Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Future Stars. Over the next week or so, we will be previewing the 2014 World Junior Championships, a tournament that will be played in Toronto and Montreal from December 26, 2014 to January 5, 2015. As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
Today we start with an early look at Team Canada and predict the forwards who will be on the team. It should be noted that NHL players Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Duclair, Bo Horvat, and Curtis Lazar are all eligible to be part of this squad. That said, there is virtually no chance that the Avalanche will release MacKinnon. While the other four players seem to be possibilities, I am going to assume that none of them are released. The reason for this assumption comes from Bob McKenzie’s latest report on the world junior roster, where he states that Canada shouldn’t count on NHL help.
I am also going off reports that Connor McDavid’s hand will allow him to be healthy enough to play in the tournament.
With 22 players eligible for the roster, I am going to pick four lines and a 13th forward today and give my goaltenders and defence tomorrow. Note players must be born on January 1st, 1995 or later to be eligible for the tournament. 1994 birthdates are not eligible.
Canadian World Junior Team Forwards
Connor McDavid – Samson Reinhart (C) – Jake Virtanen
Typically, this isn’t a tournament for 17-year-olds. That said, Connor McDavid is no ordinary 17-year-old, he’s quite simply the best hockey prospect since Sidney Crosby. After averaging close to three points per game in the OHL prior to his injury, there is no issue with putting him on the top line for this tournament. Keep in mind that McDavid will be the same age relative to his peers as he was in the 2013 U-18 tournament, where he won MVP, and led Canada to gold.
Now most would have McDavid at centre, however consider the injury here. Yes, the cast will be off, but that does not mean he will be 100%. Some rehab to regain strength in his hand might be needed. The hardest thing to do with a hand that may not be as strong as it should be will be to take faceoffs, and so I’ve given that job to another forward on this line. He’s pretty good too.
Playing centre for McDavid at that Under 18 and captaining the team was Sam Reinhart. The Kootenay centre was a high pick in his own right, 2nd overall to the Sabres, and has the advanced hockey IQ to keep up with McDavid. The two have also shown chemistry at last year’s world juniors. Putting them as the top duo seems like a no-brainer, and they should be amongst the best lines in the tournament.
On right wing, Jake Virtanen is an ideal choice to complement these two. He goes to the net and causes problems, and this can open up more space for his talented linemates. He has no problem doing the dirty work on the forecheck, or in grabbing loose pucks, and will provide that role for Reinhart and McDavid. He also has a fantastic wrist shot and a great release. Add in good skating skill and his power game, and he will not be just a third wheel on this line, but an integral part of its success.
Max Domi – Robby Fabbri – Nick Ritchie
Max Domi has been terrific for the London Knights this season with 47 points in 21 games. I still feel that Team Canada made a mistake not having Domi on the team last year (in fact, he wasn’t even invited to the December selection camp), but they won’t make that mistake again. He’s strong on his skates, and works very well down low despite his limited size. He has exceptional stickhandling and creativity, and can really create off the wing.
Speaking of players excelling despite a lack of size, you have the Blues 2014 first round pick, Robby Fabbri of the Guelph Storm. Last year, he was the OHL MVP in leading the Storm to the Memorial Cup. Fabbri plays like a buzz saw, always keeping his feet moving, always battling, and always dangerous out there on the ice. He is a threat to both score goals, and be a playmaker.
Now, given the first two pieces on this line, there is a clear lack of size. That’s remedied in piece number three, Ducks first rounder, and Peterborough Winger, Nick Ritchie. Ritchie is normally a left wing, but Canada has an abundance of left wingers this year, and things aren’t as deep on the right. I believe he can be successful moving over, and so I’ve given him that role. Ritchie is one of the most intimidating and skilled players in junior hockey. He runs people over, he goes to the net, and he can score with a fantastic wrist shot. Now, if this tournament was being played on international sized ice, I might look at him as more a fourth liner than a top 6 talent, but playing in NHL rinks in Toronto and Montreal, Ritchie’s physicality and work on the boards will come in handy.
Michael Dal Colle – Nicolas Petan (A) – Conner Bleackley
Dal Colle, the fifth overall pick for the New York Islanders this spring, is a strong possession forward. He has good size, off the charts hands and stickhandling ability, great skating ability, good vision and passing skills, and an excellent shot. He can be an offensive catalyst on the third line, as seen with his 35 points in 17 games for the Generals this season, but can also play an effective two way game.
Nicolas Petan has been one of the best scorers in junior hockey the last two seasons, and while he had a slow start to the year in Portland, he’s picked it up lately, and now has 25 points in 20 games. He’s a returnee from the 2014 World Junior squad, and while he’s another small player, again, he has the skating ability that allows him to overcome that size with his great first step and acceleration. He’s also gritty and willing to battle in the corners and in front of the net.
Conner Bleakley is a two-way centre/winger who was a first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2014 NHL Draft. The Red Deer Rebel plays a strong two-way game. Bleackley shows the ability to drive hard to the net and has good balance and strength on his skates to fight through checks and battle in the dirty areas of the ice, in front of the net, and in the corners. It’s not always pretty, but it is effective. He’s as likely to bull-rush through a defenceman to get to the net, as he is to go around them. He excels in getting to the dirty areas of the ice and playing a high contact, gritty style of game in all three zones.
Tyler Bertuzzi – Frederik Gauthier – Greg Chase
Tyler Bertuzzi, a Red Wings draftee, and the nephew of Todd Bertuzzi, proves to play the same physical style that his uncle became known for in the NHL. Tyler plays a very physical game, getting in hard on the forecheck, winning battles on the boards, and establishing position in front of the net. He has a very good shot and an excellent release. With the puck on his stick, he’s always looking to drive the net. He plays a very simple game and is more likely to go through a defenceman than to try to make fancy moves to go around him.
Gauthier, the Leafs 2013 first-round pick, is the ideal checking line centre. He’s huge and can skate. He has a great hockey IQ. He works in all three zones, giving out hits and blocking shots. Gauthier has been a key penalty killer for the Rimouski Oceanic for three years now, and he is also good in the face-off circle. Add to that a decent shot, and you have a player who can be dangerous in this role.
Greg Chase doesn’t have the draft pedigree of some of the other members of this team, as he was a 2013 7th round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, but he is an extremely hard worker who fits in well in a fourth-line role here. He can score, as he has 18 points in 19 games in the WHL this season, but his biggest asset here will be his relentless competition level and his work in all three zones. Chase will get under the opponent’s skin and be a part of this shutdown unit.
Extra: Jason Dickinson
A 2013 first-round pick of the Dallas Stars, Dickinson is a creative playmaker, with excellent vision and passing ability, who can make his linemates better. An excellent stickhandler, he protects the puck well, extending plays and waiting for openings to make a pass; especially when working down low on the cycle. Dickinson has the versatility to play centre or wing, and to play on a checking or a scoring line. He has chemistry with both Bertuzzi and Fabbri, and this makes him an ideal choice for a fourth liner.
Honourable Mentions I considered, but didn’t have room for- Brendan Lemieux, Jeremie Gregoire, Zach Nastasiuk, Nick Paul, Morgan Klimchuk, Nick Baptiste, Dylan Strome, Travis Konecny, Brayden Point,
The Elephants in the Room: Horvat, Drouin, Lazar, Duclair
If any of these players are released, they are instant locks for the team. Drouin would likely take over a centre spot from Fabbri (pushing him down the lineup, but not off the team) if released. It would also mean Canada would essentially have two #1 lines, as a Drouin-Domi connection would be every bit as dangerous as a Reinhart-McDavid one. However, its unlikely he is let go, as he has a regular role and is producing in Tampa.
Duclair would slide in the top 6 on the wing, likely even on the top line if released… pushing each of my right wings down a line.
Horvat and Lazar are two players who would slide into the third line, forcing Dal Colle or Bleackley down the lineup, and Petan to switch to wing from centre. Either one would be key to any checking unit, and go up against every other countries top players, while still producing serious offence as well. If somehow they both got sent down, Horvat at Centre, and Lazar at Right Wing, would be two-thirds of one of the best checking lines Canada has ever had at this tournament.
Decisions must be made on these four players before December 19th.
Check in tomorrow for my look at the defence and goaltenders.
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