2016 World Juniors: Players to Watch in Pool A

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The pre-tournament games are in the books, and teams are making their final preparations for the 2016 World Juniors taking place from December 26, 2015 through January 5, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland.

Today we take a look at players to watch in Group A.  Group A will be playing the round robin portion of the tournament at the Helsinki Ice Hall, home of IFK Helsinki with a capacity of 8,200 fans.  Group B includes the host Finns, and thus will be playing in the bigger of the two rinks used in this tournament, the Hartwall Arena, a 13,665-seat venue that is home to Jokerit.

2016 World Juniors: Players to Watch in Pool A

Canada

The defending champs enter the tournament as one of the favorites.  They will feature a strong forward group, but have question marks on the blueline and in goal.  With only one natural right defenceman, how will the lefties adjust to playing on their off-side?  MacKenzie Blackwood was expected to be Canada’s number one goalie, but will miss the first two games due to a suspension he earned in the OHL.  Even with those questions, Canadian fans and media will consider anything less than a gold medal as a disappointment for this team.

Dylan Strome, Centre, Erie Otters (3rd overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Arizona Coyotes):

Strome is a versatile forward who has spent some time at all three forward spots over the last two seasons.  With Connor McDavid gone though, he’s now become Erie’s top line centre this season.

Strome has an outstanding wrist shot, and a great release. He also has very good hands in tight and can be a real sniper. Strome also has the ability to be a playmaker with great vision and passing skills. He has good size and uses it to protect the puck in the cycle game. He is great at working down low, extending plays and waiting for the opening to take the puck to the front of the net, or for a linemate to get open and make the tape to tape pass. He has high-end hockey IQ, and seems to make the right play with the puck on his stick, or can find openings in the defense to set himself up for a one-timer.

Strome’s skating has been a source of criticism in other areas, but it is something that I think is a bit overblown. He shows a relatively smooth skating stride once he gets going, but his first few steps are choppy. This should be something that can be improved with a good skating coach. His top end speed is decent, but his acceleration and first few steps could use some improvement before he hits the NHL. He’s put up 16 goals and 53 points in 25 games this year.

Mitchell Marner, Right Wing, London Knights (4th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Toronto Maple Leafs):

After finishing second in OHL scoring last year, Marner continues to tear up the league this year, putting up 22 goals and 58 points in just 25 games to again be among the league’s scoring leaders. Marner may be a little undersized, but that doesn’t stop him from playing a gritty game and getting to the front of the net or battling in the corners. He is relentless on the forecheck. He has developed a much stronger shot, and has an excellent release.

That said, it is Marner’s outstanding vision and playmaking skill that make him elite. He controls the puck extremely well, and can extend plays on the cycle giving his linemates time to get open. Marner’s hockey sense is top notch as he makes the smart play with the puck, and can find openings in the offensive zone without it. Marner is a tremendous skater. He has great speed, and very good acceleration. His quick first few steps help him to pounce on loose pucks. He has excellent agility and edgework and is extremely shifty. Couple this with his strong puckhandling, and he is very difficult to defend off the rush. He also shows the ability to slow the game down, or speed it up, which is just one more weapon in his arsenal that he uses to fool defenders. Marner and Strome are expected to be a dynamic duo on Canada’s top line.

Brayden Point, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors (79th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Tampa Bay Lightning):

Point was outstanding for Canada in last summer’s World Junior showcase camp and is expected to be the second line centre on the team.  He is a dynamic offensive player who has 43 points in 19 games for Moose Jaw this year. A third round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014, Point scored 87 points in just 60 games last season. He also won a world junior gold medal with Team Canada at last year’s tournament.

Point is a player who seemingly has it all, except for one thing, size. At 5’9″ 160 lbs, major questions exist over whether he will be able to endure the rigours of professional hockey. While he can’t do much about that height, he really will need to bulk up to make his NHL dream into a reality.  For now though he’s a dominant junior player.

Point is a very good skater, with good speed, very good acceleration and a quick first step. His agility and edgework are both very good, and his balance and strength on the puck is surprising for a player his size. He is very tough to knock off the puck, and he can be gritty and win board battles due to his good balance. Point is an excellent playmaker. His hockey sense, vision, passing skills and decision making are all at a very high level. His stickhandling is also good. He has the ability to control the puck and the poise to slow the play down and wait for a teammate to get open. Point also has a very good scoring touch in close to the net where he tips in shots or pounces on rebounds, he also has the soft hands to make a move and fool a goaltender in tight. Point could stand to have more power on his wrist shot, but it is accurate and features a good release. Added bulk should improve that. Point plays the game hard in all three zones. He is gritty on the back check and willing to battle against bigger players in his own end of the rink.

Haydn Fleury, Defence, Red Deer Rebels (7th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Carolina Hurricanes):

Fleury is a sold defender with a long reach and the ability to cut down passing lanes. Over his junior career he has continually gotten stronger and better in board battles. Fleury is given a ton of minutes, and plays in all situations. His ability to read the play, his positioning, and overall defensive fundamentals have taken a huge step forward, and he has become an elite shut-down defender at the WHL level.  He is equally good at defending against the rush and defending in the zone, as he has great gap control and is tough to beat to the outside.

Offensively he also has decent puck-handling skill and good vision and passing ability. He makes strong first passes to start the transition game and also has the poise to quarterback the power play from the blue line. He has put up 20 points in 24 games this year. While not having a huge point shot, it isn’t bad either, and he understands how to get it through the shooting lanes without being blocked. His wrist shot is remarkably effective, showing big power and a great release.  The quick release often makes it a better option for him from the point. He’ll be expected to continue to play big minutes on the Canadian blueline.

USA

The Americans are coming off a disappointing finish in last year’s tournament, but still have plenty of hype for this year. Surefire first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft Auston Matthews is centering the team’s top line flanked by fellow 2016 draft eligibles Matthew Tkachuk and Alex DeBrincat. All three are sure to be followed by plenty of NHL scouts. The talk of the American selection camp was as much about who wasn’t invited as who was, but that just shows the depth of the program and that they have the high-end talent to win the tournament.

Auston Matthews, Centre, Zurich Lions (Eligible for 2016 NHL Draft):

The consensus top pick in 2016, Matthews is in a class apart when it comes to this year’s draft eligible players. He is playing pro hockey in Switzerland and has 25 points in 22 games for the Zurich Lions. The experience on the big ice, as well as the experience of playing in this tournament last year, will serve him well.

Matthews has very good size and is an exceptional skater who has the stickhandling ability to make plays at top speed and the vision and passing ability to be a dynamic playmaker. Add in good hockey sense and a decent shot with a quick release and it’s easy to see that he has all the attributes to be a top-line offensive centre in due time.

His defensive game could use a little bit of work, but this is a minor quibble for a player with the high end offensive potential of Matthews. A good coach can teach him defense, but the offensive instincts, vision and playmaking ability he has cannot be learned and should allow him to be a dominant player on this stage (and going forward).  He played with Matthew Tkachuk on the US NTDP Under-18 squad last year, and so playing with him again in this tournament reunites a pair with established chemistry.

Matthew Tkachuk, Left Wing, London Knights (Eligible for 2016 NHL Draft):

The son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk is playing for the London Knights in the OHL this season.  He has already put up 14 goals and 59 points in just 29 games so far this year. Tkachuk has very good positioning and high-end hockey sense, and the puck seems to follow him around the ice. He understands how to find open spots in the defence and has an excellent shot and release, as well as a soft touch in close to the net, making him a real goal scoring threat.

It’s his play-making that has been really impressive this year though.  He has excellent vision, the patience and poise to slow the game down and wait for opportunities, and the skill to put the puck through the tiniest of openings.  He cycles well and wins battles along the boards to extend plays and create even more opportunities.

Tkachuk back-checks hard and already plays a strong two-way game. His skating was weak at the start of last year, but improved as the year went on and that improvement continues this season. While he’s not a speedster, he is above average and his balance, power, and agility are all good.

Sonny Milano, Left Wing/Right Wing, Lake Erie Monsters (16th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Columbus Blue Jackets):

Milano has good top-end speed, but his quickness is outstanding. He has a tremendous first step, great acceleration, and can change direction on a dime. He can get by defenders, as at the moment he sees an opening, he flies through. Milano has great hands and can make plays with the puck at top speed. He loves to shoot the puck, using a great wrist shot and release. He also has a very dangerous backhand.

Milano is relentless, chasing down loose pucks with reckless abandon. He wins puck battles via determination, positioning and leverage, but can sometimes be overpowered. He is a tremendous playmaker with great vision, and the ability to thread the needle and put the puck on a teammates tape. He is dangerous off the half-wall on the powerplay, as he can take advantage of extra time and space to create chances with a shot or pass.

Zach Werenski, Defence, University of Michigan Wolverines (8th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Columbus Blue Jackets):

Werenski is a mobile, two-way defender. He has outstanding speed, which gives him the ability to join the rush, or pinch at the blue line and still be able to cover up defensively. He has outstanding edge work, agility, and pivots, allowing him to transition quickly from offence to defence or vice-versa.

Werenski possesses high-end offensive ability with good passing skills, and strong ability to handle the puck and quarterback things from the blue line on the powerplay. He is calm and poised with the puck. He has excellent stickhandling ability, which he can use to start the transition game, or to control the puck at the point on the powerplay. He has a very good slapshot and excellent vision and passing skills.

Offensively, his hockey IQ is very high, and Werenski makes intelligent plays with the puck on his stick. He seems to be a step ahead of the play at times, and chooses the play that leads to the best scoring opportunity. All in all, Weresnski is one of the top offensive defencemen in this tournament. Defensively he’s not afraid to be physical, but he could use some more maturity in his game, as he can sometimes get himself out of position.

Sweden

Always a threat on the junior stage, this year is no different for the Swedes. William Nylander showed that he was a dynamic offensive force in the 2015 tournament, and after terrorizing the AHL for three months, will be back to lead the Swedish offense. Given the fact he is older and more experienced than Matthews, there is a very good chance that he is the best player in this tournament. Joining him will be his brother, Alexander Nylander, and a wealth of other Swedish talent. They certainly make Pool A into a three-horse race.

William Nylander, Centre, Toronto Marlies (8th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Toronto Maple Leafs):

With 34 points in 27 games, Nylander is leading the AHL in points, an incredible feat for a 19-year-old. He is an outstanding skater. He has very good top-end speed, excellent acceleration and change of pace ability. He uses this to fool defenders off the rush and to open up passing and shooting lanes by quickly changing speeds. He also shows very good agility and the ability to get around defenders one-on-one. His balance is good, and he has improved his core strength in order to avoid getting knocked off the puck by bigger defenders.

In the offensive zone, Nylander shows off outstanding hands, and incredible stick-handling ability. He can control the game with the puck on his stick and protects it well. He is an outstanding playmaker with great vision and can pass the puck through the eye of a needle. His shot features a quick release and good accuracy. There are plenty of skills there, but there are also some things Nylander has to work on, mainly in his own end of the rink. He was dynamic at this tournament one year ago and should be the a huge threat this year as well.

Alexander Nylander, Right Wing, Mississauga Steelheads (Eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft):

The son of Michael Nylander and William’s brother, Alexander Nylander is another highly skilled member of the family. He made his way over to the OHL, joining the Steelheads this season and has put up 21 goals and 49 points in 33 games. The younger Nylander also has tremendous speed and great acceleration.  Add excellent agility and the ability to change directions extremely quickly, as well as top notch stickhandling ability and he can be a nightmare for defencemen. He has the ability to handle the puck as well as make precise passes while moving at top speed.  His wrist shot features a quick release, but he must add some upper body strength in order to add more power. He also has to work on being more conscientious on the back check and not cheat to create offensive chances.

Adrian Kempe, Left Wing, Ontario Reign (29th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Los Angeles Kings):

Kempe is a very good skater, despite an unorthodox stride. His very wide stride doesn’t seem to take much away from his speed or his acceleration. It also gives him a little more balance and helps him to fight through checks, as well as to protect the puck in the cycle game. Kempe has decent agility but this is not the strength of his game, as he is more about power than finesse.

Kempe plays the game like a bull in a china shop. He drives the net hard, not caring who he has to bulldoze to get to the areas he wants to go. He is first in on the forecheck, and just loves to punish defenders in the corners. He protects the puck very well on the cycle and is a menace down low. His wrist shot is very hard and heavy. It also features a good release. Kempe has decent vision and passing skills which he uses out of the cycle. His stickhandling is decent, but he certainly plays a North-South game, choosing the direct route instead of trying to use too many moves to try and get by a defender. Kempe also plays a strong defensive game. He is an industrious forward who never stops skating, and his physical and gritty nature is apparent in all three zones of the ice.

Jacob Larsson, Defence, Frolunda (27th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Anaheim Ducks):

Larsson is not flashy, but he has solid all-around skill. His wrist shot and slapshot are good, but not bombs. He is extremely smart though, and makes sure to get it on net, and keep it low for rebounds and tip-ins.  He shows good poise with the puck on his stick and makes smart plays. Larsson’s vision and passing skills are excellent. He makes a great first pass out of his zone, and can make the long stretch pass if a forward is open. He has not really shown the passing skills in the offensive zone though, he’s decent back there, but his ability as a “power play quarterback” seems limited.

Larsson’s defensive game is his real strength. He is gritty and willing to battle in front of the net and in the corners but is not one to throw big hits. Larsson reads the play well and has very good positioning.  He is willing to block shots and uses an active stick to cut down passing lanes. He has very good gap control and forces opposing forwards to the outside. When he gets the puck, Larsson moves it out of the zone quickly and starts the transition game. He also can skate the puck out of pressure on the forecheck.

 Switzerland

Switzerland took a major blow to their tournament hopes when the Nashville Predators announced that they would not be allowing Kevin Fiala to compete in the tournament. He would have boosted there chances of upsetting one of the big three in this side of the bracket. That said; with players like Timo Meier, Noah Rod, Denis Malgin, and Jonas Siegenthaler,  and a disciplined defensive system the Swiss could still cause troubles and maybe even provide a surprise to one of the tournament’s bigger clubs.

Timo Meier, Left Wing, Halifax Mooseheads (9th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, San Jose Sharks):

Meier is a powerful skater who fights through checks to protect the puck in the cycle game or take it to the net off the rush. Meier has great hockey sense and gets to the open areas of the ice, where he can be set up to finish chances with an excellent shot and release. He has a very good arsenal of shots with an excellent snapshot, strong wrist shot, and very good one-timer. He can be very effective off the half-boards on the powerplay.

Meier is also a very physical player, establishing his position in the slot and winning board battles to create offence. He has the good hand-eye coordination to tip in pucks and pounce on rebounds. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and can punish opposing defencemen with hits behind the net. Meier also has good vision and passing skills, and the smarts to make a good pass when he is working the cycle. He has some finesse in his game with good stick-handling skills, and the ability to finish plays in tight. He also has a well-developed defensive game.

Noah Rod, Left Wing, Genève-Servette HC (53rd overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, San Jose Sharks):

Rod plays what can best be described as a North American style taking plenty of grit and mixing it with some skill.  He forechecks hard, and wins a lot of board battles. Will drive the net when he does have the puck on his stick. His skating speed is decent, but his edgework and agility are very good which make him very slippery in the offensive zone. He is already well-developed in terms of his two-way game, and should join Meier on the Swiss penalty kill unit.

Jonas Siegenthaler, Defence, Zurich Lions (57th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Washington Capitals):

Siegenthaler has ideal NHL size at 6’3″ and 220 pounds already. He’s not afraid to use that size to get involved physically. He’s not a big hitter, but he does battle along the boards and clear the front of the net. He maintains excellent gap control and positioning. Siegenthaler forces attackers to the outside, and into poor shooting positions. He has an excellent understanding of angles and how to cut down the dangerous areas of the ice. He controls his man down low, and is excellent at playing against the cycle game, keeping the puck to the outside, and sometimes stripping it with a quick poke check. Siegenthaler uses his size and a long, active stick to cut down on passing and shooting lanes.

Siengenthaler has very good defensive instincts. He reads the play well and anticipates where attackers are going to go with the puck.  There isn’t much there offensively, but he will be tasked with shutting down the other team’s best players.

Denmark

A year ago Denmark had their best ever tournament at the world juniors, winning a game and avoiding relegation for the first time.  With Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand they had two blue chip NHL prospects on the team; something they never had before.  With Bjorkstrand now too old to participate and Ehlers playing on the Jets, things will be a lot harder this year.  Denmark will be in tough to avoid relegation again.  They do not have a single player who has been drafted by an NHL team.

Alexander True, Centre, Seattle Thunderbirds:

True has put up 10 goals and 19 points playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL this season.  True can score with an excellent release and powerful shot.  He also is a decent passer, with strong vision.  True plays a straight line game, he goes to the net, and battles in the corners; and prefers a north-south style of play.  He is also able to use his long reach to break up plays defensively. He is a tall centre, but really needs to add muscle to his frame as he looks very lanky out there, and can lose board battles to a stouter player who can establish leverage and a lower centre of gravity. His speed is good once he gets moving, but he’s a bit choppy in his startup and needs better acceleration.

 

Check back tomorrow for Pool B featuring Russia, Finland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Belarus.