Early Look: World Juniors, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia

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.

With the CHL seasons now well over a month old, I thought now would be a good time to look at the potential line-ups for the World Junior Championships. Last week we started with Team Canada, moved on to Team USA, and then completed Pool B with Russia, Slovakia and Germany.

Today, I start the Pool A Preview and will look at Switzerland, Latvia and the Czech Republic.  We’ll look at a quick overview of the team, and then focus on players to watch.

Based on the latest in the NHL lockout, I am going to assume that the NHL and NHLPA will not resolve their issues and that premium talent will be available. I’m also going to assume that AHL clubs who have some of these junior-aged players will release them for the tournament.

So let’s get started…

Team Latvia
Not a medal contender, Latvia will be quite content if they can avoid relegation in this tournament.  That said, they are getting strong all the time and will feature some intriguing names to watch in the tournament.

Teodors “Teddy” Blugers, Centre/Left Wing: The second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in June’s NHL Entry draft, Blugers is a freshman for the Minnesota State – Mankato Mavericks: He’s started out very well at the NCAA level with 4 points in his first 8 games. Blugers played in the World Juniors last year, and scored 1 goal and 3 points in 6 games in the tournament. Blugers should be better this year as he will have one year more development to draw from. He put up incredible stats at Shattuck St. Mary’s famous hockey prep school last year, but the level of competition he faced should be questioned when looking at the 88 points in 51 games he scored.  This season we can see a good skater who seems to be more of a playmaker, with his really good passing and vision. He also has a decent shot. Expect him to get huge minutes in this tournament.

credit: pipelineshow.blogspot.com

Zemgus Girgensons, Centre: Last year as a 17 year old Girgensons may have only scored 2 goals in the tournament, but was the best player on Latvia, as they used him 25-30 minutes per game.  Expect more of the same this year as the Buffalo Sabres first round pick is developing nicely and has four points in his first ten games in Rochester. Girgensons is a prototypical power forward prospect.  He possesses excellent size and great skating with a powerful stride, very good speed and balance, and above average agility.  He uses these attributes to drive hard to the net and get to the dirty areas of the ice.  He is equally capable of driving wide on a defender and cutting hard to the net, or bulldozing his way right through the opponent.  He adds to this great stickhandling, good puck protection and a strong, powerful shot. Girgensons has a well developed defensive game so I would expect him to be matched up against every other team’s top player in this tournament..

Team Switzerland:
Switzerland lacks the big names that Latvia has, but I give this team a better chance to upset one of the Czechs, Finns, or Swedes and find themselves in the top 3 of the pool and in a playoff spot. Don’t get me wrong, they are still a long shot to get out of the pool stage, but the Swiss always come to the World Juniors with strong team play and a well defined defensive system.  This system frustrates opponents, keeps games close, and allows the team to compete.  If you give the Swiss a lead late in a game, its tough to come back.

credit: OHL Images

Tanner Richard, Centre/Left Wing:  Richard played on the 2012 team and had an excellent tournament scoring 4 points in 6 games.  The third round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning is playing for the Guelph Storm this season where he has posted 2 goals and 20 assists in 16 games so far.  Clearly with numbers like those its not hard to see that Richard is more of a playmaker than a finisher.  He shows good vision and passing skills at the OHL level.  Richard could use some work on his acceleration and top end speed, but he’s well balanced on his skates, and tough to knock off the puck.  He also is a good stickhandler and is able to extend plays to allow his teammates to get open.  Richard is solid defensively and like Girgensons, i expect him to be not just the best offensive player on his team, but also to be asked to shut down the oppositions top lines.

Team Czech Republic:
The Czechs are the best of these three teams on paper, and have a lot of known players and NHL draft picks this year. The team should advance past the pool stage and finish in the top 3.  Questions about depth and goaltending remain though and this keeps them from joining the other true medal contenders

David Musil, Defence:  Recent traded from the Vancouver Giants to the Edmonton Oil Kings, David Musil is also the son of former NHL defenceman Frantisek Musil.  He was picked by the Edmonton Oilers with the the the first pick of the 2nd round in the 2011 draft, Musil is playing 25+ minutes per game in the WHL this season and has shown 8 points in 12 games.  The offensive numbers are impressive, but Musil is a big, rugged, defence first defenceman.  He is strong on the boards and overpowers opponents to win battles and come away with the puck.  He also works effectively down low and keeps the front of the net clear so his goalie can see the puck.  His positioning and footwork are at an advanced level for his age, and this should come as no surprise as he’s probably had 19 years of teaching from his father.  Musil knows how to wait for the opportunity and pick his spots so he doesn’t get caught out of position often, but he does like to throw a big hit if its available.  Expect him to continue to need to rely on his strong endurance and to be used 25-30 minutes per game by the Czech coaches.

Radek Faksa, Centre: Faksa has had a bit of a slow start in Kitchener this year with just 13 points in 17 games.  Last season Faksa led all OHL rookies with 66 points in 62 games and this led to his being drafted by the Dallas Stars in the first round of the NHL draft.   Faksa pairs outstanding hockey sense and offensive instincts, with his very good vision and passing skills to be an excellent playmaker.  He also has a good wrist shot with an excellent release.  Faksa is an above average skater, with good speed and strong balance which makes him difficult to knock off the puck.  He isn’t afraid to go into traffic and to take hits to make plays for the Rangers. For these reasons we believe Faksa will be a top 6 centre at the NHL level.  At 6’3, 202lbs Faksa has the great size down the middle and uses that size effectively to protect the puck, to establish position in the offensive zone. He’s also an excellent defender who will be used in all situations for the Czechs.

credit: Anderson, Creative CC

Tomas Hertl, Centre:  The first thing that jumps out at you when you watch Tomas Hertl, is his very unorthodox skating style.  The best way to describe it is “herky-jerky”.  However despite the fact that its not pretty, it is still reasonably effective.  While Hertl is by no means a fast skater, he’s not a slow one either.  This unorthodox stride gets him where he’s going, and his good hockey sense and instincts keep him heavily involved in the play. The San Jose Sharks first pick in the latest NHL draft, Hertl is a big, strong, versatile forward.  He is capable of playing both centre and wing.  He has good passing skills and vision, and is more a playmaker than a scorer.  He is at his best playing a puck control game, working the boards and cycling in the offensive zone. He can effectively protect the puck, and then pass to an open teammate. Without the puck he is able to find open spaces and has good hockey sense and instincts.  He’s not a huge hitter, but he uses his size and strength to win board battles.  Hertl could use work on his shot and his release, which are below average and so should be a playmaker on this team.  Hertl is also an excellent two way player. He can be very effective on faceoffs and is a key penalty killer on the squad, showing good positioning and instincts in the defensive zone.  He is a conscientious backchecker who uses his size, strength and active stick to keep defenders to the outside. .

Martin Frk, Right Wing:  Frk skipped this tournament last season, in a surprise move.  However the Czechs are hoping that they can get the Detroit Red Wings draftee back in their lineup this year.  He’s started the season strong with 19 points in 16 games for the Halifax Mooseheads, helping the team to reach first place in the QMJHL.  When Frk is on his game, he’s impossible to miss on the ice.  He is one of the best agitators or pests in the QMJHL and marries that chippy play with a high skilled power forward’s game  He has good size and strength and uses those to throw hits, win board battles, and get to the dirty areas of the ice.  He also possesses impressive offensive skills.  He has a hard and accurate shot and an excellent release. Frk is also a skilled stickhandler and adept at dangling past opponents or protecting the puck from them on the cycle game.  He goes hard to the net and knows what to do when he gets there. Frk also has a knack for finding open spaces on the ice and unleashing his excellent one-timer. He needs work on his defensive game and will need to be paired with the good defenders on this squad, as he is wildly inconsistent in his own end of the rink.

We’ll finish off Pool A, featuring the Swedes, and Finns, shortly, but for now, feel free to leave comments below and follow me on twitter @lastwordBKerr.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to join Max Vasilyev and I on Wednesday Nights at 10:00pm when we host the hockey radio show, “Puckheads”, on the Last Word Radio Network. You can listen in live or to our past podcasts by clicking here, or by searching for us on iTunes.