Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. If you missed any of my previous articles you can find a complete listing of them here.
Every year there is a lot of hype about the World Junior Championships, and deservedly so. In fact it is one of my favorite hockey watching experiences of the year, lockout or no lockout. However the one thing I see every year is that hockey fans come into the tournament with unrealistic expectations for the 17 and 18 year old players who will be available in June’s NHL Entry Draft.
We certainly have some big names, near consensus #1 ranked Nathan MacKinnon will play for Canada, his chief rival for the spot of #1 Seth Jones will feature prominently for the United States; Halifax Mooseheads teammate and rising star Jonathan Drouin is currently practicing in a 2nd line role for Team Canada; Sasha Barkov will be on the Finnish roster, Elias Lindholm will play a key role for the Swedes. This is just scratching the surface, as even in a lockout year, there is no shortage of high calibre draft eligible prospects on these International Rosters.
Lets be clear about what this tournament is, and what it is not. This tournament is an international showcase for players under the age of 20. Players must have been born on, or after, January 1st, 1993 in order to play in this years tournament. Conversely, our first time draft eligible players in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft (assuming we have a CBA by then, and one is held) must be born on or before September 15, 1995. As such we can have up to a two and a half year age gap between the oldest players in this tournament, and those who will be first time draft eligibles in June.
These two years are extremely important in terms of development. The difference between a hockey player at 19 and 17 is huge. Experience, weight gain, strength gain, refined technique, these are all things that will be learned by players in the next two years. As such, this is very much a showcase event for 18 and especially 19 year old players (players typically drafted in the 2012 and 2011 Drafts respectively). This is not a draft showcase, te big draft showcase tournament is more likely to be the World Under 18s held in the Spring, or the Ivan Hlinka held in August.
We have to remember that the number of undrafted prospects who have really shone in this tournament is few and far between. Last year, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Murray, Jacob Trouba, and Nail Yakupov were all impressive for undrafted players. Yet they were not the stars of their teams. They were secondary pieces as Yakupov played second fiddle to Kuznetsov for the Russians; Ryan Murray was behind Brendan Gormley and Dougie Hamilton on Canada, Jacob Trouba was behind Jarred Tinordi on the US Squad; and Filip Forsberg was part of a deep Swedish team with many talented players.
In fact, in the last dozen or so years those who have had outstanding performances in their draft year are few and far between, and those that have almost always become NHL stars. Some of the names I am thinking of are Ilya Kovalchuk (6 points in 7 games in 2001), Alex Ovechkin (7 points in 6 games in 2004), Sidney Crosby (9 points in 6 games in 2005), Patrick Kane (9 points in 7 games in 2007), Drew Doughty (4 assists in 7 games in 2008), and Steven Stamkos (1 goal 6 points in 7 games in 2008). In fact none of these players was even the best player on his team in those tournaments. Many forget that on the stacked 2005 Canadian World Junior Team the best forwards were Jeff Carter and Patrice Bergeron (two 19 year olds at the time) and not Sidney Crosby. These numbers hover around 1 PPG but remember also when looking at World Junior point totals that players on teams like Russia, USA, Sweden, and Canada often get two games against some very outmatched opponents, where they can boost those point totals in this short tournament.
The only top draft pick who really bucked this trend and had a super tournament from start to finish was John Tavares who had a scintillating 8 goals and 15 points in 6 games for the 2009 Team Canada Squad and was named the Tournament’s MVP (along with a slew of other awards). However lets also remember that with a September 20th birthday Tavares was 18 years old when that tournament began. In fact he missed the 2008 NHL draft by just 5 days. He was also a Team Canada veteran, playing for the team in the 2008 tournament. He was in a much different situation than most draft eligible players face (a little older, a little more international world junior experience).
If there is one player in a similar situation this year, it is Seth Jones of Team USA who has an October 1994 birthday, and played on the American squad last year. While Jones should be a key member of Team USA, I don’t anticipate a Tournament MVP award either (while talented, no player in this draft is on a par with what Tavares was in 2009).
So what does this all mean. Simply this… if the draft eligible prospects in this tournament struggle, and don’t put up a point per game, or don’t score key goals, or play key roles for their countries, don’t panic. They are still top prospects who will be taken very high in the NHL Draft, and this small sample size tournament will not drop them in the draft rankings.
All that said, things are so close 1-5, that if one of these guys pulls off an unlikely Tavares-like performance, he could rocket up the draft boards. Just don’t expect it and don’t count on it. In other words, it is possible to really boost your stock (though that is unlikely), but its not really possible to fall off the map at this tournament.
The Stars of this tournament will likely be guys coming from the group of already drafted prospects like Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Dougie Hamilton, Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg, Teuvo Teravainen, Jacob Trouba, Morgan Rielly, Mikhail Grigorenko, and others.
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