The World Junior Championships provide hockey fans with an opportunity to see the future stars of the game all in one place.
At this year's tournament, which kicks off in Sweden on Dec. 26, the biggest names of the National Hockey League's future—including Canada's Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid, the projected No. 1 picks of the 2014 and 2015 drafts, respectively—will be participating. It's a wonderful display of what we'll all be watching five, 10, 15 years down the road.
Five current Buffalo Sabres prospects are expected to take part in the event, as well. Three are names that are familiar to fans, as they have already appeared in NHL games with the young club. The other two may not be seen on the ice at First Niagara Center for years to come.
For all five—from 43-game NHLer Mikhail Grigorenko to 2013 fifth-round draft pick Gustav Possler—the tournament will give a chance for much-needed experience and the building blocks for success down the road in the Sabres' organization.
Grigorenko's struggles in Buffalo have been well documented.
The 2012 first-round draft pick was thrust into the lineup immediately last season as an 18-year-old, had the first year of his entry-level contract burnt before he was later sent back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and then came back to suffer much of the same this season.
He's been a healthy scratch multiple times this year in Buffalo, and the new regime of interim coach Ted Nolan and president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine even tried to send him to the AHL before that was blocked by NHL brass.
With just three goals and five assists in his NHL career, halfway through his entry-level deal with the Sabres, something needs to change—and quickly.
After the Sabres gave the Russian National Team permission to take him off their hands for a month, Grigorenko is now one of two current NHL players on the Russian roster for the WJC, along with Dallas' Valeri Nichushkin.
Grigorenko is excited for the chance to show his talents once again, as he expressed recently in The Buffalo News.
“I think it’s going to be great for me because I’m not getting enough ice time so I’m a little frustrated,” he said. “But going there, I’ll play a lot. It’s a really good level there. All the best junior players. I’m going to play against players my age, play a lot and play big minutes. It’s going to be a really good experience.”
In the same article, Nolan—who seems to have been puzzled by what else to do with the troubled youngster—agreed with the sentiment that playing in the tournament is a golden opportunity for Grigorenko.
“If history teaches us anything it’s that a player’s got to play,” Nolan said. “I don’t know too many people who develop without playing. He has to play and this will give him a good opportunity to do so.”
Grigorenko will finally have the chance to play and showcase his skills. That much is a given. Sabres fans watching Russia games in the tournament can enjoy watching that while hoping it translates to an improvement in his play in North America when the WJC is over.
While the Sabres went all-in right away with Grigorenko with less-than-desirable results, they're being a bit more cautious with their first-round picks from this past June.
Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who played seven games in Buffalo early this season before being sent back to the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, will join Grigorenko on the Russian roster. Together, they'll be part of a team expected to make a serious run at the gold medal in Sweden.
Zadorov's return to the OHL on Nov. 19—part of Nolan and LaFontaine's purge of youngsters from the team—was somewhat of a shock to his system, he told Hockeysfuture.com.
“It was different. Everything is different. Here we’re just kids and [in the NHL] it’s older guys,” he said. “It’s hard, one guy had a job and then a second guy comes in and everything changes. New coaches in one day. I don’t know, I just try to play hard and do my best. I’m not mad anymore, I’m just going to try and do my best and be a leader.”
The 18-year-old has played well since returning to London, tallying six points and a plus-eight rating in eight games. He also played for Team Russia in a Subway Super Series game as soon as he returned to the junior level, during which he tallied three assists in a 5-2 win over Team Canada.
Zadorov clearly has confidence and poise at the junior level that he isn't quite ready to show at the professional level.
The Russian roster is a talented bunch that includes 11 players from the KHL level, plus the two NHLers in Grigorenko and Nichushkin. Zadorov should be able to use the experience he missed out on last year (he was a late cut from the 2013 Russian team) to build on his already promising resume and future.
Possler was listed on Sweden's preliminary roster, which was released on Dec. 6; however, there is concern that he may not be healthy enough to play in the tournament. He suffered an injury while playing with MODO of the Swedish Elite League in early December.
Gustav Possler again missing from the MODO lineup today. He's been out for two straight games with Sweden's WJC camp set to open Monday.— Kris Baker (@SabresProspects) Dec. 10, 2013
MODO "hopes" that Gustav Possler can play Thursday. Injury deemed minor from the beginning, but still concern is growing about WJC.— Kris Baker (@SabresProspects) Dec. 11, 2013
If he can get onto the ice for the home team in the tournament, Sabres' fans who tune in will see a player Hockey's Future says could blossom into an effective scoring winger in the NHL.
Possler is a scoring winger with good skating and stickhandling ability. He prefers to shoot rather than pass, and combined with his explosive first step, Possler can be a very opportunistic goal scorer. He has good hockey sense and uses his speed to create turnovers.
In 21 games with MODO so far this season, the 19-year-old Possler has scored 14 points.
Possler is expected to remain in Sweden for at least another couple of seasons before coming to North America. This will be Sabres fans' first chance to see down the pipeline—and, possibly, catch a glimpse of what they can expect a few years down the road.
Like Possler, Rasmus Ristolainen will be a part of the WJC if his body allows him.
The 2013 first-round draft pick, who has appeared in 19 games with the Sabres this season, is expected to be an important part of Finland's blue line; however, he was not on the list when the preliminary Finnish roster was announced Tuesday.
Ristolainen is still recovering from an injury he suffered while playing in the American Hockey League for the Rochester Americans in early December. Kris Baker of Sabres Prospects told me that if he heals in time, though, he'll be playing in the tournament.
@DEmkeSabres Yes, he can be added. His inclusion is pending medical green light (currently has UBI), but the thought is that he'll play.— Kris Baker (@SabresProspects) Dec. 12, 2013
Amy Moritz of The Buffalo News reported that upper-body injury is likely a concussion, suffered when he was sucker-punched by Lake Erie Monsters center Mitchell Heard.
If Ristolainen can play for Finland, the team will be receiving a WJC veteran. The 19-year-old played for Finland in both the 2012 and 2013 WJCs. Both he and fellow Sabres prospect Joel Armia were key components of the Finnish team last year, with Ristolainen scoring six points in six games.
The defenseman showed reliability during his short stint in Buffalo earlier this season, but his talent remains raw. He was unable to stick with the big club because he wasn't quite polished enough to crack the Sabres' regular top six. It's a role he'll hope to solidify in the next year, but he may find himself battling with Zadorov for a roster spot.
In preparing himself for 2014, one more go-around at the WJCs could be just what the doctor ordered for Ristolainen—if the doctor gives him the OK to play.
A second-round pick of the Sabres in 2013, Compher is expected to play a key role in the United States' run at the gold.
The 18-year-old was a member of the USA's gold medal-winning squad at the 2012 U-18 Championships and the silver medal-winning team at the 2013 U-18 Championships. Over the course of those two tournaments, he was nearly a point-a-game player.
The Illinois native is in his freshman season at the University of Michigan, so it's unlikely he'll be anywhere near a Sabres roster for several years. So far, he's keeping up the point-a-game pace at the collegiate ranks, with 14 points in 14 games, including four points in two conference games.
At 5'10", 184 pounds, Compher is built in the Tyler Ennis mold. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his size, Hockey's Future says his best quality is his skating ability.
Compher is an undersized energy player who is a fierce competitor. He possesses above average skill in all facets of the game though his greatest strength is his skating ability. He plays well away from the puck, using his speed to backcheck and forecheck and finishes his checks consistently. He is not an offensively gifted player but can score goals on a regular basis.
For someone who is "not an offensively gifted player," he seems to be doing quite well for himself. In the 2014 WJC, he could be at least a second-line center for the Americans, surrounded by other top young talent—including Jack Eichel, a potential top-three pick in the 2015 draft.
Sabres fans should tune in to see what Compher can do—because by 2017, by which time we hope the Sabres' rebuilding process is complete—it's what he might be doing in Buffalo.