One thing about the sport of hockey that I love most is how players are drafted and developed. For big sports like football and basketball, once you are drafted you head straight to the pros. For hockey, it is a very different situation.
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Players who are drafted do not have to be immediately signed to play. They have many options including major junior hockey, European leagues, NCAAs, USHL, and others. Because of this, many drafted players will take two, three, and even four years before joining the NHL team or anyone of its affiliates.
One of the most scouted and scrutinized prospect tournaments in the world is the under 20 World Junior Championships. It is here that future NHL players go up against the best people in their age group and players who they will most likely run into at the NHL level.
The New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes will be well represented at this tournament especially on Team USA where, barring any surprises, there will be five players representing the two teams.
For the Rangers three forwards will be an integral part of the offense for the United States.
Derek Stepan is a center at the University of Wisconsin drafted in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft. Known for his playmaking abilities he is having a great year as a sophomore with five goals and 17 assists in 18 games for the Badgers. A solid skater Stepan will be a key piece to the United States attack. Team USA played an exhibition game last night against the University of North Dakota where Stepan had two assists in the 4-2 win for the United States. When Stepan will make his professional debut is unknown but there are some who believe he could be playing in the American Hockey League as soon as next season. His performance in this year's tournament will go a long way in making that decision.
Chris Kreider was the Rangers' first round pick in this past 2009 NHL draft. There was much skepticism surrounding him going into the draft. After playing at Andover Academy, scoring 33 goals and adding 23 assists in just 26 games the Rangers saw his talent and decided to take him. Many Blueshirt fans are skeptical of drafting kids out of prep schools after the Hugh Jessiman debacle but this kid has all the tools to be successful. He was considered the best skater in this past draft with explosive speed is showing major improvement this season as he is a freshman at Boston College. Scouts consider him the best prospect to come out of New England since Brian Leetch.
In the win over North Dakota, Kreider showed his value as he scored two goals to help lead Team USA to a win. There was some question as to whether he would make the team but I think he has solidified his position. He has two goals and three assists in 14 games this season for Boston College. The speedy forward will probably spend at least another season at Boston College before even considering moving on to a higher level.
The third Ranger looking to make Team USA is Ryan Bourque who was a third round selection in the past draft. The small forward is the son of Ray Bourque but plays a very different game. Despite his small stature he has the offensive abilities to be a scoring forward. He is a quick forward with a good shot playing for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. With 12 goals and 15 assists in 31 games so far, he is having a solid rookie season in a strong major junior program. He did not play last night against North Dakota but has survived the first round of cuts.
The only other player in the Ranger organization who will be skating in the World Juniors is Czech forward Roman Horak. Playing for the Chiliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League, the young left winger has developed into a talented forward who plays a strong two way game. In his rookie season in North America, the Czech has put up a respectable 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points in 36 games. He is a fifth round pick of the Rangers from the 2009 draft.
For the Coyotes they will have their eyes on the World Juniors. With so much being put on the future of the organization, there are many players who will be playing key roles for their countries.
On Team USA, the Coyotes have Chris Brown looking to lock up a forward spot. As a freshman Brown is tied for second in scoring for the University of Michigan Wolverines, which has been a breeding ground for Coyote prospects. A power play specialist Brown was a second round pick for the Coyotes at this past draft. A strong forward he will be looking to impress at these World Juniors.
One of the most important pieces to Team USA will be the starting goaltender and the likely candidate was a third round pick of the Coyotes. Mike Lee is the starting goaltender at St. Cloud State as a freshman and will most likely anchor the American goal crease. The big goalie is big and has good reflexes. Team USA will be relying on him to be a rock in goal, especially against so many high powered offensive teams in the tournament.
When the Coyotes picked Oliver Ekman-Larsson with their first round pick this season, the knew they were going to get a solid defenseman who some believe will end up being better than Victor Hedman. He will be an anchor on the blue line for the Tre Kronor at this tournament as they look to solve the Canadians who they have lost two in the last two finals. "OEL" has excellent offensive abilities while being solid in his own end. Phoenix will be hoping he has an impressive showing against the world's best young players.
There are going to be many players at this tournament to keep an eye on as well as the story line of whether or not Canada can win a sixth straight gold medal. For anyone keeping track, the last country to win a gold medal at this tournament besides Canada? The United States. You know this underdog team would love to do that.