With the United States defeating Sweden 3-1 to take the gold medal, it may be another chapter in what could be a brewing rivalry between the two countries. The USA has played Sweden the last three years at the Under-18 Championship finals, winning all three, and this World Juniors final match featured a lot of the players to take part in those games. There were a lot of other storylines from the 30+ games that took place in Ufa, Russia and from talking to scouts and observing the games myself, here are my top takeaways from this tournament.
The Czech Republic's big line
The Czechs main strength was their top trio, with Tomas Hertl (SJS) centering Dmitrij Jaskin (STL) and Tomas Hyka (LAK). Hyka did well, showing good if not great skating ability and some offensive skill, but the standouts were Hertl and Jaskin, who were among the best forwards at the tournament. It has been a few years since the Sharks have had a really good prospect, and Tomas Hertl looks like that prospect. His high level of puck skills and offensive hockey sense were consistently evident. When I asked scouts about Jaskin last year, his more optimistic supporters saw his projection as a quality third line forward, but I'm not sure I'd agree as he has been among the QMJHL scoring leaders this year and put on a show in Ufa. For a 6'3'', 205-pound forward, he displays a very impressive amount of skill, made a few highlight reel quality passes, and showed a good physical game. He looks like a notably above-average prospect who the Blues should be excited about.
The ups and downs of Joel Armia
Armia (BUF) has always been known as a very high upside yet polarizing prospect, and that was on full display at this tournament. Both during the exhibition matches and at the beginning of the event, Armia's skill set was very evident and it even had me starting to think he may have turned a corner. His puck skills are elite, he has a big body with a fantastic shotthose were givensbut he was also flashing high-end vision, which made him really exciting to watch. However, there were also long stretches of time, especially in the latter part of the round robin, where he would try to do too much and make giveaway after giveaway. With Finland down a goal with a minute left in regulation vs. archrival Sweden, needing to tie the game to get to the medal round, and on a power play, Armia took an ill-advised stick penalty. There is a lot to be excited about with Armia's future, but there are some things to be concerned about. He did end up tied for second in tournament scoring, but that was after racking up a lot of points in the relegation round.
Dougie Hamilton struggles
It would be hard to poll a scout who does not believe Dougie Hamilton (BOS) is among the game's elite defenseman prospects. He is a unique package of tools, standing at 6'5'', 205 pounds, with a very desirable amount of skating ability and offensive upside. He is the reigning CHL Defenseman of the Year and several NHL sources I talked to loved him at the World Juniors last season. However, with Hamilton lining up on the top pairing every game, one scout said, "This [World Juniors] wasn't his shining moment, but he wasn't alone for Canada." The scout also said on Hamilton, "His power play presence is his greatest strength, but he struggled with shot selection and overall judgment. He needed to simplify his game." Several sources point to Dougie's decision making as an issue he has had for a while. It comes and goes, though, and when he's on, he becomes an other-worldly prospect. "I wouldn't worry about him at all [despite his struggles]" said one scout.
The rise of Jimmy Vesey
I remember talking to a scout last year who told me about a forward playing in the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL) and raving about him. He told me about how talented and competitive Jimmy Vesey (NSH), son of former NHLer Jim Vesey, was and how he was a better skater than his father. So I responded that Vesey sounded like a second or third round player and the scout said, "That sounds right." Sure enough, Vesey went in the third round in 2012 to Nashville. He scored eight points in nine games at Harvard this season, and got to the last cut for Team USA. After being healthy scratched in the exhibition matches, he seemed a likely cut before Devils first pick Stefan Matteau delivered a head check, likely booking Vesey's ticket before the final selection was made. He started off as a 13th forward, and worked his way up to the top line, taking part in key scoring plays and showing significant talent.
Jonathan Drouin shines, Nathan MacKinnon plays little
Top 2013 draft prospect Drouin was on CAN's top six and eventually on their top line. He is a 17-year-old who turns 18 in March. For a player his age to get that kind of responsibility at the World Juniors, on an elite U20 team that has great talents up front, is highly unusual and very high praise from his coach Steve Spott. At the same time, his linemate and fellow top 2013 draft prospect in the QMJHL, Nathan MacKinnon, was on the fourth line. Drouin played well all tournament long and got a lot of talk in the mainstream going after displaying his elite puck skills and hockey sense. Some fans who may have been introduced to Drouin now may have started to wonder if he is better than Nathan MacKinnon. The thing is, this isn't really a new debate, as over the last month or so scouts who have watched Halifax have been discussing this. It's a legitimate debate, although you will probably still find a good amount of observers that lean to MacKinnon. However, it is important to keep in mind that in this World Juniors, Canada's coach Steve Spott usage of Drouin and MacKinnon based on the opinion of one man and one coaching staff. Drouin or MacKinnon is a debate, and thus some people will view the player's value, present and future, differently. Spott sees it one way, but it's very possible a different coach would have used the players in a different way. Spott's job was also to try and put the best players out to win the two-week tournament, and that can differ from projecting NHL futures. Finally, the large ice surface is a factor to consider as well. One only needs to look at individual scoring in the European leagues to see the difference between various locked-out NHL players on the big ice; there is a major difference between the North American and European game when it comes to the kinds of players who can produce.
Nail Yakupov's mediocre performance
It isn't really a stretch to say Yakupov (EDM) underperformed in this World Juniors. Even though he produced a solid-looking eight points in seven games, he was expected to be a tournament star and he didn't look the part. That being said, I am not really concerned about Yakupov. I'm obviously not pleased, and I wouldn't point someone to this tournament for evidence of why Yakupov is a fantastic young player, but we have hundreds of other games he has played over the past few years to reference. One scout said, "You were used to seeing times of brilliance from [Yakupov] in the OHL, but that didn't happen." Yakupov's speed was evident, but he didn't show as much offensive creativity, puck skills, and distribution skill as he usually does. It could be because of "home court" pressure, because he was gripping his stick, or some other reason, but it's likely because it's a handful of games. That kind of random variance happens in short samples; it's just a shame that it happened now. Despite the subpar tournament, my projection of Yakupov has not changed. He is an amazing prospect.
Quick hits on four top prospects
John Gibson, Goaltender, Anaheim Ducks
"Since halfway through his draft season, he's just continued to improve," said one NHL executive. Gibson has racked up a ton of accolades over the last few seasons. The best SV% in the Under-17 Challenge, Best Goaltender in the 2011 Under-18 Championship, Best SV% in the OHL last season, and now the World Juniors MVP. He is a big, athletic goalie with tremendous poise and hockey sense. He has established himself as an elite goalie prospect.
Filip Forsberg, Right Wing, Washington Capitals
Forsberg was named as a tournament All-Star by the media and the team's top forward by the coaching staff. While his stats (three goals and five points in six games) don't stand out, and while he drew criticism for trying to do too much and turning the puck over, he made a lot happen. Forsberg generated a ton of chances, led Sweden in shots on goal, and his high-end skill set was evident on a regular basis. If he gets a little more puck luck, his base numbers likely fit into the top tier.
Mikhail Grigorenko, Center, Buffalo Sabres
Grigorenko had a very good tournament, as he centered what was Russia's best line almost every game and was a catalyst. His tremendous offensive instincts and ability to make quality plays with the puck were evident and he ended up being named Russia's top forward by the coaching staff. He has had a lot of heat thrown at him over the last six months or so, but in Ufa he looked like an elite prospect.
Alexander Galchenyuk, Center, Montreal Canadiens
The third overall pick from the last draft started off very strong, leading the team in scoring for a few games and showing significant offensive ability. For the duration of the tournament, his usage was a question mark, with the ice time he received being debatably a little low for a player of his stature. His play wasn't as good in the medal round, but there is little concern about the high-end all-around skill set Galchenyuk brings to the table.
There is a lot I did not cover, so if you have any questions about any player at the World Juniors feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to answer.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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