Mix and Match: A World Junior Championship Mashup

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Mix and Match: A World Junior Championship Mashup
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So the New Year's festivities are over and hockey is going full swing. This year, we fans have the pleasure of getting a condensed hockey schedule thanks to the Olympics. For die-hard hockey fans, it’s the best time of year.

Add to that the World Junior Championship, my favorite “holiday” event and that gives us much more hockey than we usually would get in a year.

This year, we get to enjoy the highest level of competition hockey has to offer and I think also the best three ways to display the artistry that is hockey: the NHL schedule, the Olympics and World Juniors Championship. It’s not often we have the chance to see so much talent within 365 days.

That being said, there is potential for a lot of writing during the holidays. So here I am at 7:45am on Monday morning thinking about hockey and anxiously waiting for the first game of the day. Should I be sleeping? Probably.

But as soon as I woke up, I started thinking about hockey, more precisely, junior hockey. That’s how big a fan I am.

I kept thinking about the Latvian team that is at the World Juniors Tournament and wondering if the selection criteria may be wrong. I mean, just looking at how badly Latvia got beaten…it was like watching bantam playing against Major Juniors players. In their five games, Latvia was outscored 53-11. And no that’s no football score.

But still Latvia has to be proud of their young team. They came in probably knowing they would be outclassed but hanged in there until the end. Imagine how Latvia’s head coach felt when he learned his young team was going to face the Canadians in their very first game of the tournament.

So that got me thinking about the whole “fairness” process in this. I agree that every country should have the chance to make the tournament. But there’s just no reason for such moral crushing defeats to take place in a tournament created to showcase talent, skills and potential draftees to scouts.

Can anyone name a single Latvian player who stood out? It’s tough, how can you stand out when you’re constantly defending yourself and can barely touch the puck?!

Imagine Janis Kalnins, Latvia’s goaltender, on the evening of Dec. 26; do you think he feels he could showcase any of his skills after letting in 13 goals against Canada in the 16-0 loss? Even though we all knew Canada would dominate the Latvian team, it still hurts. I just hope he can shake it off.

And on another note, how do you think Gabriel Bourque feels about having tied Mike Cammalleri’s record for most point in a game in that 16-0 pounding? Such a record loses significance when done against such a weaker team. And it’s no offense to the Latvians, they tried their best.

So maybe there could be a more effective way to select countries to play in the tournament. Every year, some weaker countries want to make the tournament. And rightly so, they also want the chance to showcase whatever talent they have.

But those teams often do badly or worse. Germany, Kazakhstan, Austria, Denmark, Belarus all tried their hands, often but not always with poor results. They still deserve the chance to show their skills but maybe another way.

So how about this: there should be at least seven teams determined by the IIHF association according to the quality of prospects and hockey programs. Right now, those teams are as clear as day, they are the teams that are competitive every year: Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Finland, and Switzerland.

As for the last three, the IIHF should have a tournament between the remaining teams, maybe a couple weeks before the World Juniors, to determine the last two countries that will make the cut.

And for the last spot, why not make a Euro team composed of the best prospects from the remaining teams. Each remaining country gets to send a few players, maybe four or five, to compete as a team. So every country still gets the chance to showcase their best prospects.

It’s just a thought. But it’s still early in the morning so I may still be sleeping!

***

My biggest disappointment: Nikita Filatov. I thought he would dominate this tournament, but has been nowhere to be seen. This is a major reason why the Russians were bumped out of the medal rankings.

Also, the loan to a Russian team, I think, could spell the end of his time in Columbus. Yes, I’m serious. I’m not sure he’ll want to come back to play in that system or for coach Ken Hitchcock. And by allowing him to go back to Russia, the Blue Jackets are likely slowing his adaptation to North American hockey. They should trade him now to a team that will use him in a scoring role. Washington sounds interesting. So does Pittsburgh.

This will also fuel the fear that NHL teams now have about drafting Russian players, regardless of their superstar potential. Filatov was ranked higher than his number six draft spot. He should have been a top three pick but because he’s Russian, his rank fell.

The same happened with the late Alexei Cherepanov and the trend is getting stronger, Russians like Dmitry Orlov and Kirill Petrov certainly had the skills to go in the first round but dropped to the second and third.

The trend will get stronger as the KHL grows. Over the next few years, Russians drafted high will slowly vanish until there are none in the top five and besides a few exceptions, maybe not in the first 15 spots for a while.

The last time I checked, Kirill Kabanov was the highest ranked Russian player in the draft, he was ranked third for a while and dropped to seventh overall more recently. Many say he has Ilya Kovalchuk type skills and should be a top three pick.

But he’s not on the Russian junior team right now thanks to an injury, which will likely drop him further in the draft, even though he currently plays in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

***

If you think that Canada’s roster is strong...well, it could have been even stronger. Just imagine if those draftees from the last two years had been returned to their junior team. This team would likely include Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, and John Tavares.

Just how strong would the team be with them? I’d say just looking at the Canadian roster sheet would be enough to scare some countries out of the tournament!

***

Now how about that El Nino?! No, not the weather phenomenon, but the Swiss player Nino Niederreiter! He’s the player who caught my eye the most this year.

He’s currently sixth in scoring at the tournament with nine points in six games. He’s big and tall, plays well and basically beat Russia almost by himself. He currently plays for the Portland Winter Hawks making his adaptation to North American style hockey that much quicker.

He might possibly become the highest drafted Swiss player in NHL history since Michel Riesen, picked 14th overall in 1997.

Nino Neiderreiter is that kind of player who makes things happen and has been the catalyst for Switzerland’s offence. He currently ranks around 22nd in the next draft but should rise after this tournament. If he can end the season strong with the Winter Hawks, he could crack the top 10 draft picks this June.

***

Jordan Schroeder just broke a record when he picked up three assists against Finland. The feat is a big one since he passed Jeremy Roenick to become the all-time points leader for the Americans at the World Junior Championship. Also, his 20 assists so far is the third highest total in history of the tournament.

***

Once again, Jacob Markstrom was spectacular but couldn’t stop the Americans from bumping Sweden out of the finals. Markstrom is considered one of, if not the best goaltender outside the NHL.

And with a .946 SVS percentage and 1.76 GAA, he’s making a strong case to make the NHL next year and push Tomas Vokoun out of his number one spot in Florida.

***

I believe Taylor Hall, the projected first overall pick next June, may have just confirmed his first overall spot with this tournament.

With nine points in five games, including a couple highlight reel goals, I’m pretty sure NHL teams are drooling at the potential superstar. Some scouts compared him to Pavel Bure, and I’ll have to agree with them, he does remind me of the Russian Rocket.

At this pace, the Hurricanes should get a potential 40 goals scorer and more.

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