In a cruel twist of fate, Montreal Canadiens fans may find themselves cheering for each of the last three World Junior Hockey Championships winners and not Canada.
Montreal has two highly touted prospects playing in this year’s tournament: right-winger Sebastian Collberg of Sweden and center Alex Galchenyuk, who is of Russian descent, but will play for the United States.
Sweden won it all last year, preceded by Russia, and before that the U.S.A. won the gold, ending Canada’s most recent five-year reign of supremacy (Canada also won five straight gold medals from 1993-97).
Left-winger Charles Hudon, the Habs’ fifth-round pick from last summer’s draft had made the Canadian roster, but back problems are keeping him out of the lineup (via TSN.ca).
In a weird way, though, it’s really Galchenyuk and Collberg whom fans would be on the edge of their collective seat to see, anyway. Galchenyuk was Montreal’s 2011 first-round pick (third overall) and Collberg was the team’s second-round pick (33rd overall).
There was no 333rd pick, for your information, but I assume if there was he would have turned out to be quite the beast, or half-beast more accurately.
Now that the devil jokes are out of the way, both players have incredible upside and are projected, right now, anyway, as anything from first-line players to elite talents.
As proof of this, at least in regard to Galchenyuk, look to the Ontario Hockey League’s scoring race heading into the tournament. Canada’s Ryan Strome has 62 points in 32 games, including 22 goals.
That’s nearly two points per game to those currently reaching for their calculators (I’m looking at you, Mr. a few shifts short of a full hockey game, Rene Bourque).
Meanwhile, Galchenyuk? He’s second with 61 points, including 27 goals, which is tied for the league lead.
While success in junior does not necessarily translate to the NHL (Corey Locke for example, who was the OHL’s best player and leading scorer in 2003-04 before being buried in Montreal’s farm system due in part to a lack of size), it’s clear that the Habs would prefer to see their top picks scoring at least once in a blue moon against teenagers before making the jump to professional hockey to play against men.
It’s also a positive sign that Galchenyuk has been able to go on this scoring rampage of his without former linemate Nail Yakupov, who has been the more celebrated of the two, going first overall to the Edmonton Oilers. Yakupov is currently playing for HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in the Kontinental Hockey League.
As such, consider the Habs and their faithful overjoyed by Galchenyuk’s development, which was admittedly stunted somewhat by a knee injury last season.
Regarding Collberg, the 18-year-old scored four goals and three assists in six games at last year’s tournament, and, though a bit undersized by NHL standards (5’11” and 176 pounds; Galchenyuk is 6’2” and 205 pounds by comparison), the Habs liked the Swede enough to take him just a few picks out of the first round last summer.
Yes, admittedly these are the same Habs that picked Andrei Kostitsyn 10th overall and then Cory Urquhart in the second round in 2003), but that’s the past. This is the present. Fans have a few years at least before getting to second-guess all of general manager Marc Bergevin’s mistakes.
In the end, while fans may feel shortchanged not getting a chance to cheer on a Habs prospect in a Canadian uniform this year, the fact of the matter is there are far worse fates out there. Consider this tournament a welcome distraction at the very least from one of them.
Notes: The U.S. eeked out a 3-2 overtime win against Sweden in their pre-tournament game on Thursday, with both players staying off the score sheet. Canada plays Sweden this morning in another pre-tournament game and the States on December 30 as part of the round robin.