Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Stars. Over the next week or so we will be previewing the 2014 World Junior Championships, a tournament that will be played in Malmo Sweden from December 26, 2013 to January 5, 2014. As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
Yesterday I looked at the defence and goalies for Team Canada, you can see them by clicking here. Today we move on to the forwards. In contrast to the defence where 6/7 picks for Canada were drafted in the 2012 NHL Draft, the forwards had a down year for Canada that year. And thus our forward group will be pretty young this year. Five of the players I picked in the top two lines are 2013 NHL draftees, and the 6th is a 2014 Draft Eligible player. Overall there are nine 2013 draftees, a 2014 draft eligible forward, a 2015 draft eligible wonderkid, and just two forwards from the 2012 Draft. In many ways this forward group is young for this tournament, but that is not to make Canada an underdog. Canada has as much talent as any country in the tournament even if the forward group will feature more 18-year-olds than the normal 19-year-old heavy group we often see. Its not without precedent though as this squad resembles the team that Canada sent to the 2004 World Juniors, a tournament that was lost on a late gaffe by Marc-Andre Fleury in the gold medal game.
I am going to assume that any players currently in the NHL would not be released from their club, with one exception (the reason for which will be explained below).
Anthony Mantha – Sam Reinhart – Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin is the big surprise here. The third overall pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, most analysts (me included) assumed he would be in the NHL this season. However, he has been sent back to junior and he will be the most talented offensive dynamo in this tournament, not just the most talented Canadian player, the most offensively talented player period. He has tremendous skating, outstanding stickhandling ability, a good shot and release, and great playmaking ability. If Canada is going to succeed in this tournament it will be with Drouin carrying the offensive load. His experience in last year’s tournament, and at the Memorial Cup can only help him be ready for the pressure he will face.
Sam Reinhart captained Team Canada to the Gold Medal at last year’s under 18, and while most draft eligible players normally take on a lesser role in the World Juniors, I think he’s ready to be play with Drouin on the top line. The reason is that Reinhart is a late birth date player. He’ll be a full 18 years old when the tourney starts, and is in his third year in the WHL. He is a favorite with the Hockey Canada brass for not just his hockey skill but also his leadership and maturity. Reinhart has excellent hockey sense and vision. He seems to know where the puck is going before it gets there and finds the openings in the defence. He has excellent stickhandling and puck protection skills, which when coupled with his good vision and passing make him an excellent playmaker. His shot could be a little harder and should get there as he gains muscle, but he is deadly accurate and has a great release.
The third member of the line is Anthony Mantha, the 20th overall pick by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 NHL Draft. He’s a big winger, who skates well and has a fantastic shot and even better release. Mantha is having a fantastic start to the season leading the QMJHL with 20 goals and 45 points in just 18 games this season. He will be the finisher on this line playing with two players who can really set him up (though they can also score if given the chance). Expect Mantha to take up space in front of the net and to work the corners as well. He might not be the biggest hitter, but that doesn’t mean he is unwilling to battle for position and get to the dirty areas of the ice to score goals.
Kerby Rychel – Max Domi – Bo Horvat
The London Knights have dominated the OHL for the past two years, and this line takes advantage of the chemistry that has developed between two of their best players.
Bo Horvat is an outstanding two way player who was the ninth overall pick in the 2013 draft, selected by the Vancouver Canucks following the Corey Schneider deal. Horvat has very good vision, passing skills, and excellent hockey sense. This makes him an effective playmaker in the offensive zone. He goes to the dirty areas of the ice winning board battles and taking the puck to the front of the net. He also likes to establish his front of the net presence where he can unleash a heavy shot with a good release from the slot. Horvat has good hands and is able to control the puck effectively on the rush or off the cycle game. He makes smart plays in the offensive zone. Not the fanciest player, Horvat creates offence through simple, smart, straight ahead plays, and getting to prime scoring areas. He is also a quick skater, and he has greatly improved his speed and acceleration. Horvat’s good balance and strength on the puck allows him to fight through checks. Horvat is also an effective defensive presence. He is extremely effective on faceoffs and on the penalty kill.
Max Domi was the 13th overall pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2013 draft. Max has excellent hockey sense and is able to find openings in the offensive zone to unleash a quick and accurate wrist shot with a top notch release. Domi drives the net and has great hands in tight allowing him to score goals in a number of ways. Domi also has has great anticipation and a great first step which sees him pounce on a ton of loose pucks around the net. He is extremely dangerous with the puck as Domi can beat defenders one on one. He also has excellent vision and passing ability which he uses to create openings for his teammates. Domi was voted the 2nd best playmaker in the last years OHL’s Western Conference coaches poll. Domi is an elite skater who uses his shiftiness and changes of pace to confuse and beat defenders. He has a great first step and top notch acceleration. Domi also uses his great balance to win far more board battles and be far more dangerous on the cycle than you’d expect from someone his size. He has a very strong, very powerful lower body. Domi has worked hard over the last two years to develop a defensive game and is now solid in his own zone as well.
Joining the two Knights, will be a winger who can create space for them and bury some goals. Rychel has a very heavy, very accurate wrist shot and an excellent release which can really fool goalies. Rychel also has a very good one timer and should be called a pure sniper. He’s scored 40 goals in each of the last two years and a ton of those goals come from the top of the circles. However, he can also absolutely lethal in close to the net, using his soft, quick hands to tip in shots and bury rebounds. Rychel also drives opposing goalies nuts by setting up right at the top of the opponents crease and creating traffic and chaos in the goal mouth. He works hard in the corners and throws some big hits by getting in hard on the forecheck. He also has decent vision, and can make plays for his linemates, especially off the cycle. Rychel will need to work on his defensive consistency and on his first step and acceleration going forward. The last few years Canada has had some very good offensive players, but has lacked pure goal scorers in their top 6 due to some strange player selections, and its come back to bite the team in critical moments. In Mantha and Rychel, I’m attempting to ensure that won’t be a problem this year as in addition to the other talented players in this team’s top 6, I’ve added two snipers.
Charles Hudon – Scott Laughton – Frederic Gauthier
The third line is a unit that will be matched up against other countries top lines in the tournament. They are three excellent defensive players and should thrive in such a shut down role. That said, if they get an opportunity they have the speed and skill to score goals on the counterattack. Sometimes the best defensive play a player can make is to have the puck and be an offensive threat, if it gets an offensively minded opponent on his heels and in his own end of the rink, you’ve won half the battle. There three guys can do that. The line also has two natural centres with good faceoff skills, and thus can be trusted on any critical defensive zone draws.
A fifth round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, Hudon fell based on concerns about his skating and size. He silenced the critics last year though with a very impressive year in the QMJHL and by making Team Canada for the World Juniors. Unfortunately a back injury suffered in a pre-tournament practice took him out of tourney before it could begin. Hudon has shown that concerns about his skating were greatly over-stated and that he’s able to produce with his great stickhandling, passing, shooting, and most of all hockey sense. He’s also shown an ability to play a gritty two way game and has been very impressive every time he puts on the Hockey Canada jersey whether thats in the U18s, the Hlinka, the Russia-Canada series last year, or in tryout camps. He’s also done well internationally in the Subway Super Series. His Chicoutimi team seems to be struggling this year as they are rebuilding, but that shouldn’t be held against Hudon.
Gauthier, The Toronto Maple Leafs first rounder is listed at 6’04″ and 219 lbs, Gauthier towers over most of his opponents and can often times look like a man amongst boys out on the ice. Gauthier has shown to be very strong along the boards and in front of the net. Especially good on the cycle, Gauthier is yet another powerforward in the making. He wins a ton of battles, and protects the puck extremely well, which extends plays and buys him time to set up teammates. He has good vision and can thread the needle on his passes out of the cycle game, setting up teammates with great scoring opportunities. Gauthier can also score goals on his own by taking the puck hard to net, or by utilizing his hard, accurate wrister and good release. For a big guy, Gauthier also shows really impressive skating with good top end speed and acceleration. Gauthier is also well-balanced and powerful, which allows him to protect the puck while fighting off checkers, and power through his man. Gauthier shows a good two-way game, in fact he was a finalist for the Guy Carbonneau award, given annually to the best defensive forward in the QMJHL. He wins faceoffs, and is a strong backchecker. He understands the game, and is able to diagnose plays and use his long stick and big frame to break them up. He scored the Gold Medal Winning Goal for Team Canada at the Under 18s.
The Flyers first rounder in 2012, Laughton made the team out of camp last year, but got sent down before he could play 5 games. He’s back in Oshawa again this year and has 14 goals and 28 points in just 15 games. Laughton has outstanding hockey sense. He sees the ice very well and has an uncanny ability to sneak behind defenders and find a free piece of ice and get himself open. He has a hard and accurate wrist shot and a good release. As a playmaker, Laughton possesses good vision and passing skills. He uses his grit and desire to win board battles and to control the puck down low on the cycle game. He does need to work on his stickhandling, as he’s more of a straight ahead, north/south type player than one who will dangle his way through opposing defences. Laughton has developped into an excellent checking centre. He is willing to do whatever it takes to excel in the role, whether it be blocking shots, intercepting passes, making hits, or being an irritating pest to the opposition’s best players. He is an extremely hard working player in all three zones, and always willing to battle along the boards or in front of the net. Laughton has developped top notch faceoff skills and this has made him a key member of the Generals penalty kill. Laughton shows a ton of will to win, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to make that happen. He’s the perfect two way centre for this team’s third line.
Hunter Shinkaruk – Curtis Lazar – Nicolas Petan
While the third line is Canada’s checking unit, there are also plenty of quality two way players sprinkled in the top 6. If you read yesterdays piece, you will also know that Canada will have plenty of two-way defenders, and a pure shut down beast in Adam Pelech. I don’t think that defensive hockey will be a problem for this team. With that in mind, and the talent at my disposal, I’ve decided to add even more offense on the fourth line. The philosophy I’m using in picking my team Canada here is that there is no better way to protect a one-goal lead than to put the peddle to the medal (pun intended) and make it a two-goal lead. It will be a team philosophy that will ask the players to avoid going into the defensive shell that has sometimes cost them late in games. That said, like the other lines, this one also has the tow way ability to play defensively if it becomes absolutely necessary.
The 24th overall pick of the Vancouver Canuck, Shinkaruk is a quick and shifty skater. He was a late cut from last years team. He has very good edgework, and strong lateral agility making him very shifty. He is able to use this skill to beat defenders off the rush, or attack the net when he has the puck in the offensive zone. He can also use his ability to shift gears quickly to attack defenders or to pull up opening space for him to be able to get off his wrist shot. This type of game is built for the bigger ice surface in Malmo. Shinkaruk has a tremendous wrist shot and excellent release, particularly when coming in off the left wing. His shot is very accurate, and heavy, and the release fools goalies leading to the puck being behind them before they know what happened. He also has a knack for finding the open areas of the ice and taking an excellent one-timer. Not a one-trick pony, Shinkaruk also has very good playmaking skill and vision which makes him very difficult to defend. He is an excellent stickhandler and can make defenders look silly one-on-one. Shinkaruk isn’t a big hitter, but is not afraid to battle on the boards or in front of the net. He is more than willing to go to dirty areas of the ice to make plays, and is good in the cycle game. Shinkaruk’s two way game is decent, but he could use some more work on intensity in the defensive end of the ice. He does read the play well, and gets back, he just sometimes can have a tendency to puck watch a little bit and lose his man.
A first round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Lazar has great quickness and outstanding acceleration. He is able to use his quick and powerful stride to go wide on defence, and if he manages to get a step on them he puts it into another gear and drives the net. Lazar also uses his ability to change gears quickly to confuse defenders and coupled with very good agility, he is extremely dangerous off the rush. Lazar has good balance on his skates and fights through checks and protects the puck, making him dangerous off the cycle. Lazar is a pure goal scorer. He has an outstanding wrist shot and pro-level release which he uses to beat goalies. He also has an excellent slap shot. Add to this arsenal, soft hands to finish plays in close and the quick hand-eye co-ordination to make delections and pounce on rebounds and you can see why he scores so many goals. Lazar also plays a rugged game and is willing to hit on the forecheck, battle on the boards, or in the cycle. He’s not afraid to play in dirty areas. Lazar can be a bit more of a playmaker, as he does show good vision and passing skill, but doesn’t do it often enough but this area could come to the forefront on a line with two other elite offensive players. Defensively, Lazar is amongst the best checking forwards in the WHL. His two-way game is excellent, as are his faceoff skills. He plays his rugged game in all three zones, and uses his quick feet to keep himself in position and be hard on the backcheck. He helps out defenders down low and contains his man to the outside well, cutting down the shooting and passing lanes. He has a quick stick and intercepts a lot of passes, and is willing to block shots.
A second round pick of the Winnipeg Jets Petan is an offensive dynamo. He may be undersized, but Petan makes up for it with his skating which is well above average will be a tremendous asset in the international game. While his top end speed is merely good, it is the rest of his skating ability that really stands out. He has a very good first step, and great acceleration. Petan’s ability to change pace quickly and good agility allows him to confuse defenders and beat them to the outside before driving the net. His great agility, and tight turns allow him to weave through traffic both with and without the puck. He is not afraid to go into those high traffic areas, and his skating ability helps him to fight through checks despite his size. In the offensive zone, Petan has shown to be a multi-dimensional threat coupling great vision and playmaking skills with a good wrist shot and quick release. He creates scoring chances for linemates, but can also be a finisher. He has a very high hockey IQ and always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and to make smart plays with the puck on his stick. Petan works hard in the corners and the front of the net and shows a lot of fight and grit despite his size. Petan has also shown to be a reliable defensive player and often contributes on the penalty kill for Portland. He anticipates well and causes turnovers. His good hockey IQ allows him to steal pucks and transition quickly form defence to offence.
Extra: Connor McDavid
The Wonderkid, he’ll still be just 16 when this tourney starts. That didn’t stop him at the Under 18s last year though, where playing in a tournament he will be eligible to play in two more times (though the playoff runs of the Erie Otters will likely mean he won’t get that chance) before he is drafted to the NHL, he dominated, taking home the tourney leading scorer and MVP honours. Like that tourney, I’m going to ease McDavid into the lineup for this tourney, he will start as the 13th forward, with mainly powerplay time and be eased into even strength minutes. However if he proves capable of more, and shows he’s ready to play against not just your average OHL team, but the best junior players in the world who are three full years older than him, his minutes and responsibility may increase. Again this is similar to Sidney Crosby’s role on the 2004 team, or John Tavares on the 2008 team. (In 2005 and 2009 each of those two wonderkids were playing on Canada’s top line respectively).
Lets start with looking at the offensive weapons here, and the kid has it all. Exceptional hands and stickhandling ability, he can dangle past a defender and does an excellent job of protecting the puck and maintaining possession. His hockey sense and decision making is already at an elite level. His decision making and vision are excellent, he reads the play very well and always seems to keep the puck moving in a smart and efficient manner. His passing is outstanding as the young centre has the ability to thread pucks through tight spaces and put passes tape to tape at high speeds. McDavid also possesses an accurate shot, with a good release. His ability to make all these plays at a high speed, and to never have to slow down his feet to control the puck is a huge asset. He has the ability to change gears quickly and effectively and this aids him in beating defenders. His top speed is good, but its the acceleration and the ability to vary his attacks, to slow the game down when necessary or to make the quick play that really sets him apart. The unpredictability can leave defenders flat footed as he quickly accelerates around them. Or he can look like he his going to beat his man wide and suddenly slow down, opening up space for a shot or quick play in front of the defender. His agility and edgework is also outstanding. He also has very good balance and is a lot stronger on his skates than most expect for his age. That said he can still struggle with exceptionally big and strong defenders in the OHL, and thats why we are easing him in when facing elite competition at the World Junior level. Don’t be surprised if he steals a top 6 spot if one of the older forwards struggle in this short tournament.
Honorable mentions: Brandon Leipsic, Brendan Gaunce, Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk
Come back tomorrow when I’ll reveal my picks for the defence and goalies on Team USA.
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