For a hockey fan, there may be no more exciting time to watch than at the end of the year. Not just because we're approaching the midpoint of the NHL season with our fair share of surprises and amazement, but also because the bright lights will be coming on for the youngest talents the game has to offer.
I'm talking of course about the World Junior Championships in Buffalo slated to begin just after Christmas. With teams flocking from all over the globe to partake in the festivities, the HSBC Arena will likely fill to capacity with fans anxious to see some of the top young talents who have yet to explode at the NHL level.
It is with that in mind that we introduce you to 20 of the biggest faces to look out for as the tournament begins. These offensive demons could prove to be big, small, fast, slow, menacing, intimidating and scoring powerhouses. All shapes, all sizes and all kinds of fun await.
NHL team: New York Islanders
Current team: University of North Dakota
What to watch: Drafted at the end of the first round in 2010, Brock Nelson stood out as a 6'2" skater with great hands and a nose for the net. He's a former Mr. Hockey for the state of Minnesota and happens to know an awful lot about scoring goals.
During his 2009-10 run, he netted 53 goals in 31 games. Nelson has a blistering, heavy shot and upholds some of that Pierre Maguire "Big Body Presence" that could prove invaluable once he adds more muscle and experience to his regimen. The Islanders may not be much of a team to look at, but Nelson's presence on the squad a few years from now could help change things.
He's the first of several Team USA talents to make this list, as Team USA is the heavy favorite to repeat as champions.
NHL Team: Columbus Blue Jackets
Current Team: Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
What to Watch: In his rookie year in the Quebec Major Juniors, Straka earned both the top offensive rookie and top overall rookie honors—no small feat for the speedster. He's a solid playmaker with improving sensibilities and an ever-growing toughness.
If Straka gets bigger and better, so will Columbus. The Czech Republic team may not be deep on blue chippers, but they certainly have a few big pieces that can get them through the trenches. Straka could end up being a diamond in the rough.
NHL Team: Edmonton Oilers
Current Team: Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
What to Watch: With 42 points in his first 31 games this season, the B.C.-native Curtis Hamilton is one of the best kept secrets within the Edmonton organization. That may be because of the number of highly-touted prospects coming into the team, but Hamilton still shouldn't be overlooked.
He's a natural passer and scorer that could become one of Canada's go-to players in this tournament. If anything, playing in the shadow of others once again could prove to be his biggest strength as a low key threat.
If anything, he's stylistically much like Joe Thornton or Marc Savard. And that could be amazing.
NHL Team: Eligible for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Current Team: U.S. NTDP U-18 (USHL)
What to Watch: How about a player with the same fighting spirit and pint-sized power as Martin St. Louis? That's what we're looking at when Rocco Grimaldi makes his debut in the World Juniors this year for the stacked Team USA.
Grimaldi still has a plethora to learn about playing like a pro, but that won't stop him from leaving audiences in awe the way other small players like St. Louis and, more recently, Nathan Gerbe were able to do during their amateur careers. Grimaldi is projected to be a first round selection in the upcoming NHL draft, but a strong showing within the ranks could see him move up to the Top 10.
NHL Team: Eligible to be drafted in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Current Team: Sarnia Sting (OHL)
What to Watch: The Russians finished a dismal sixth in last year's WJC, their worst finish in nearly a decade. Coming back to prominence during the shortened stanza may be an uphill climb, but they've got a new secret weapon about to be unleashed on the hockey world.
Nail Yakupov, currently of the Sarnia Sting, is one of the OHL's hottest players this season. He ranks amongst the league's best in scoring and has the same kind of physical presence that makes many Russian-born players so exciting.
He won't be draft eligible for two more years, making him easily one of the soon-to-be most talked about prospects in hockey.
NHL Team: Florida Panthers
Current Team: University of Minnesota
What to Watch: Big. I mean really, really big. Nick Bjugstad may still be a few years from joining the fledgling Florida Panthers, but at just over 6'5" and 200 pounds, he's a frightening menace to have to play against. Bjugstad's skill and aggressiveness make him more than just a possession forward.
He's barely 18, and he's already developed the skill to drive and crash the net for scoring chances. At worst, he'll be an NHL third liner, and at best, he'll be a healthier Eric Lindros. Like I said, the guy is big and could play bigger.
Just for fun, stand him up next to Rocco Grimaldi for a fun Team USA photo opportunity.
NHL Team: Anaheim Ducks
Current Team: Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
What to Watch: Another Team USA guy. Yeah I know, it seems ridiculous, but I cannot stress how terribly stacked this squad will be coming into the WJC in Buffalo. Kyle Palmieri brings in something, however, that most of these players are still years away from: NHL experience.
Palmieri got the call-up to play with the Ducks in November and never looked back. He impressed quickly by scoring his first NHL goal on November 3rd against Dan Ellis and the Tampa Bay Lightning. He'll likely score many more in his NHL career as he gets his wings slowly but surely.
If Palmieri wants to prove that he belongs at the NHL level in a role larger than injury relief, he'll have to be exceptional against the competition coming up. If Palmieri fails to standout, you can bet that Anaheim will have no trouble sending him down to dominate in Syracuse.
NHL Team: Montreal Canadiens
Current Team: Montreal Juniors (QMJHL)
What to Watch: With a name like Louis Leblanc, you just know this kid is gonna be something on the ice someday. For Leblanc, the road traveled thus far has been quite a bit more tumultuous than it is for the average 19-year-old.
Leblanc really seems to get around, as the highly-skilled, highly-intelligent forward found his way from Omaha to Harvard and then straight into the QMJHL. If anything, he's just biding his time until he gets a big break at the NHL level with the Habs.
He's really much better than his statistics indicate, and this test against the best of the best could show him to be one of Canada's most prolific young scorers.
NHL Team: San Jose Sharks
Current Team: Boston University
What to Watch: With a name straight out of a Mighty Ducks movie, Charlie Coyle (not Conway) might well be the most underrated player on the Team USA roster. That very same Team USA roster we keep harping on every three slides.
Coyle netted a hat trick in his first game playing for the Terriers. Again, in his first college game. He had already been a prolific junior player who shares bloodlines and obvious talent lines with his cousin, Tony Amonte.
Where Coyle is at his best, however, is on the power play. His vision and passing prowess are unmatched amongst his peers and he could become a PP quarterback for a San Jose team that remains built on one massive line at a time.
NHL Team: Toronto Maple Leafs
Current Team: Toronto Marlies (AHL)
What to Watch: For players like Jerry D'Amigo, winning is quickly becoming the only option. He's participated in two WJC tournaments in the past two years. All totaled, D'Amigo has 10 goals and 15 assists in 14 games. And oh yes, he's got two first place finishes.
D'Amigo is the kind of player the Maple Leafs and GM Brian Burke are hoping will step into his role sooner rather than later. Though he impressed in the preseason and during training camp, the Leafs do recognize that his game needs some fine tuning.
That said, D'Amigo exceeds with the competition in his age bracket, and could well be the best under the radar star of the upcoming series.
NHL Team: St. Louis Blues
Current Team: Colorado College
What to Watch: Do the Blues ever seem to run out of talented young forwards? This year's WJC contribution (from Canada's view) is Schwartz, a fairly physical and tough forward who hasn't fully developed his game.
Not only is he an amazing standout from his junior days in the USHL with 83 points in 60 games, but Schwartz is quickly evolving into a great humanitarian and could become an ambassador for the game as time passes.
That's right, I'm willing to say that this bona fide teenager has all the knowledge to become a star on and off the ice.
NHL Team: Eligible to be drafted in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Current Team: Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL)
What to Watch: Mark my words, this kid will be a top five selection in the upcoming NHL draft if not the number one pick. Sean Couturier is about to have his biggest coming out party as what is legitimately Canada's hottest prospect.
Sure, others rank higher than him on this list, but all are committed to franchises throughout the league. Couturier carries a mystique that we don't often see from players with 51 points in their first 32 games. Couturier is such a smooth passer with great vision on the ice that it makes current veterans cringe.
They know full well he'll be something very special in due time.
NHL Team: Edmonton Oilers
Current Team: Ilves (SM-Liiga)
What to Watch: To Europe we go for one of the best Finnish forwards since Teemu Selanne. Seriously.
Toni Rajala has been as fast and impactful as any young player coming out of his age division. At the 2009 World Championships, Rajala eclipsed Alexander Ovechkin for points in a single tournament with 19 (10 goals, 9 assists). Despite Finland's bronze medal performance, Rajala was a highlight of the invitational.
Keep your eyes locked on the ferociously fast Rajala this time around, because he's trying to break his own record and show that the Fins have just as much talent if not more than the North Americans.
NHL Team: St. Louis Blues
Current Team: Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
What to Watch: Never mind what you know about the European exchange, KHL, or Russian defection. Vladimir Terasenko isn't the kind of player that you ask if he is going to be a star. The question for Terasenko is when.
He's been playing against KHL pros since the age of 16 and has the kind of gritty hustle you come to expect from those Russian elite players. If anything, Terasenko is reminiscent of Evgeni Malkin with his big shot and sudden bursts of speed.
An under-20 version of Evgeni Malkin? Yeah, I'll take it.
NHL Team: New York Islanders
Current Team: Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
What to Watch: If you didn't get to see Niederreiter's tryout at the NHL level at the beginning of the season, then you should plan to catch him at the WJC this year. Niederreiter is fairly fast and fairly tough, both skills he showed off in his first few games in the league.
But Niederreiter also has a mean streak in him that is developing him into a very vicious adversary. After all, when you've already gotten controversy over your vocal remarks and style of play at such a young age, you have to imagine something sobering has festered there.
Niederreiter had something of a tumultuous time finding his place in the Islanders system when he first started. A strong outing here erases all the haters for the interim.
NHL Team: New York Rangers
Current Team: Boston College
What to Watch: Replace the name "Kreider" with "Drury" and you're getting the idea here. It seems wholly appropriate that Kreider is coming up through the New York Rangers system, as Broadway fans are likely salivating at the combination of Kreider with players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan.
Kreider is an uber-talented scorer and playmaker who finds the puck in the clutch and can fire it with great precision. Though he hasn't completed his scoring mastery quite yet, having a player with such an impressive upside should make Team USA feel even more comforted at their chances in the WJC this year.
Though he can play like a power forward, Kreider has the potential speed to crash the net and make solid plays for his teammates. He's the kind of player who makes those surrounding him superior.
NHL Team: Los Angeles Kings
Current Team: Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
What to Watch: We haven't seen a whole lot of Brayden Schenn this season, a fact that could be just icing on the cake when Schenn steps out for Team Canada this year. He's played only one NHL game just over a year ago and only has a couple of outings with Brandon in this year.
That said, Schenn is one of the most prolific scorers in the entire tournament and should be taken seriously. His older brother, Luke, is making waves for the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive corps each year. But Brayden brings a scoring touch and skill that Luke simply doesn't have.
He's super fast and has breakout abilities on both the power play and penalty kill. If there's one area he'll need to improve, it is in the confidence he'll have with his shot. Schenn is a chronic passer (which he's really good at) but could use to take the shots more often when he has them.
NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Current Team: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
What to Watch: Does the pool of talent in the Chicago system have a shallow end? Jeremy Morin is going to be a bankable commodity for years to come if his progression in the last two years is any indicator.
Morin had one of the better training camps for any potential rookies this past season, and though he was sent down to the minors, he has had a few flashes at the NHL level that show off his abilities. He's a natural scorer who needs to improve on his open ice skating, but that is the least of his worries in Chicago.
After getting the call-up from Rockford to replace Marian Hossa, Morin seemed to click well in his position and was showing he had the ability to transition smoothly. He'll take a breather and play in the WJC while Chicago is hopeful to resolve a few cap issues and get him back in the fold.
NHL Team: Minnesota Wild
Current Team: Brynas IF (Elitserien)
What to Watch: Ideally, Larsson is the best European prospect coming into this year's WJC. He's so skilled and talented that it should come as no surprise he's tearing up the Swedish Elite Leagues.
Larsson's scoring ability and chances to dominate the ice are just a few of his vital skills. If anything, he's invaluable because he has developed a strong two-way game so early in his career, something clearly missing from several of these highly-touted prospects.
If Larsson's 2010 WJC campaign is anything like the domination he handed out a year ago, you can count Sweden in as a darkhorse to take the tourney.
NHL Team: Buffalo Sabres
Current Team: Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
What to Watch: And then, there's Zack Kassian, who tumbles into our number one spot for several reasons. Among them, is the fact that the Buffalo faithful will be getting to see their guy shine on several occasions at the forefront of the Team Canada offense.
Kassian is a brooding power forward with a big shot and big aspirations. He's a high-energy, high-octane player who may well be ready to become the complete package. At the very worst, Kassian's career will be similar to that of Bobby Holik. That's at the very worst. I remind you that Holik was a consistent 50-60 point producer during the best parts of his career and had the kind of presence that made him tough and edgy.
Kassian has a lot of those same intangibles, and could become a beast once the tournament gets rolling.