Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Future Stars. The World Junior Championships are right around the corner, and this year’s tournament will be played in Malmo, Sweden from December 26, 2013 to January 5, 2014. We have already looked at the Players to Watch on Team Canada, Team USA, and the rest of Pool A. Today we take a first look Pool B highlighting Norway, Switzerland, and Finland.
As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
Norway: Qualifying for the tournament by winning the division two tournament last year, the Norwegians are just happy to be here. They likely won’t be very competitive in the preliminary round, and their entire goal in this tournament is to somehow pull out a win in the relegation round and stay up for next year’s event.
Markus Soberg, Right Wing, (6’0″ 174 lbs): The only NHL drafted player on the Norwegian roster, Soberg was a 6th round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2013 NHL Draft. He is best known for his strong skating ability as he is able to fly up and down the wing. He also has a pretty good wrist and snap shot. However he’s a bit of a one trick pony as he seems to always look for the shot, and isn’t much of a playmaker.
Switzerland: On paper, the Swiss are the fourth best team in this group. That said, they always seem to provide an upset, or give one of the big hockey powers a real scare at the World Juniors. The Swiss have really improved their hockey program in recent years, and are now clearly one of the top eight hockey nations in the world. Can they continue that growth with another win over one of the big teams in this pool?
Mirco Mueller, Defence (6’4″ 205 lbs): A first round pick of the San Jose Sharks (18th overall), Mueller is a smooth skating, mobile defenceman. His lateral agility is very good, especially given his size. His crossovers, pivots, and edgework are also very solid, giving him the ability to cover a lot of ice defensively, or to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes offensively. His first step quickness and acceleration are also very good but he could use some work on his top end speed, as it is merely average.
Mueller shows good offensive ability. He keeps his head up and makes a good first pass most of the time. He also shows solid vision and playmaking skill from the point on the powerplay. Mueller has a hard shot which he keeps low and on net. He has good stickhandling ability and combined with his good skating he is able to both lead the rush and join it as a trailer. At 6’04″ Mueller has great size. However he has plenty of work to do in filling out his frame.
Defensively Mueller shows good positioning and high hockey IQ. He diagnoses the play well, maintains good gap control, and keeps his man to the outside. He is not afraid to block shots, and he cuts down passing lanes well. He gets involved in board battles and works hard to clear the crease. However he could stand to use his size more effectively and this can come with added muscle mass. Expect him to play huge minutes on the Swiss blueline.
Fabrice Herzog, Right Wing, (6’2″ 198 lbs): A fifth round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2013 NHL Draft, he has 20 goals in 34 games for the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL so far this season. Herzog is a good skater who shows good speed, and the power to fight through checks and get to the front of the net. He loves to play in the dirty areas of the ice and scores most of his goals in tight to the net. He has good hands and the ability to capitalize on rebounds and tip-ins. He is also a good two way forward who is willing to work along the boards in his own end of the ice.
Finland: The Finns are coming off an extremely disappointing performance at the 2013 World Juniors where they finished 7th in the tournament. The Finns definitely have a strong team on paper, and are looking to get back into the medals this year. While not a medal favorite, they certainly have enough talent to pull off an upset and in a tournament with this format (single elimination playoff games) they could go far if they get some hot goaltending and timely scoring.
Juuse Saros, Goaltender (5’10, 181 lbs): A fourth round pick of the Nashville Predators in the 2013 Draft, Saros was sensational at last year’s Under 18 where a .946 save percentage helped him to win goaltender of the tournament. In contrast to many of the goalies who are currently taking over the hockey world, Saros is considered a shorter goalie, and a reflex guy, measuring in at just 5’10″. Saros makes up for his lack of height with fantastic athleticism. He is a great skater in the crease, moving forwards and backwards to cut down angles and take away in tight moves, and really having stellar lateral movement to take away the cross crease pass. He tracks the puck well and is rarely caught out of position. He is extremely agile with really quick legs that take away the bottom of the net. Up top his glove hand is very good, and he is decent on the blocker side. Saros seems to be mentally strong and composed. He doesn’t let the bad goals get to him and recovers quickly from them. Like many young goalies, Saros can sometimes have an issue with rebound control, and he will need to focus on improving that aspect of his game going forward. He also lacks the puck handling ability that is popular amongst many goalies today.
Ville Pokka, Defence (6’0″ 196 lbs): A second round pick of the New York Islanders in 2012, Pokka will be playing in his third World Juniors. Offensively he plays a simple, but very effective game. He has great vision and hockey IQ which help him to quarterback the powerplay. A very good passer, Pokka can make effective tape-to-tape passes to teammates both from the blue line in the offensive zone and in his own zone to start the breakout. Pokka’s slapshot needs work, as it lacks both power and accuracy, however he does possess a good wrist shot, and can often be seen sneaking in from the point on the PP in an attempt to receive a pass and unleash it. Defensively, he is very difficult to beat off the rush as he uses excellent positioning and good quickness and lateral agility to always keep the opposing forward in front of him. He has a quick stick and is good at pokechecking opponents. Pokka has shown that he can be physical and throw a hard hit if he catches a forward in a vulnerable position. He is also willing to battle hard in the corners and in front of the net, however Pokka is sometimes overwhelmed by bigger, physical forwards. Expect him to once again play huge minutes and be a key to the Finnish defence in this tournament.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Defence (6’02” 189 lbs): The first round pick of the Buffalo Sabres (8th overall) is set to make his third appearance at the World Juniors. He’s played 19 games for the Sabres this season but is being released for the tourney. The first thing you notice about Ristolainen is how calm and cool he is with the puck on his stick. He is a good stickhandler, who uses his ability to protect the puck to buy him the time necessary to survey the ice and make the smart play, whether that be a quick, crisp breakout pass, or skating the puck up ice himself. He uses the same smart decision making to be a quarterback in the offensive zone, especially on the powerplay. Ristolainen also has a very strong point shot, which he keeps low and on net.
Ristolainen has good skating skill for a big man. His top end speed is above average and allows him to join the rush, either carrying the puck or by joining late as a trailer. He has good mobility, agility and edgework and thus, is able to effectively shut down his half of the ice, and can deal with forwards attacking him one on one. He walks the line well allowing him to open up shooting and passing lanes on the power play. While the skating isn’t in an elite category, it is pretty good, especially when paired with Ristolainen’s ideal size. Defensively, Ristolainen is a punishing physical presence. He loves to throw the body and can deliver some big hits. He also battles hard in corners and in front of the net, and has shown a decent mean streak.
Julius Honka, Defence (5’10, 176 lbs): Honka is eligible for the 2014 NHL draft and a potential first round pick. Playing with the Swift Current Broncos in the WHL he has 12 goals and 36 points in 35 games so far this season. He is tremendous on the powerplay with an absolute howitzer of a slap shot, and a good wrist shot with a very quick release. He also has strong skating, with extremely good top-end speed and acceleration that allows him to either lead the rush or join as a trailer. Defensively, his lack of size means he can be overpowered by big forwards at times, but he has good positioning and a strong stick which helps him to avoid this becoming too big of a problem.
Esa Lindell, Defence, (6’3″ 198 lbs): A third round pick of the Dallas Stars in the 2012 NHL Draft, Lindell is another offensive weapon from the blue line for the Finns. The key for this team will be moving the puck with a quick transition game, and attacking as five man units as they have such great skill on the blueline. Lindell is a good skater and puck handler who loves to join the rush, and unleash a strong and accurate wrist shot. He reads the play well in the offensive zone and picks good times to pinch into the play. He does need some work on his defensive game though, as he can use some work on his positioning, and his ability to use his size in battles and in front of the net.
Artturi Lehkonen, Left Wing (5’11” 160lbs): A second round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2013, Lehknonen has a lot of experience on the international stage with two appearances at the U18, and an appearance at last years WJC. He is a talented offensive player and natural goal scorer. He has great stickhandling and the ability to beat defenders one-on-one. He also has a hard and accurate wrist shot, and his lightning quick release helps him to beat goaltenders. Lehkonen also has good hockey IQ, and a knack for finding the open areas. This ability allows him to set up for a one-timer, which he can unleash with great results. Lehkonen is also a decent playmaker, with good passing and vision, but it is the goal scoring that he is best known for. Despite being undersized, he does work to win battles along the boards, but he will need to add a lot more upper body mass before he is effective in doing so at the next level.
Lehkonen is a very good skater. His top end speed and acceleration are excellent. He also has great edgework and agility, which allows him to get past opposing defenders, either through slick moves, or by driving wide and to the net. His great speed means that defenders need to respect this, and back off him on the rush, opening up space for him to unleash the great wrist shot. His balance is good, but he still needs to bulk up as he can be pushed off the puck at times.
Teuvo Teravinen, Centre (5’10, 185 lbs): A first round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012, this talented player is just another example of the rich getting richer for the defending Stanley Cup Champs. He is an absolute offensive dynamo, and will compete to be amongst the best forwards in the tourney. Teravainen has a ton of international experience and has been outstanding whether it be at the five nations, four nations, the Under 18s, or at last years WJC (11 points in 6 games). Teravainen is one of my favorite prospects to watch play. He has incredible hockey sense and vision, and is an extremely creative playmaker. Teravainen will attempt passes that most forwards don’t even dream about, feathering pucks through sticks and legs and putting them on the tape of his teammates. He shows incredible vision and passing skills in making these dynamic plays. Teravainen prefers to control the play in the offensive zone often working as a setup man working off the half boards. The has very good hands, and excellent stickhandling leading to a strong puck protection game despite his size. Teravainen also possesses a very hard and accurate one-timer and often unleashes it from the top of the circle. He is especially effective on the Power Play. He has shown that he is willing to take a hit to make a play, despite the fact he is often facing larger opponents. He could use increased upper body strength however, in order to help him win more battles.
Over the last two years, Teravainen has really worked to improve his skating. He has always had good top end speed, but he’s made great strides in improving his first step, his acceleration and his agility. He’s surprisingly strong in his lower body, giving him good balance and allowing him to fight through checks, and to remain strong on the puck.
Teravainen is a bit undersized and this can cause him problems in the defensive zone. He can be overpowered by bigger, stronger opponents, and this may mean that his future is as a Right Wing (where he has spent some time when playing for Jokerit) instead of playing Centre (where he’s been used almost exclusively when playing on the Finnish National Squad). He certainly shows going positioning in the defensive zone, and solid anticipation though, and this can allow him to create turnovers and opportunities to strike quickly in the transition game.
Check back tomorrow when I will finish the preview with the Russians and Swedes.
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