26 Players to Watch at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Russia
On December 26, the eyes of the hockey world will descend on Ufa, Russia for the IIHF World Junior Championships. The world's best players under the age of 20 will come together to seek gold for their countries.
The tournament is a tremendous opportunity for future NHL stars to grab some attention. The 2012 NHL lockout has created a dream scenario where top picks from the last two drafts will compete alongside those battling to become first rounders in 2013.
Let's take a look at 26 of the most intriguing and gifted players in this year's tournament:
Statistics courtesy of eliteprospects.com
26. Connor Murphy
Draft: First Round, 20th Overall, 2011, Phoenix Coyotes
The 6'5" American defenseman will be crucial as Team USA faces a number of elite forwards in a treacherous group B that includes Russia and Canada.
The Sarnia Sting alternate captain has decent offensive skills to add to an elite defensive game. He has 18 points to his name this season in the OHL. Expect him to be an important leader for Team USA.
25. Olli Maatta
Draft: First Round, 22nd Overall, 2012, Pittsburgh Penguins
Olli Maatta played in one game for Finland in last year's tournament and should have a bigger role this year.
Maatta has produced a strong season for the OHL's London Knights and is tied for fifth among league defensemen with 21 assists. His defensive prowess should be crucial to Finland's medal challenge.
24. Radek Faksa
Team: Czech Republic
Draft: First Round, 13th Overall, Dallas Stars
Faksa is set to play in his second World Junior tournament after scoring two goals in last year's event.
The aggressive Faksa will lead a Czech squad hoping to win its first medal since taking bronze in 2005. He has 29 points in 25 games for the OHL's Kitchener Rangers this season.
23. Valeri Nichushkin
Draft: Eligible 2013
Valeri Nichushkin is the most coveted Russian skater available in the 2013 draft, according to NHL Central Scouting.
Nichushkin has climbed his way into the KHL this season and should stand out amongst players his own age. A big tournament from Nichushkin could help the Russians reclaim the gold for first time since 2011.
22. Hampus Lindholm
Draft: First Round, Sixth Overall, 2012, Anaheim Ducks
Sweden's Hampus Lindholm should be among the best defenders this tournament has to offer.
The Anaheim prospect turned pro this year and has played well for the AHL's Norfolk Admirals. He only has six points to his name, but Lindholm is good enough in his own zone to make a major contribution.
The defending champs will need him to come up big, as he replaces 2012 gold medal winner Adam Larsson.
21. Teuvo Teravainen
Draft: First Round, 18th Overall, 2012, Chicago Blackhawks
Teravainen will be one of Finland's most exciting players.
The future Chicago Blackhawk has shown major improvement this season in the Finnish SM-liiga. In 24 games for first-place Jokerit, he has already surpassed his 2011-12 point total with 19 points.
20. John Gibson
Draft: Second Round, 39th Overall, 2011, Anaheim Ducks
John Gibson is Team USA's clear starter in goal. He should go wire to wire in the net and will have to be at his very best to give the Americans a chance to medal.
Jack Campbell's backup at last year's tournament, Gibson has enjoyed a strong season for the OHL's Kitchener Rangers. He ranks fifth in the league in goals-against average (2.33) and fourth in save percentage (.929), close behind Team Canada goalies Malcolm Subban and Jordan Binnington in both categories.
19. Tomas Hertl
Team: Czech Republic
Draft: First Round, 17th Overall, 2012, San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks' top prospect will return to the World Junior Championships this year after putting up a respectable five points in six games at last year's event in Canada. This time around he will be hoping to improve on the Czech Republic's fifth place finish.
Hertl has displayed serious talent playing professionally in the Czech Extraliga. He has 22 points in 29 games this season for HC Slavia Praha, playing against a bevy of locked out NHL stars.
18. Jacob Trouba
Draft: First Round, Ninth Overall, 2012, Winnipeg Jets
One of three American returnees from the 2012 tournament, Jacob Trouba will play a crucial role on defense for Team USA.
An elite two-way defender, Trouba will be tasked with shutting down the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov while also contributing offensively. The University of Michigan freshman has 11 points in 16 NCAA games this season.
17. Malcolm Subban
Draft: First Round, 24th Overall, 2012, Boston Bruins
The younger brother of Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, Malcolm is Canada's most talented goalie. However, a poor showing in camp may cost Subban the starting job.
Team Canada's head coach Steve Spott will have a tough decision to make between Subban and Jordan Binnington. If Subban gets the start, he'll face more pressure than any player in the tournament as he tries to lead a Canadian dream team to gold.
The Belleville Bulls goalie ranks second in the OHL in both goals-against average (2.17) and save percentage (.932).
16. Elias Lindholm
Draft: Eligible 2013
Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News ranks Elias Lindholm fourth among prospects for next year's draft, and the so-called "Next Peter Forsberg" could help his cause in Russia.
Playing against full-grown men in the Swedish Elitserien, he has 21 points in 32 games for Brynäs IF. He will be responsible for replacing 2011 sixth overall pick Mika Zibanejad, who has been held out of the tournament at the request of the Ottawa Senators, as Sweden hopes to defend its championship from a year ago.
15. Andrey Vasilevskiy
Draft: First Round, 19th Overall, 2012, Tampa Bay Lightning
The first goaltender selected in the 2012 draft, Vasilevskiy is back at the World Juniors after leading Russia to silver a year ago. In 2012, he recorded the tournament's highest save percentage (95.31) but was benched for the final after surrendering five goals in a winning effort against Canada in the semis.
Vasilevskiy should be the main man in the net for the host nation this year but could face pressure from Andrey Makarov, who silenced Sweden in the 2012 final before surrendering the overtime winner to Mika Zibanejad.
If Russia is to win gold in Ufa, Vasilevskiy will have to dominate in the net.
14. Nathan MacKinnon
Draft: Eligible 2013
Hailing from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia—the same town as Sidney Crosby—Nathan MacKinnon is Canada's latest model of "The Next One." A potential no. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL draft, MacKinnon might be the most talented player in the tournament.
Unfortunately for him, the lockout has flooded Team Canada with more mature stars, creating a major log jam at the center position.
According to a tweet from TSN's Bob McKenzie, MacKinnon may play little more than a reserve role as Canada's fifth center behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome, Boone Jenner and Phillip Danault.
If he sees significant ice time in Russia, he could be the tournament's main attraction. He has 52 points in just 30 games this season for the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads and has all the skills necessary to excel at the World Juniors.
13. Jonathan Drouin
Draft: Eligible 2013
Winger Jonathan Drouin has been gaining steam all season as he charges up draft boards. Ranked second among QMJHL skaters by NHL Central Scouting, behind only teammate Nathan Mackinnon, Drouin has an outside chance of going first overall in next year's draft.
The winger will play a much larger role for Canada than Mackinnon, who is buried behind older centers. Drouin is averaging exactly two points per game for the Halifax Moosheads, with 48 points in just 24 games.
His scoring rate is the highest of any player in the QMJHL, which includes potential World Junior standouts Canadian Jonathan Huberdeau and Russian Mikhail Grigorenko.
12. J.T. Miller
Draft: First Round, 15th overall, 2011, New York Rangers
J.T. Miller is one of three World Junior vets on Team USA and is among the favorites to earn the "C" for his sweater. He is likely to center America's top line between NCAA phenoms Johnny Gaudreau and Rocco Grimaldi.
Miller had four points for Team USA in last year's tournament.
The New York Rangers prospect has done well in his first pro season with the AHL's Connecticut Whale, scoring five goals and dishing out nine assists in 26 games.
Miller's leadership will be central to a United States medal challenge.
11. Jonathan Huberdeau
Draft: First Round, Third Overall, 2011, Florida Panthers
Jonathan Huberdeau will face soaring expectations on Canada's top line. The Florida Panthers' premier prospect will team up with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Scheifele to form what could be the tournament's best line.
An excellent two-way winger with tremendous potential, Huberdeau will be among Canada's most lethal threats. He tied for sixth in points after last year's tournament with nine in six games.
The Saint John's Sea Dogs star has 16 goals and 29 assists to his name in 30 games this season.
10. Mikhail Grigorenko
Draft: First Round, 12th Overall, 2012, Buffalo Sabres
Powerful forward Mikhail Grigorenko may play second fiddle to Nail Yakupov for Team Russia, but that doesn't mean he won't be a dominant force for the host nation. The Buffalo Sabres prospect is back for his second go-around at the World Juniors after five points and a silver medal in 2012.
This season Grigorenko is the no. 2 goal scorer in the QMJHL with 29 tallies for the Quebec Remparts. With his superb shots and physical presence in the offensive zone, he could challenge for the tournament's goal-scoring crown.
9. Mark Scheifele
Draft: First Round, Seventh Overall, 2011, Winnipeg Jets
High-scoring winger Mark Scheifele is expected to play on Team Canada's top line alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau. The Winnipeg Jets' inaugural draft pick will be tasked with finishing off Nugent-Hopkins' playmaking efforts.
Scheifele was a point-per-game player at last year's World Junior Championship and will take on an even bigger role in this year's tournament.
The Barrie Colts star has 48 points in 29 OHL games this season and should benefit immensely from his elite teammates.
8. Filip Forsberg
Draft: First Round, 11th Overall, 2012, Washington Capitals
Filip Forsberg helped carry Sweden to a gold medal in Canada last year. This time around he will captain a Swedish team deprived of stars Mika Zibanejad, Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom.
Forsberg may have mustered only one point in his first World Junior tournament, but the supremely talented Swede is capable of making a major difference this winter. The Swedes' gold medal defense will begin and end with the play of their captain.
By the time things rap up in Russia, the Capitals prospect might be reminding people of another Forsberg who once wore the Three Crowns on his jersey.
7. Dougie Hamilton
Draft: First Round, Ninth Overall, 2011, Boston Bruins
Dougie Hamilton is the most dangerous threat from the point that this tournament has to offer. The Canadian blueliner has a rocket shot and tremendous playmaking ability. Since the beginning of last season, the Niagara Ice Dogs star has 112 points in just 81 OHL games.
The Boston Bruins prospect put up six points in six games in last year's tournament and could manage an even higher total this year.
At 6'4", Hamilton is an imposing physical presence and should hammer opposing forwards throughout the tournament. He'll play alongside Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Morgan Rielly on the most highly touted defensive pairing in the competition.
6. Aleksander Barkov
Draft: Eligible 2013
Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News ranks Aleksander Barkov as the top European prospect available in the 2013 draft. With scouts everywhere tuning in to this event, Barkov will have a chance to overtake the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones in the race to become the first overall pick.
Barkov was on hand for last year's tournament and contributed four points for the Fins as a 16-year-old. The precocious center has stood out playing against full-grown men in Finland's SM-liiga, ranking eighth in the league in goals (14) and 11th in points (28).
Finland's medal hopes will depend heavily on Barkov's performance.
5. Ryan Strome
Draft: First Round, 5th Overall, 2011, New York Islanders
With a dominant start to the OHL season behind him, Ryan Strome has his sights set on some unfinished business at the World Junior Championships. Strome tied for sixth in scoring en route to a bronze medal at last year's tournament.
The Islanders prospect leads the OHL in points with 62 in just 32 games and is set for a breakout performance in Russia. He is an early favorite to be the tournament's top scorer and could bring hope to a New York Islanders franchise that has suffered a number of years.
4. Alex Galchenyuk
Draft: First Round, Third Overall, 2012, Montreal Canadiens
Though he was born in the United States, Alex Galchenyuk was raised in Russia and plays his junior hockey in Canada for the OHL's Sarnia Sting. Team USA hopes Galchenyuk will feel right at home in Russia and lead it to a gold medal.
After missing the vast majority of last season with a knee injury, the scoring machine is back in full force. With 40 points in his last 19 OHL games, Galchenyuk has come within one point of Canada's Ryan Strome for the league lead.
Far and away the most talented American forward, Galchenyuk will need to dazzle for Team USA to compete with Canada and Russia in a brutal Group B.
3. Nail Yakupov
Draft: First Round, First Overall, 2012, Edmonton Oilers
Selected first overall in this year's draft, Nail Yakupov will lead the charge for Team Russia as it seeks redemption on home soil. Yakupov was part of the 2012 squad that lost the gold medal game to Sweden in a 1-0 OT thriller.
He finished that tournament tied for sixth in points with nine, solidifying his position as the draft's top pick. Last year's heartbreak could motivate him to incredible heights on Russian ice.
Unable to debut for the Edmonton Oilers due to the lockout, Yakupov has suited up for the KHL's Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. In Europe's premier league, he has 18 points in 22 games.
2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Draft: First Round, First Overall, 2011, Edmonton Oilers
Yakupov's future teammate, and his predecessor as the first overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will captain the Canadian dream team. Coming home with anything less than gold could make RNH a national pariah.
Nugent-Hopkins enters the tournament with more NHL experience than any player in the competition after putting up 52 points in a 62-game rookie campaign. Before injury struck, he was a favorite to claim the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Unavailable for last year's World Juniors, Nugent-Hopkins donned a Team Canada jersey at the Senior World Championships. Playing against established NHL stars, he contributed six points in eight games.
A worthy captain for the gold medal favorites, Nugent-Hopkins should put on a show in Russia.
1. Seth Jones
Draft: Eligible 2013
The most intriguing player at this World Junior Championship will be American defenseman Seth Jones. The son of an NBA player, Jones is currently vying to become the first American picked first overall in the NHL draft since Patrick Kane in 2007.
A monster on the blue line at 6'4", Seth Jones boldly told TSN that he thinks the underdog Americans are the team to beat in Russia. If Jones can back up his claim with a gold medal, he would likely become the favorite to succeed Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins as the first overall selection.
Jones captained Team USA to gold at the U-18 World Championships last year and expects the same result at this level.
The Portland Winterhawks rookie has 28 points in 31 WHL games this fall and has a stunning plus-27 rating. Capable of making major contributions at both ends of the ice, Jones just might have the talent to take over this tournament and guide a Cinderella Team USA to a gold medal.