2014 World Juniors: Players to Watch Sweden and Russia

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.  Yesterday we looked at Norway, Switzerland and Finland.  Today, we will highlight the two gold medal hopefuls in pool B, the host Swedes and the always dangerous Russians.

As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

Russia: The Russians have gone from Gold in 2011, to silver in 2012, to Bronze in 2013.  Coming back in 2014, they look to reverse the trend and get back to the top of the mountain.  On paper this Russian squad has as much talent as any team in the tournament and so they will be a threat to take the gold, as they always are in the World Juniors.

Andrei Vasilevski, Goaltender (6’3″ 190 lbs): Playing in his third World Junior Tournament, the 2012 Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder just might be the best goalie in the tournament.  In the 2012 tournament, Vasilevski had a .953 save percentage, and last year put up a .950 save percentage.  A similar performance this year could be enough to lead the Russians to gold. Coming in at 6’3″ tall, Vasilevski has the ideal height and size that teams are looking for more and more in goaltenders today. He is big and takes up a lot of space. When he gets out on his angles he doesn’t leave shooters with a whole lot of net to look at.  Vasilevski is mature beyond his years, maintaining a cool and calm composure in the net.

Vasilevski has quick and agile legs that cover the bottom of the net. He is very hard to beat down low. He also has an effective glove hand, something that more and more European goalies are learning to develop in recent years. Vasilevski is very good in his lateral movement, he gets side to side in his crease quickly and doesn’t over commit to cross-ice passes.

There are not a lot of huge weaknesses in Vasilevski’s game. Like many young goalies he is going to need to better control his rebounds. Overall, his technique is still a little raw, but the talent is definitely there and he can dominate at this age group.

Nikita Zadorov, Defence (6’5″ 208 lbs): A first round pick of the Buffalo Sabres (16th overall), Zadorov was one of the final cuts from the Russian Junior Squad last year. This year he should be back and making a huge impact after getting NHL experience to start the year in Buffalo. Zadorov is best known for his defensive skills. A huge defenceman, he dishes out big hits, and opposing forwards need to keep their heads up if coming down his side of the ice. He is mean along the boards and in front of the net. His skating and mobility is top-notch, making him really hard to get by one-on-one. His pivots are crisp, and his edgework outstanding which allows him to maintain his gap control, cover a lot of ice, and close quickly on a forward and take the body. His backward skating is outstanding, which makes him very difficult to beat off the rush.

He’s a willing shot blocker and his long stick can be an asset in the defensive zone. Zadorov does sometimes have a tendency to overcommit on the hit though, and this can get him out of position. He also needs to work on his poise with the puck, especially when under pressure as he can have a tendency to make some bad passes and giveaways in his own end of the rink. Overall though, his defensive game is top notch in most instances, just a little rough around the edges at times.

Offensively, Zadorov has improved by leaps and bounds since coming to North America to play in London. He is now using his good mobility to allow himself to join the rush and then recover quickly. In the offensive end he has a very hard and heavy slapshot. He also has decent vision and passing skills, but again struggles at times when under heavy pressure. His stickhandling and wrist shot are also decent.

Ivan Barbashev, Left Wing (6’1″ 185 lbs): The 1st overall pick in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, Barbashev is a pure sniper. He has a great arsenal of shots with a terrific wrister, slapshot, snapshot, backhand and one-timer.  These shots also feature an excellent release which can fool goalkeepers and the puck will be in the back of the net before he knows it.  Barbashev also has good stickhandling skills, and the creativity and vision to make passes that surprise opponents and set up teammates for easy goals.  He’ll have scouts on high alert during Russia’s games as he’s a potential top 10 pick for the 2014 NHL Draft. He needs to find more consistency in his defensive effort level, and defensive game though. With 13 goals and 37  points in 29 games to start the season, he’s leading the Moncton Wildcats offence this year.

Anton Slepyshev, Left Wing (6’2″ 194 lbs): A third round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2013 after being passed over in the 2012 Draft, Slepyshev is a very good skater despite an unorthodox short and choppy stride.  He has very good top end speed and quick accleration despite the unconventional approach.  He also possesses the balance, agility and strength on his skates necessary to fight through checks, and his edgework is great.

Slepyshev is a talented offensive player. He loves to shoot and has a very good array of shots. His wrist shot and snap shot both are hard, accurate, and feature a quick release. Slepyshev has very good hands, and is able to dangle around defencemen. He’s not afraid to drive the net and generates chances in close with his quick hands. He is a hard worker engaging in and winning numerous puck battles along the boards, and is willing to take abuse in front of the net. Big and powerful, he is more than capable of playing in those tough areas.  Slepyshev could however use some work on his playmaking as he can have a tendency to get tunnel vision and want to shoot everything at the net.

Slepyshev is well developped defensively. He has effective positioning and uses his stick to cut down on passing lanes. He pressures the puck carrier well, and has been an important part of Russia’s Penalty Kill Unit at the international level over the years. His impressive work along the boards, and high compete level seem to help him in this aspect of the game.

Valentin Zykov, Left/Right Wing, (6’1″ 215 lbs): The Kings second round pick in the 2013 draft, Zykov is a big forward who plays with a gritty edge and plays like the prototypical power forward.  He goes to the net very hard and knows what to do when he gets there. He has great hands in tight and can make slick moves, tip-in shots, or bury rebounds. A natural goal scorer Zykov also has a strong wrist shot and quick release.  Zykov also works extremely hard in the corners, winning board battles, and playing a gritty, physical game.  He is very strong on the puck and protects it extremely well in the cycle game; using his body to shield off checkers and and is rarely knocked off the puck by contact.  He does have some decent vision and passing skills and can set up teammates off the cycle, but his biggest strength is as a goal scorer.  His skating is unorthodox and his speed needs work, but he has good agility, and great balance and power that allow him to fight through checks and to drive to the front of the net with power.

Mikhail Grigorenko, Centre (6’3 195 lbs):  Grigorenko has struggled at the NHL level with the Buffalo Sabres so the team has sent him to get some quality ice time in high pressure situations at the World Juniors.  Grigorenko is the big prototypical top six offensive centre that teams dream about when they enter the draft lottery.  He has ideal size and the offensive skill that every team in the NHL would love to have.  He has excellent vision and passing ability and is an outstanding playmaker.  Many scouts have compared his game to Joe Thornton, as the big playmaking centre, who controls the play, can’t be knocked off the puck, and has superb vision and passing abilities.  Grigorenko however has the added dimension of an excellent wrist shot and release and he’s shown the ability to score a lot of goals at the Junior level.

On the negative side, some scouts have questioned his desire and say he doesn’t bring a consistent effort level on a regular basis.  There have also been concerns that he’s also a perimeter player and not really a physical presence despite his great size.  Anything less than a dominant performance at this tournament will have his critics out in full force once again.

 

Sweden: The Swedes suffered a long world junior drought in the late 90s and early part of the 00s, but after overhauling their hockey development program, that drought is a thing of the past.  In recent years they have been extremely competitive, winning Gold in 2012 and Silver last year.  Hosting the tournament in Malmo, they will get strong crowd support, and many are expecting the Swedes to once again be playing in the Gold Medal game on January 5th.  They certainly have the talent necessary to make that a reality.

Oscar Dansk, Goaltender, (6’2″ 203 lbs): A second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2012 NHL Draft, Dansk is in his second season playing for the Erie Otters in the OHL. He’s having an excellent year as the Otters are a team on the rise this year, with a 2.17 GAA and .919 Save Percentage.  Dansk was on the Swedish roster for the World Juniors last year, but didn’t see any action, this year he should lead the way as the starter.

Dansk is a tall athletic goalie who plays the traditional butterfly style. He has good athleticism, and quick reflexes. He moves well laterally and slides quickly from post-to-post and is able to make some very nice saves as a result. He is also extremely strong down low, and covers the bottom of the net effectively. He is great at stopping the first shot and is rarely beaten on a clean opportunity. Dansk has an excellent glove hand though he could use some work on his blocker side. A good puckhandler, Dansk is always coming out of his net to play the puck. Even with all those skills, in a short tournament like this one, Dansk’s most valuable attribute may be the cool and calm demeanor he displays in net. He recovers quickly from goals against and plays with a quiet confidence, something that will help the Swedish team as they face the pressure of trying to win gold on home ice.

Robert Hagg, Defence (6’2″ 207 lbs): A second round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, Hagg has a ton of international experience as he was part of Sweden’s last two entries at the IIHF Under 18 World Championships, the 2012 World Under 17 Challenge, the 2012 Ivan Hlinka tournament and the 2013 World Junior Championships. He’s picked up a pair of silver medals (2012 U18, 2013 WJC) and a Bronze (Hlinka) in the process.

Hagg is an excellent skater. He has great top end speed and outstanding acceleration, and skates with a smooth, powerful stride. He loves to get involved offensively either by leading or joining the rush, and his excellent skating allows him to recover quickly and get back to his defensive position. He has great edgework and agility, and covers a ton of ice defensively, and is able to make quick lateral movements to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone. Offensively, Hagg has a hard and accurate slapshot which he utilizes as a trailer off the rush or as a point man on the powerplay. It is his playmaking that really makes him a strong offensive prospect, however. He rarely is pressured into making a bad pass and shows poise and maturity beyond his years in setting up plays, whether it is making a crisp first pass out of his own end of the rink, setting up teammates off the rush, or quarterbacking the play from the blueline.

Defensively, Hagg is very inconsistent. At the Hlinka and the World Juniors he put up excellent defensive performances. He showed the ability to throw his weight around, and make some big hits in the defensive zone. Hagg also cleared the front of the net well and was able to use his size to lean on opponents in the defensive zone. He was aggressive, but also maintained good gap control, played his position smartly and cut down the passing and shooting lanes. However at the Under 18, it was like watching a totally different player. He was passive and got beaten off the rush or on the boards on a number of occasions. His positioning was off, and he was dominated by quick forwards in games against both Canada and the US. It was really a disappointing performance for Hagg.  What version of Hagg shows up for this tournament will be a real key to determining how far this Swedish team can go, as he will be expected to play a top-4 role.

Jacob de la Rose, Centre/Left Wing (6’2 183 lbs): A second round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, de la Rose has a ton of international experience and has been playing for Swedish national teams at the Under 16, Under 17, Under 18, and Under 20 levels over the years.  He has won silver medals at the 2012 IIHF World Under 18 Championships, and at the 2013 World Junior Championships.  He was also the Swedish captain at the 2013 Under 18s.

De la Rose is a dynamic skater.  He has great speed, and excellent acceleration.  He is very explosive and his ability to change speeds, and that extra gear he has allows him to beat defenders to the outside and cut to the net.  He’s also quick at getting in on the forecheck, and de la Rose takes advantage of this as he just loves to hit.  He has good agility and edgework allowing him to navigate his way through traffic, and his great balance allows him to fight through checks.  There are a lot of tools in de la Rose’s toolbox in the offensive zone.  He has great stickhandling and very soft hands.  He goes to the net and can score goals in tight on rebounds and tip ins.  He also has a good wrist soft, and his release is decent.  He’s an absolute beast on the boards and just loves physical contact, often being the initiator.  De la Rose has shown good vision and passing skills on occasion as well.  There is a huge “but” here though, and it’s that despite showing flashes of all these tools, de la Rose has not been as productive as he could be.  His Swedish stats are good for a teenager playing against men, but at the international level, de la Rose is just not putting up the points you’d expect given his talent, at the U18 and WJC levels.

De la Rose’s defensive game is excellent, especially for a player his age.  He is an extremely responsible forward, who has great gap control and understands how to always keep himself between his man and the net.  He backchecks hard, and comes down low to help his defencemen against the cycle game.  De la Rose is a willing shot blocker and cuts down the passing lanes, anticipating plays well and creating turnovers.  He continues to play his rough and tumble game in the defensive end and again loves to take the body.  His defensive game is elite at this level.

Andre Burakowsky, Left/Right Wing (6’1″ 179 lbs): A first round pick of the Washington Capitals, Burakovsky is an outstanding skater. He has the top end speed and acceleration to separate himself from opponents. When he hits top speed he can really fly. His edgework and agility are also well developed and combined with excellent stickhandling, this can make him a real dangerous player off the rush. He has the ability to go wide on defenders and cut to the net. He can also pull up and create space to shoot or make a pass to a teammate. In this way he’s highly skilled and highly unpredictable.  He couples the excellent stickhandling with good passing skills and vision to be a real offensive threat.  He is poised and patient working the puck on the side boards on the powerplay and looking for opportunities.  He also is very good at finding open space and getting himself into good scoring areas when he doesn’t have the puck.  Burakovsky’s greatest strength is as a goal scorer.  He has a very good one-timer, and an outstanding wrist shot and quick release.  He also has the ability to drive the net, and the skilled, soft hands to score in tight.  In short, he’s what teams look for in a skilled sniper.  Burakovsky could stand to improve his work along the boards.  He’s been playing in the OHL for the Erie Otters this season, and has put up 23 goals and 47 points in 31 games.

Elias Lindholm, Centre (5’11” 183 lbs):  The fifth overall pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL entry draft, Jim Rutherford’s decision to release Lindholm for the tournament is seen as a great boost to the Swedes’ chances at the tourney. A talented centre with excellent vision and playmaking ability, Lindholm has soft hands and excellent stickhandling. He has patience with the puck, and is very creative, able to thread passes through small openings. While he is more of a playmaker than a scorer, his shot is decent, and release good. Lindholm works hard in the corners and wins battles, but could stand to add more muscle. A key asset is that Lindholm is unafraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice to make plays though, and loves to finish his checks.

Lindholm has a very wide skating stride, that seems awkward at times. However this gives him tremendous balance, and allows him to be very strong on the puck, and gives him the ability to fight off hits, hooks, and holds. It really doesn’t diminish his skating too much either, as he has good top end speed and acceleration. His agility and edgework are strong and combined with his soft hands allow him to make precise dekes around defenders. Lindholm has an effective defensive game, as his willingness to throw his weight around extends to the defensive zone. He works hard on the backcheck and understands his defensive responsibilities down low. He also reads the play well. His complete game is very well developped for a young centre.

Alexander Wennberg, Centre (6’1″ 174 lbs): A first round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Wennberg is an amazing skater and one of the fastest players in this tourney. His top end speed and acceleration are both at an elite level, due in large part to a smooth, powerful, textbook skating stride. He also has very strong agility and edgework, which when coupled with his soft hands and excellent puck handling skills, makes Wennberg a very difficult player for defenders to handle one on one. He has the puck skills and the skating ability to really challenge defenders and to force them to back off or he will go by them on the outside and cut to the net.

Wennberg is much more of a playmaker than a goal scorer.  While he does have good hands in tight and can  score with dekes, tip ins and by pouncing on rebounds, he isn’t exactly a sniper further away from the net. Wennberg’s wrist shot has very good accuracy, but it lacks the power and the quick release to be especially dangerous. Instead Wennberg is a playmaker, with excellent vision, and pin-point passing.  He can create scoring opportunities for his linemates both off the rush and in the cycle game.  Wennberg is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice, however he lacks the upper body strength to be effective in board battles or in front of the net.  Like most of the players on this team, Wennberg couples his strong offensive game with an excellent defensive game to contribute at both ends of the ice.

Sebastian Collberg, Right Wing (5’11” 176 lbs): A second round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, Collberg is playing in his third World Juniors. He has put up 13 points in 12 tournament games and will again be expected to be a big time scorer for the Swedes as he’s been slotted on the first line and Power Play unit.

The first thing you notice about Collberg’s game is an incredible wrist shot and release. It’s a very heavy, accurate wrist shot and his quick and deceptive release often causes issues for opposing goaltenders. He also has a knack for finding the soft spot in the defence and once there, can unleash a wicked one-timer as he does this a lot for the Swedish powerplay. Collberg is a great stick handler and is not afraid to go to the dirty areas to score goals. He’s great on breakaways and has shown that he can consistently beat goalies one-on-one in the shootout, as he has been a go-to shooter in past tourneys. In short Collberg is just a natural sniper who has that innate ability to put pucks in the back of the net in all situations. Add to this the fact that Collberg has also shown good vision and the ability to make passes through tight openings. He adds a playmaking dimension in addition which makes him an elite forward.

Collberg’s skating is a definite asset. He has strong top end speed and excellent first step quickness and acceleration. His agility and edgework makes him very shifty which gives defenders fits when facing him one on one. He is strong on the puck and tough to knock off it especially given the fact he is a slight bit undersized. Great lower body strength and outstanding balance are keys here.

 

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