Under-the-Radar Players Who Could Surprise at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2016

Under-the-Radar Players Who Could Surprise at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey

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    Associated Press

    In the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, superstars such as Canada's Sidney Crosby, Russia's Alex Ovechkin and the United States' Patrick Kane are expected to dominate. However, some lesser-known players could emerge as tournament surprises. They include Team Czech Republic's Michal Neuvirth (pictured above) and Team North America's Vincent Trocheck.  

    Neuvirth's strong goaltending in the opening round of the 2016 NHL playoffs rallied the underdog Philadelphia Flyers to a near upset of the Washington Capitals. Trocheck is a fast-rising star center with the Florida Panthers.

    They aren't the only lesser-known players in this tournament with the ability to shine. Each of the eight teams has potential breakout performers.

    Here's a look at the under-the-radar players who could surprise at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Feel free to voice your opinion on this topic in the comments section below. 

Sebastian Aho, Team Finland

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    YURI KADOBNOV/Getty Images

    Team Finland carries several up-and-coming young forwards on the roster, such as Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine and Teuvo Teravainen. One of them, 19-year-old Sebastian Aho, could use the World Cup of Hockey to introduce himself to North American hockey fans. 

    Aho, who signed an entry-level contract on June 13 with the Carolina Hurricanes, was a star forward last season for Finland's Oulun Karpat. With Laine and Edmonton Oilers prospect right wing Jesse Puljujarvi, Aho had a starring role when Finland won gold at the 2016 World Junior Championship. He was also a standout at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, collecting seven points in 10 games. 

    Though slender at 5'11" and 172 pounds, Aho is a swift and slick playmaker. He also plays a good two-way game and can skate at center or on the wing.

    A top prospect of the Hurricanes, Aho could make his NHL debut in 2016-17. The World Cup gives him an opportunity to display his talents to Hurricanes fans and the rest of the league. Given his impressive resume thus far in international competition, this tournament could be a significant steppingstone in his young career.

Vadim Shipachyov, Team Russia

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    Associated Press

    Several notable forwards on Team Russia, such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, are instantly recognizable to the North American audience. Center Vadim Shipachyov won't be familiar to NHL fans, but he could be a Russian forward worth following in the World Cup of Hockey. 

    Shipachyov, 29, spent his entire pro career in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. As captain of SKA Saint Petersburg last season, he led the club in points (60) while finishing fourth among the KHL's scoring leaders.

    He's also starred for Russia at the IIHF World Championship, helping the team win gold in 2014, silver in 2015 and bronze in 2016. This year, he was the tournament's leading scorer with 18 points in 10 games. 

    Shipachyov is a skilled center with excellent playmaking ability. He should be a vital part of Russia's offensive attack. With a strong performance in this tournament, he could raise his international profile. 

Leon Draisaitl, Team Europe

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    Associated Press

    Team Europe is largely a veteran-laden roster of aging stars such as Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, Thomas Vanek and Marian Gaborik. Among its few young players is 20-year-old German center Leon Draisaitl, who could be a standout in this tournament. 

    Draisaitl, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers, had a breakout performance in his sophomore NHL campaign last season. With 19 goals and 32 assists for 51 points in 72 games, he finished second among Oilers scorers. He also tied for second in assists and was third in goals.

    A versatile forward, the 6'1", 214-pound Draisaitl can play center or right wing. Entering his third professional season, this talented youngster has yet to reach his full potential.

    With his size, youth and playmaking skills, Draisaitl could provide a welcome boost of energy to this veteran European lineup. He's only just started making a name for himself in the NHL. This tournament could draw more attention to his potential.  

Michal Neuvirth, Team Czech Republic

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    Associated Press

    Michal Neuvirth will share the goaltending duties on Team Czech Republic with Petr Mrazek and Ondrej Pavelec. Based on his NHL performance with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015-16, Neuvirth could emerge as the starter in the World Cup of Hockey.

    After several inconsistent NHL campaigns, the 28-year-old showed considerable improvement last season. In 32 games, he had a record of 18 wins, eight losses and four overtime losses. He finished with a GAA of 2.27, a save percentage of .924 and three shutouts. 

    Returning from a late-season knee injury midway through the Flyers' opening-round series against the Washington Capitals, Neuvirth backstopped them to two straight victories. While the Capitals eliminated the Flyers in six games, he allowed only two goals in three games and gave his club a chance to pull off a near-upset.

    In this year's World Cup of Hockey, the Czech Republic isn't as well-stocked in talent as other countries. Neuvirth, however, can help an underdog club steal some games. With his stellar goaltending, the Czechs could pull off an upset or two. 

Rickard Rakell, Team Sweden

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    Ronald C. Modra/NHL/Getty Images

    An injury to St. Louis Blues left wing Alexander Steen created a roster spot on Team Sweden for Anaheim Ducks forward Rickard Rakell. Skating with notable Swedish stars such as the Sedin twins, Nicklas Backstrom and Filip Forsberg, the 23-year-old could have an opportunity to shine in the World Cup of Hockey. 

    Over the last two seasons, Rakell steadily improved into a key forward for the Ducks. In 2015-16, he led in them in game-winning goals, tied for third on the team in goals (20) and finished fourth in points with 43. 

    Rakell is also a versatile player who can line up at any forward position. The 6'2", 201-pounder plays a good two-way game, finishing among the Ducks leaders in takeaways (29) and hits (121). 

    Given Rakell's all-around abilities, he should be a welcome addition to the Swedish roster. The team can employ him on the scoring or checking lines at either forward position. We could hear a lot about Rakell as the tournament progresses. 

Vincent Trocheck, Team North America

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    Associated Press

    A back strain knocked Calgary Flames center Sean Monahan out of the Team North America lineup. His replacement is Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, who emerged last season as a rising young scoring star. 

    In his second full NHL campaign with the Panthers, the 23-year-old tallied 25 goals and added 28 assists for 53 points. He finished fifth in team scoring, tied for second in game-winning goals (four) and shots (174) and tied for third in goals and power-play points (13).

    The 5'10", 182-pound Trocheck doesn't shy away from physical play, ranking fourth on the Panthers with 125 hits and second among forwards with 41 blocked shots. He was also third in takeaways with 43. If necessary, he can skate on the wing. 

    In this tournament, Trocheck could be overlooked by more well-known young North American forwards such as Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon. However, his two-way abilities and versatility could make him a standout. 

Kyle Palmieri, Team USA

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    Associated Press

    Team USA has considerable firepower in forwards such as Patrick Kane, Max Pacioretty, Joe Pavelski and Blake Wheeler. One wouldn't expect to see Kyle Palmieri included with these notable American forwards, but the 25-year-old blossomed into a scorer last season with the New Jersey Devils. 

    In his first campaign with the Devils, Palmieri enjoyed a career-best performance with 30 goals and 27 assists for 57 points. He led the club in points and tied for the team lead in goals. He was also the team leader in power-play goals (11), power-play points (23) and total shots (222). 

    Though not big in stature, the 5'10", 185-pounder is a physical player. He was third among the Devils in hits (129), second in takeaways (43) and second among forwards with 51 blocked shots. 

    An energetic performer who improved his all-around skills last season, Palmieri could prove to be a valuable depth scoring winger for Team USA. 

Jake Muzzin, Team Canada

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    Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    Often overshadowed by teammate Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin of the Los Angeles Kings emerged as a strong all-around NHL blueliner over the last two seasons. The 27-year-old's size (6'3", 216 lbs), skills and big-game experience earned him a spot on Team Canada.

    Muzzin's breakthrough performance came during the Kings' Stanley Cup championship run in the 2014 playoffs. He netted 12 points in 26 games and logged big minutes as the postseason went on. Because of his physical style and two-way abilities, Muzzin often faces many of the opposition's best players.

    In 2015-16, Muzzin reached the 40-point mark for the second straight season. He finished second on the Kings in time on ice per game (23 minutes, three seconds) and blocked shots (135). He was also fourth in hits with 197. 

    With the Canadians icing such blue-line notables as Doughty, Brent Burns and Shea Weber, Muzzin could be overlooked. As the tournament progresses, however, he could become an invaluable, big-minute shutdown defender for Team Canada.

        

    Player stats and roster info via NHL.com, WCH2016.com, Kontinental Hockey League and the International Ice Hockey Federation

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