In the world of prospects and junior hockey, the holiday season is time for one thing: the IIHF World Junior Championships. The U-20 world championship will feature many of the world's top prospects that were drafted last year and a couple of the potential top prospects for the upcoming 2011 NHL Draft. The tournament makes for some great hockey, with emotions and intensity running high with the players both wanting to make a name for themselves and make their mark for their country.
Today, USA Hockey announced their final roster for the 2011 WJC in Buffalo. The New Jersey Devils second round draft pick in 2010, Jon Merrill will be the team's lone prospect at this year's WJC. The Michigan freshman defenseman has been great in his first year of college hockey. He's tied for third on his team in overall points with 13 points: 5 goals and 8 assists in 19 games. He's also the team leader in power play points (3 G, 4 A); blocked 27 shots; and took a mere 2 minutes in penalties. I don't think you could ask for a better start to a collegiate career.
Merrill isn't unfamiliar with the international game either. He was drafted out of the US National Team Development Program and he won gold with the USA team in the U-18 championships in 2009 and 2010. So given his past experience with USA Hockey and his fine start to his college career, his inclusion makes sense.
Congratulations all the same to Merrill for being named to the United States WJC team. Hopefully he will do his best and give the Devils faithful something to smile about amid a terrible season by the NHL squad. After the jump, I list a few other players fans should keep an eye on while cheering Merrill on.
Given that the New Jersey Devils are all but assured a high draft pick in 2011, the WJC has the additional appeal of looking for potential picks. I would take the WJC performances with a grain of salt. It's a short tournament in the middle of the hockey season. A great tourney can overshadow the flaws a player may show in their season. Likewise, a player could just have a bad set of games or get sick or get hurt and have their draft stock tumble in spite of their abilities and potential. And some players are great but just couldn't crack their nation's WJC lineup, like Brandon Saad for the US and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for Canada. Still, it's a great time to at least check out a few names when they do play against top junior players of other nations:
Sweden: Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog. The Swedish WJC team has several 2011 draft-eligible players, per Bruce Peter's preview at Puck Worlds. Larsson and Landeskog already have plenty of hype for being top 10 picks. Larsson could be the first defenseman selected in the 2011 NHL Draft. The little profile at Elite Prospects just raves about him and his stats show that he played the whole season with Skelleftea AIK's senior team. If you turn 18 in the middle of playing a full season with a SEL team, you've got game. Dean Millard has this take on Larsson at Coming Down the Pipe!, noting that he was representing Sweden as early as 16.
Landeskog is different from most on his team since he actually plays for Kitchener in the OHL. Needless to say, unlike Alexander Urbom, Landeskog isn't being left off this roster. He's too good. He's got 25 goals and 20 assists in 32 games with Kitchener, making him the 11th highest scorer in the OHL right now. He definitely doesn't shy away from physical play, rather he prefers to initiate it. Landeskog's play with Kitchener has convinced Brock Otten of OHL Prospects that he's currently the top OHL-based prospect. Millard ranked Landeskog behind Larsson as a player to watch out for in the WJCs. Even if he has a bad tourney, he'll get plenty of attention in the O to make up for it.
Switzerland: Sven Bartschi. I don't know how high he'll actually be projected, but he's getting a lot of buzz. The Swiss winger is leading all WHL rookies in scoring with 21 goals and 26 assists in 36 games. In fact, that total of 47 points is good enough to be tied with his Portland teammate Ty Rattie for fourth in the league in scoring. Dean Millard at Coming Down the Pipe listed him as potentially having an impact like fellow Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter did last year. Scott McDougall at The Scouting Report notes how his stock is rising along with his finishing skills. Switzerland may not be expected to do too much in the WJC as a team, but Bartschi will grab the scouts' eyes all the same.
Russia: Vladislav Namestnikov. Like Landeskog, this Russian winger performs in the OHL with the London Knights. He hasn't had the greatest run of games recently, though. He's got 10 goals and 19 assists, good enough to be second in team scoring. However, Brock Otten's midseason OHL prospect rankings only have him at 15; noting his recent cold snap when it comes to scoring. Perhaps he may not be a high first round pick, but it's someone to keep an eye on in terms of 2011 eligible players. Dean Millard's a little higher on the guy, though, comparing him to Alexander Burmistrov.
Canada: Sean Couturier. There's only one undrafted player on Canada's WJC team. Given how Canada regularly develops top 18, 19, and 20 year old hockey players, to make it on the WJC roster before being drafted is a big feat. Couturier plays for Drummondville and he's basically a point machine. In 32 games, he's got 16 goals and 36 assists. Last season, the center actually led the league in scoring with 41 goals and 55 assists. This September 2010 ranking of 2011 prospects by the Scouting Report placed him third, praising his size mixed with his skill. Should Couturier establish himself ahead of the already-drafted Canadian players, his name will continue to be in the conversation for #1.
These are just few of the names to look for along with Merrill and the tournament in general. With the Devils almost assured of a high draft pick, it's worth checking out the U-20 tourney. With the way the Devils are playing, you may see much better hockey in this tournament as a bonus. During the coming days, there will be open chat FanShots just for discussing these games and more.