In the final of a three part series, Youngblood Talks WJC features key prospects on the European squads. To view Team Canada and Team USA features follow the accompanied links.
After being knocked off by the Russians at the 2015 World Junior Championships, Sweden heads to Finland ready for the 2016 version armed with a substantial amount of returnees looking to redeem their nation on the world stage. With the Toronto Maple Leafs loaning AHL scoring star William Nylander to Sweden,it appears that their offense will be as potent as any other team. Nylander will team up with Los Angeles Kings rising prospect Adrian Kempe and highly touted draft eligible winger Alex Nylander – his younger brother.
Finland enters the team very young with expectations that the host country will lean heavily on a group of talented 2016 draft eligible stars Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi, both anticipated Top 10 selections. Look for Finland to rise to the top of Group B with Russia and Czech Republic being their biggest challenges.
A pending IIHF suspension to highly skilled forward Denis Guryanov may put Russia into a challenging situation but they’ll still have the likes of Maxim Lazarev, Vladislav Kamenev and Red Wings emerging prospect Evgeny Svechnikov to carry the offensive load.
New Jersey Devils 2015 1st round selection Pavel Zacha, Senators Filip Chlapik, Flyers David Kase, Canucks Lukas Jasek and Jets Michael Spacek, along with draft eligible Simon Stransky, all team up to provide the Czech Republic with a better-than-normal offensive units. It’ll be Dominik Masin (Tampa Bay) and Bruin’s Jakub Zboril who will eat lots of minutes on the blueline while Zboril’s future Bruins teammate Daniel Vladar should stabilize them in the crease.
Switzerland, Slovakia, Denmark and Belarus will all have some key players however, their success comes from their ability to come together as a team and buy into their team identity and systems.
The following list of prospects are talents who are anticipated to take on big roles with their European World Junior clubs.
Joel Eriksson Ek (Minnesota Wild) – Competing with Farjestad Karlstad, Eriksson Ek continues to receive praise for his studious two-way power game. The big pivot isn’t a “high skill” player but his shrewd hockey sense allows him to read the game quickly and execute smart offensive passes. He’s tough to handle in battles and is skilled enough to create offense on his own.
Axel Holmstrom (Detroit Red Wings) – Coming off a standout first year SHL season, high hopes surround Holmstrom’s future and for good reason. He blends sharp vision, deceptive passing abilities and a opportunistic scoring touch. He’s the type of player who is always around the puck and quietly puts up points.
Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) – Entering the draft, scouts were excited about Kempe’s long term potential even though they recognized it may be a long development time. The big winger has arrived in North America and is off to a great start with LA’s AHL affiliate – Ontario Reign. He owns suffocating north-south speed, displays an ability to quickly retrieve pucks from battles and drives the net with a purpose. Kempe plays a pro-style of game and it appears he’s closer to NHL duty than most expected. Don’t be surprised to see Kempe as one of the top performers at the WJC.
William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) – Arguably the most anticipated player outside of draft eligible Auston Matthews heading into the World Junior tournament, William Nylander was loaned from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies even though he was ripping up the league in his second (and first full) season. There’s not much to say about William that hasn’t been said but when he’s at his best, there are few that can match his vision, creativity and offensive touch on the puck. Anything less than being named a WJC All-Star would likely cripple Leafs’ fans. At the conclusion of the WJC, it’s expected that William may get the call to join the Big Club in the very near future – lets say, with 39 games or less remaining ;).
Alexander Nylander (2016 NHL Draft) – The younger brother of William Nylander and son of former NHLer Michael, Alex is enjoying a fantastic first season with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. While he is a skilled player like his brother, their styles are much different. A very good skater but less polished than his brothers, Alex also wields a dangerous shot and clever playmaking abilities. He shares his brother’s high-end vision but his shooting abilities make him a dual threat. While William is more of a cerebral possession attacker, Alex tends to play a more intense north-south attacking style and seems to embrace getting his nose dirty at times.
Gustav Forsling (Chicago Blackhawks) – The former Vancouver Canucks draft pick had a breakout World Junior last year after leading all blue liners in scoring and later became a trade target of the Chicago Blackhawks. Forsling will return to Sweden’s top powerplay unit where it’s expected that he operates as the team’s quarterback utilizing his quick passing abilities and smart offensive reads.
Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes) – Here was one of my favourite sleepers in the 2015 draft class due to his highly skilled hockey mind and elusive attacking abilities. Many anticipated that Aho would be a mid-to-late 2nd round selection but the Carolina Hurricanes liked him also, snatching him up 35th overall. He’s performed well in Finland’s top professional league and is starting to tap into the potential that intrigued me. He still has a lot of growth left in terms of rounding into an NHL – mostly on the physical end – but it’s hard not to love his complete game dedication. It may take a while but Sebastian Aho is on the right track to become a sound NHLer.
Kasperi Kapanen (Toronto Maple Leafs) – The second AHLer that the Maple Leafs loaned for the WJC, Kapanen was the key piece Toronto received when sniper Phil Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh. Kapanen is very skilled and it’s evident when the puck is on his stick. Away from the puck, there’s a lot of work to do and his compete level wavers when he’s not in possession. It’ll be interesting to see how this undersized attacker does against his peers because there are times he looks overmatched in AHL competition.
Patrik Laine (2016 NHL Draft) – One of the biggest risers in the draft class, Patrik Laine is now getting talked about as a potential top two prospect (behind only Auston Matthews). The massive winger is having an outstanding pro-season in Finland with his high-level shot and slick creative puck skills standing out Mostly. His skating is a work-in-progress but it’s come a long ways in a short period of time and no longer is considered a glaring weakness. Laine will be featured as Finland’s top go-to offensive option.
Jesse Puljujärvi (2016 NHL Draft).- I remember being blown away watching Puljujärvi live last year at the World Juniors as a rare 16-year-old which rightfully launched him to the tops of the 2016 draft rankings. He’s big and can attack with suffocating speed making him very difficult to contain on the rush. He’s a lethal shooter who uses his range well to maintain possession and shield from pressure and with him and Laine skating on the same team, it’ll be fun comparing the two potential Top 5 picks.
Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche) – After getting in a half-dozen NHL games, Rantanen was assigned to AHL action and he’s clipping along at over a point-per-game with 10 goals and 26 points (22 games). Rantanen is a smart offensive player who has above average skill as a puck handler and shooter. He’s one of the most NHL-ready players competing in the 2016 World Junior tournament and is expected to be a force.
Vili Saarijärvi (Detroit Red Wings) – After an outstanding Under-18 tournament, Saarijarvi has reached star status quickly as a first year OHLer. He got off to a blazing start in Flint recording 13 points in his first nine games but has leveled out lately (only four points in his past 16 games). The undersized defender is slick in possession using quick cuts and changes of direction to elude pressure at the blueline. He’s creative and deceptive with the puck on his stick despite lacking ideal strength to handle attackers defensively. He’s primed for a powerplay role on Finland’s blueline.
TEAM CZECH REPUBLIC
Pavel Zacha (New Jersey Devils) came back from Devils camp and looked like a much more driven and confident offensive attacker. Owning great pro size, a lethal shot and improving puck creativity and patience, Zacha has the tools to be an impact top-sixes very soon. He’ll lead the charge for his nation and much of their team’s success will depend on his ability to produce. People seem to criticize his defensive game but that’s odd as a regular observer of him, he’s above average in that level and owns good potential in the defensive end.
Jakob Zboril (Boston Bruins) was the first of three Boston Bruins back-to-back-to-back selections last June in the opening round and expectations are extremely high. With highly skilled players like Kyle Connor and Mathew Barzal drafted behind the Bruins trio of picks, there seems to be even more pressure on the young blueliner. He hasn’t had the greatest season that you’d expect from a Top 13th pick but the World Juniors will provide this smooth skating defender an opportunity to calm the critics. Zboril will play huge minutes and be counted on to shutdown opposing top attackers but also chip in offensively. Expectations are high and so will his workload.
Simon Stransky (2016 NHL Draft) – A late ’97 birthday makes Simon Stansky eligible for the 2016 draft and he’s made a case for himself as a potential first round selection. Selected 24th overall in the 2014 CHL Import Draft, Stransky is enjoying himself in his sophomore WHL season with Prince Albert as he nears in on new career highs just halfway through the season. A slick puckhandler with high-end vision, Stransky makes his linemates around him better with his playmaking abilities. He’s not the swiftest skater but he thinks the game fast and intelligently.
Denis Guryanov (Dallas Stars) – The Stars shocked the draft when they announced Denis Guryanov as their 12th overall selection. The big rangy winger blends speed, quick puck skills and smart offensive reads well as he attacks on the rush. His combination of size and skill is a rare commodity and it’s expected that he’ll be at the forefront of Russia’s attack. As is normal with many young Russian’s playing in the KHL, Guryanov’s ice time is limited but he’ll be allotted all of the minutes he can handle in Helsinki. Update: Guryanov could be facing IIHF suspension after receiving a major cross-checking penalty in pre-tournament action.
Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia Flyers) – Last year’s draft riser on the blue line, Provorov is now a household name and a key prospect for the Flyers future. Much like last season, Provorov is hovering around a point-per-game pace on the Wheat Kings blueline scoring 28 points through 30 games. He’s one of the most calculated and intelligent puck moving defenders to come around in quite some time. Everything he does is made to look easy and he rarely makes a poor decision. As gifted as Provorov is offensively, the defender is actually quite impressive at shutting down opposing attacks quickly as well using prime positioning and natural anticipation to read their intentions. He’s primed for a big WJC showing.
EvgenI Svechnikov (Detroit Red Wings) – Rumblings following the 2015 NHL Draft were that the Red Wings were absolutely thrilled to land Svechnikov two-thirds through the opening round. Ya, ya, ya…every team says that but it’s easy to see the truth behind it after watching Svechnikov over the past six months. He’s big, powerful and very skilled with the puck – always making smart passes and capable of burning goaltenders with a sharp shot. He’s not very swift on his skates leaving him to do his most of his damage in short attacks in the offensive zone attacking off the boards. When Svechnikov is in possession, there’s a calmness that surrounds him.
Timo Meier (San Jose Sharks) – When Meier’s World Junior event wraps up, the power winger may be heading back to a new home in the QMJHL as he sits as the most coveted trade piece for Q contenders. It’s easy to love his game because of his ability to play hard and gritty when needed or attack with skill as those situations present themselves. Switzerland always seems to surprise but I’m not sure this year’s entry is as dangerous as previous years so Meier will need to be dominant for them to go deep – especially in a tough Group A placement.
Erik Cernak (Los Angeles Kings) – After much uncertainty of where Erik Cernak would play his 2015-16 season, he eventually landed in Erie with the Otters and is working his way through his first OHL season. Competing on a Slovak team that is expected to go through some surges defensively, Erik Cernak will be called upon to weather those storm and keep his team afloat. He is a rangy and competitive defender who battles hard so he should be up to the challenge.
Radovan Bondra (Chicago Blackhawks) – Playing in his first major junior season with the Vancouver Giants, Radovan Bondra has scored seven times and recorded 16 points in 30 games. The 8th overall selection in the 2015 CHL Import is a returnee from Slovakia’s 2015 team – one that feature outstanding goaltending and much more depth – so he’ll be a go-to offensive player this time around. The big power winger operates well for a big man using strong skating and smart quick puck movement to support the attack.
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