We are right in the heat of the World Junior Hockey Championship. This is some of the most exciting hockey that fans will see all year long.
Junior hockey gives us a chance to look at the players of tomorrow. We can see future draft picks, solid players and even the occasional superstar. This year's tournament is no exception.
Already, players like Brayden Schenn have stepped up their game and shown why teams have drafted them so highly.
At this point, in my opinion, Schenn is the tournament MVP.
Los Angeles Kings fans like myself got to see Schenn for a few games to start the season. There is no denying his talent. He has all of the skills necessary to make a great career for himself in the National Hockey League.
Interestingly enough, the Los Angeles Kings aren't alone in watching one of their top prospects play in the tournament. The Chicago Blackhawks are keenly watching Jeremy Morin.
In this slideshow, I will examine 20 of the top prospects who could make a big impact in the NHL next season. Not all of them are playing in the World Junior tournament, but many are.
This list is in no particular order. Each of these players has the potential to go on and have a great and successful hockey career.
I hope you enjoy the read.
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If you log onto Canucks.com and go into the forums, you would be hard pressed to scroll down too far without finding a thread about top prospect Cody Hodgson.
Since being drafted 10th overall in 2008, Hodgson has been considered one of the best prospects in the Canucks' organization.
Already, people in the media are comparing him to a young Trevor Linden. Personally, I find it a little bit odd to compare a player to one of the greats before his career has even started.
Hodgson has completed everything he can possibly complete at the junior level. Now, in his first professional season, he is playing with the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, the Manitoba Moose.
Unfortunately, Hodgson is injured right now as a result of being high-sticked at a team practice. Prior to his injury, Cody was showing signs that he could be the real deal.
Kyle Beach, another first-round pick from the 2008 entry draft, is a top prospect within the Chicago Blackhawks organization.
His skill set, ability to get under opponents' skin and sheer determination had Beach projected as a potential top five pick. The Chicago Blackhawks counted themselves lucky when the team was able to snatch him at 11th overall.
Beach played his junior hockey in the WHL with three teams. Over the span of 251 games, he compiled 273 points. In a league regarded as one of the toughest in the world, it is really impressive that he was able to put up those numbers.
Recently, I have seen Beach's game compared to that of current NHL pest Steve Downie. If that's the case, the Chicago Blackhawks will be very happy with their pick.
He looks like he has the potential to be a 20- to 30-goal scorer in the NHL one day. The only concern is his behavior. Perhaps playing under Joel Quenneville will help straighten him out.
Jared Cowen, a prospect in the Ottawa Senators organization, is showing why he was drafted so high in 2009 with his play in the World Junior tournament.
Last year, in the same tournament, the scouting report on Cowen was that he was big, and slow. It appears as though he has made significant improvements to his mobility on the ice as he is shifty and skilled both with and without the puck.
As the first defenseman on this list, Cowen brings a lot of skill to the ice. Although I don't agree with comparing young players to his historical greats, I will say that Cowen has been compared to Zdeno Chara and Derian Hatcher.
If I'm a young player hearing those names with mine, I'm pretty happy.
Hopefully this year's World Junior Championship will let the Ottawa Senators organization see what kind of player they have in Cowen. He has been close to making their squad before and it doesn't look as though his opportunity is that far away.
Thomas Hickey was one of the top draft picks from the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
When the Kings called his name up, I was thrilled. He looked like the kind of player the Kings could build around for years to come. He has the puck-moving skills and the offensive awareness necessary to have a long and successful career in the NHL.
Hickey was always strong in the offensive zone during his career in the "dub" (WHL) with the Seattle Thunderbirds. It was those offensive skills that had him taken so highly in the draft.
This season, Hickey is playing with the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, the Manchester Monarchs.
Although his start to the season wasn't as strong as many fans, myself included, may have hoped, he seems to have righted the ship.
Finally, Hickey is looking like the kind of offensive superstar the Kings drafted him to be. As a fan and follower of the Los Angeles Kings, I will be keeping a close eye on Hickey for years to come.
Although Max Pacioretty is currently playing in the NHL, I am going to call him a prospect for the purposes of this slideshow. He doesn't have the NHL resume or reputation necessary to take him out of this category.
When Pacioretty was drafted 22nd overall in 2007, fans of the Montreal Canadiens were ecstatic. He was the kind of power forward that the small team was lacking. Even now, his size is incredibly apparent on a small Canadiens team.
Max has a ton of potential. I honestly think that he could become a 20- to 30-goal scorer in the NHL within a few years.
His size is definitely his biggest attribute. He can use it to get to the dirty areas and just stand in front of the net. On a team full of small forwards, that can't be undervalued.
It's been a rough career start for the young forward, though he finally looks like his mind is in the right place. After being demoted to the AHL, Pacioretty put up numbers that were over a point per game.
This kid could be the real deal.
As I was doing my research to figure out which players I was going to include on this list, Zach Hamill was one that I didn't know a lot about.
After learning a little bit about his career and his playing style, I am quite happy that I did the research. He appears to have all of the skills necessary to make a lasting impact on the Bruins organization.
A lot of you will probably go online and look at his career stats for the Providence Bruins and let me tell you that you won't be blown away.
Hamill isn't close to being a point per game player in the AHL. You make think I'm crazy here. However, let me tell you that this guy has a lot of potential.
Most writers probably wouldn't put this guy on their list of top 20 prospects, but I honestly think that Hamill has a chance at making a big impact next year. He could easily slide into the Bruins' bottom six.
After taking care of his offensive end with picks like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, Dean Lombardi appears to have gone on a defenseman shopping spree at the NHL draft.
In 2008, the Los Angeles Kings were proud to select Colten Teubert 13th overall.
We all saw Teubert shine in the World Junior Championship a few years ago and I'm really hoping that he is able to do the same thing in Los Angeles.
He has skills with the puck that just make you cringe. He is one of those players that just doesn't come along every day.
I think the big thing with Teubert is his leadership ability. He has been a captain or alternate captain for the majority of his impressive junior career.
In a young locker room like Los Angeles', leadership can't be underestimated. I understand that Teubert is still young, but his leadership skills will only continue to grow.
The Florida Panthers were thrilled when they got Jacob Markstrom signed to his entry-level deal this past summer.
After being drafted in the second round, 31st overall, in the 2008 Entry Draft, Jacob Markstrom has been considered the best goalie not playing in the NHL. His numbers in the Swedish Elite League are incredible. It's really something amazing to look at.
If the rumors are true, Thomas Vokoun may not make it out of this season in the Florida Panthers organization. Could this be the opportunity for NHL glory that Markstrom would love to get? It's beginning to look like it could be.
People are comparing Markstrom to "The Monster" up in Toronto. They are both big Swedish goalies attached to struggling NHL teams.
Hopefully, the Panthers are able to turn their fortunes around to bring Markstrom into a winning environment.
Here we have another player who has had his shot in the NHL. Nazem Kadri was given a golden opportunity to showcase his abilities for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be and Kadri was sent down to the Marlies of the AHL.
He is fast, he is skilled and there aren't many players in the world who can dangle like he can.
With some more training in the minors, Kadri looks like he could be one of the most dominant Maple Leaf players since Mats Sundin. Now let's be clear, I'm not comparing the two players.
At some point, Nazem will be given another shot to perform with the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs as his talent is just too strong to ignore.
I'm hoping to see him develop as a player because it's so great to see players turn into top NHL guys. Of course, it helps that my team plays in the Western Conference so I wouldn't have to see him more than twice a year!
Who says that small players can't play incredible hockey?
I can honestly say that Ryan Ellis looks like one of the most dominant defenders for Canada at the World Juniors in recent memory.
His poise on the ice and his booming shot are helping to propel him to that next level. Now before I say anything more, I'd like to propose a question.
Which team drafted Ellis? Here's a hint! The team in question is one that is a top-tier defenseman factory.
If you guessed the Nashville Predators, you are correct. With names like Weber, Suter and Hamhuis coming through the Preds system, Ellis has found himself in the right place. I think that he has a shot at making a huge impact next year.
I can't wait to see this guy's NHL career unfold.
When Louis Leblanc was drafted 18th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2009, it was like a perfect story.
The cheers were raining down at the Bell Centre after Bob Gainey announced that the Habs had drafted the French-Canadian player. It truly was an incredible story.
This year, Leblanc is being counted on as one of the top producers for Canada at the World Junior Championship. He has the size and skill necessary to go down as a tournament superstar. I think that his impact is going to be remembered long after this tournament.
On a team that many called weak up front, Leblanc is showing that he has tons of offensive skills. I look forward to seeing him in a Montreal Canadiens jersey in the future.
I can't wait to see what else Leblanc has in store prior to the conclusion of this year's World Junior tournament.
Calvin de Haan is one of the true good stories in the hockey world. If you want to talk about player development, look no further than Calvin.
After being drafted 50th overall in the OHL priority draft, de Haan worked on his game, got bigger and faster, and then went out and was taken 12th overall by the New York Islanders in 2009. Isn't that incredible? It makes hockey fans feel really good.
Calvin de Haan is considered one of the leaders on Canada's squad at the WJC this year. He is experienced and he is a leader in the room.
I love the way he plays the game of hockey. He is big, strong and fair when it comes to the game. I hope to see him playing in the NHL soon.
In fact, to be honest, I was surprised that de Haan wasn't with the Islanders this year after they knew about Streit's injury.
How can de Haan not be playing there? Well, Long Island's loss is Team Canada's gain!
Zack Kassian is one of those strong, physical scorers who you love to have on your team but you hate to play against.
Lucky for the Buffalo Sabres, who drafted Kassian 13th overall in 2009, he is a member of their organization.
Watching Kassian play reminds me of so many of our favorite NHL players. What does that say about his game? It means that there is a niche for him to fill in the NHL.
He is one of the players who I feel has a legitimate shot at playing next year. With the Buffalo Sabres struggling, it could be sooner than expected once his junior season ends. He has the ability to dominate games at any level.
Right now, Kassian is mired in a hitting controversy at the World Juniors. Actually, I shouldn't call it a controversy. Personally, I didn't think that the hit was deserving of a suspension, but that's just me.
Jeremy Morin is a member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization. He is on loan from those Blackhawks to Team USA for the WJC in Buffalo.
He is showing why he was with the Blackhawks for so long this season. Morin is so incredibly talented that it is almost scary to watch him play at a junior level. He is above and beyond.
If it wasn't for cap concerns in Chicago, I honestly believe that Morin would still be an important part of the Blackhawks' team right now.
He has so much hockey sense and intuition. I think that the Hawks should make the cap room for this kid; he is that talented.
Morin is another one of those players who has that leadership quality that is so important for anyone to have a strong NHL career.
After being loaned from the Hawks, Morin was named an alternate captain of Team USA. Good for him and great for Team USA. I'm excited to see more of this guy in the future.
Robin Lehner is going to have the chance at stealing the show for Team Sweden this year at the WJC. He has the NHL experience with the Ottawa Senators organization that could go a long way in determining his success.
I was watching TSN today and they did a piece on Lehner (I had written this before hand but I thought I would add it in). They mentioned his incredible rebound control. In my opinion, that is the most important attribute for any goaltender after being able to stop a puck, of course.
If you can clear the crease as a goaltender, you are going to cut down on your GAA by a large margin.
I'll be very interested to see just how well Lehner performs in the tournament this year. Could he lead Team Sweden to the medals? I think it's a serious possibility.
Although Erik Gudbranson didn't have the strongest training camp for the Florida Panthers, I am shocked that he isn't playing for them right now.
He has an incredible talent level that is unmatched by most players on that Panthers roster. Why isn't he there? It's madness.
Watching him in World Junior play has been really exciting. His size is so noticeable on the ice and it allows him to dominate games. After being named player of the game (which Brayden Schenn probably deserved), I'm excited to see what he will do next.
As the highest drafted defenseman in 2010, it's not surprising that there is all of this hype around the massive defender. I'm a big fan of his game and I'm really quite interested to see what is going to happen to him in the future.
Will Dale Tallon bring him on board next year in an attempt to develop him at the NHL level? That's a definite possibility. On the other hand, Tallon could keep him down and just go for more high draft picks to put around Erik in the future.
As the highest drafted Swiss player in NHL history, Nino Niederreiter deserves all of the hype and pressure that is being placed on him.
Here's another player where you just have to wonder why he isn't on his respective NHL squad. This is even more alarming when you consider that his NHL team is the New York Islanders.
I honestly don't care how bad this kid is playing, he couldn't make the Islanders any worse than they are now.
When Niederreiter gets his shot, he will dominate the NHL. He is so quick and he has been a force at all levels in hockey.
He has played all over the world with HC Davos and the Portland Winterhawks. This experience can only help the young forward's career get jump started.
The Columbus Blue Jackets weren't fooling anyone when they drafted Ryan Johansen fourth overall in 2010. They were clearly looking for a top tier center to pass the puck to Rick Nash.
For that reason alone, I believe that Johansen will be in the NHL next year. Columbus can't wait to have a real first line center on their team. It's been years of weakness on the top line other than Rick Nash. I think that it is hoped that Ryan can turn that around.
This year at the World Juniors, Johansen looks so much older than he really is. His leadership, skill set and calm demeanour are all incredibly apparent on the ice. This is the perfect player for the Blue Jackets.
I hope he can make a big impact next year as the Blue Jackets really do need his help. Although young, Johansen could look like a veteran playing with Rick Nash. It's only a matter of time until we find out. The day can't be far away.
When the scouts are saying that you are a natural leader and you have good on-ice awareness, you know you're a good player. That's exactly what the scouts were saying about Tampa Bay's 2010 first-round pick, Brett Connolly.
Despite Connolly's injury last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him in the sixth overall position. While some people considered the move risky, I considered it genius.
I think Steve Yzerman saw a little bit of himself in this kid. He knew that the fight and determination was too strong to have the injury limit him.
Here's a cool stat about Connolly. He was the first player, since Patrick Marleau, to score 30 goals as a rookie in the WHL. When your name and Patrick Marleau's come up in the same sentence, you are doing something right.
Had it not been for the injuries, I think that Connolly would have been taken in the top five. His talent is undeniable.
There is so much potential with this kid. Imagine him with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Wow, just thinking about it makes red lights go off in my head.
Brayden Schenn, the first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2009, is off to one of the best starts in WJC history. After tying Canada's record for goals in a game with 4, I can't wait to see what he pulls out of his hat next.
Now you may think I'm a little bit biased because I'm a Los Angeles Kings fan, but no, this guy is the real deal. He has all of the skills necessary to be a real difference maker in this league.
He isn't a one dimensional player that is easy to stop. If you want any proof, ask anyone on Team Norway.
His leadership abilities and on-ice skills are so apparent. He is just like his brother, Luke, who plays with the Toronto Maple Leafs. These Schenn brothers are incredibly talented. They just know what they are doing out on the ice.
If I were Schenn, I would send Dean Lombardi and Terry Murray tapes of my performances through the first three games of the WJC. It's pretty clear that Schenn will be one of the great players in Kings history when he gets the chance.
As a fan, follower and critic of the Kings, I think Brayden Schenn is one of the most amazing prospects the Kings have had in a while. I can't wait to see him back in the silver, black and purple (not that the red and white looks bad!).