, involving the Canucks, Jets, Flames and Oilers, will feature three of the top six picks from the 2016 NHL Draft, the top scorer in the NCAA last season and a variety of other significant prospects who are hoping to force their clubs into making some difficult decisions at training camp over the next four weeks.
Here are eight players to watch for at the 2016 Young Stars Tournament.
Jesse Puljujarvi: F, Edmonton Oilers
At the 2016 draft the Edmonton Oilers were prepared to select a defenceman. That arithmetic quickly changed when Jesse Puljujarvi fell out of the top three and into the Oilers’ lap.
Puljujarvi underwent minor knee surgery last spring, but he’s fully recovered and will be making his debut in an Oilers jersey in Penticton this weekend. Despite playing in a tough men’s league as a 17-year-old last season, the gargantuan 6-foot-4 Finnish-born winger was an ace two-way player. He’s the rare 18-year-old forward who genuinely has a polished defensive game to go along with high-end offensive potential.
Top prospects with a realistic shot of making an NHL opening night roster – a label that absolutely applies to Puljujarvi – don’t generally play in all three contests at the Young Stars Tournament. So make sure to tune into his game Friday evening.
Olli Juolevi: D, Vancouver Canucks
Juolevi won the Memorial Cup with the London Knights and the gold medal at the World Junior Championship with Finland last season. He has elite hockey sense in all three zones and had about as successful a draft year as you could.
So can a player who won basically everything last year now win a roster spot with the Canucks?
“We’re not going to rush him,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet.
The odds are long, but with a lights-out performance at the Young Stars Tournament and into the pre-season, Juolevi could make it hard for the Canucks to cut him.
Matthew Tkachuk: F, Calgary Flames
Riding shotgun with Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak on the most potent line in junior hockey, Tkachuk was a dominant force last season. His 107 points in 57 games was impressive and his 20 goals in 18 playoff games was jaw dropping.
There are some questions about Tkachuk’s skating and ability to drive offence without dynamic linemates – he played with Auston Matthews the year before – but there are no concerns about Tkachuk’s overall skill level and his well-rounded game.
If Tkachuk is going to break camp with the Flames as an 18-year-old, it might be his physical play and uncanny ability to play an agitator role that punches his NHL ticket. If he brings that edge to the Young Stars Tournament, he could be the most exciting player in Penticton.
Kyle Connor: F, Winnipeg Jets
Connor put up an incredible 71 points in 38 games with the University of Michigan Wolverines last season. Connor’s production led all NCAA skaters by a wide margin; in fact, the only player who finished the season within 10 points of him was linemate J.T. Compher.
Even though Jets top prospect Patrik Laine, who is playing for Finland at the World Cup of Hockey, will miss the Young Stars Tournament, Winnipeg will have an NHL-ready blue chip talent in Penticton with Connor playing his first games in a Jets 2.0 sweater.
Jon Gillies: G, Calgary Flames
Now just 22, Gillies looked like a gigantic puck-stopping robot at the 2015 Young Stars Tournament. The 6-foot-6 netminder is more than just size, he’s technically proficient beyond his years and is expected to be among the best goaltenders in the American League this season.
He may have to shake off some rust first though. In early December last winter, Gillies underwent hip surgery to clear up a common cartilage issue. The procedure is so widespread these days that for high-end young goaltenders it’s the equivalent of what Tommy John surgery is for young pitchers in baseball.
For the first time this calendar year, Gillies will get back into game situations against high-level competition in Penticton.
Jordan Subban: D, Vancouver Canucks
Though Subban wasn’t a fixture on the first power play unit for the Utica Comets last season, he still finished third among all rookie AHL defencemen in goal scoring.
A ridiculously talented puck mover who uses an extremely long stick that gives him a deceptive right-handed blast from the point, Subban is in a fascinating spot going into his sophomore season as a pro. For now, Subban is expected to be a top player for the Comets, but one shouldn’t ignore that the Canucks have a particular need for right-handed defencemen who can contribute on the power play.
The key for the 5-foot-8 blueliner is to prove that he can defend against oversized competition at the NHL level.
Tyler Benson: F, Edmonton Oilers
Over the past decade the Oilers have struggled to find meaningful contributors in the second round, despite consistently owning picks in the low-30s. Can Benson – the 32nd overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft – buck that trend?
The versatile Edmonton native possesses a mature all-around game and rarely seems to make a mistake with or without the puck. He’s also due for some luck after an injury plagued campaign last season.
How unlucky was Benson in his draft year? His season-ending injury stemmed from an ingrown hair on his buttocks that became infected and led to more serious lower-body issues. In the hall of gross hockey injuries, Benson’s might deservedly hold a special place of honour.
Hopefully for Benson, a first-round talent by any measure, his luck will begin to change in Penticton.
Brendan Lemieux: F, Winnipeg Jets
It’s often the hardscrabble forwards who make the most noise in Penticton. From Jake Virtanen to Antoine Roussel, big hitters have tended to make indelible first impressions in past Young Stars Tournaments. Those sorts of impressions can jump-start NHL careers.
Lemieux is worth keeping an eye on this weekend because he’s cut from that type of inhospitable cloth.
It’s a testament to his skill level and irascibility that he managed better than a point per game and better than a penalty minute per game for both the Windsor Spitfires and Barrie Colts in the OHL last season.
The son of Claude was one of Winnipeg’s final training camp cuts last fall and his physical game was a major reason why. In Penticton this weekend expect a motivated Lemieux to leave his opponents black and blue, and the fans hoarse.