It may not feel like hockey weather in this sweltering summer heat, but it's this time of year that the World Junior Championships come to the forefront of the hockey world. Five of the top 10 junior teams in the world are currently in action as the under-20 national teams evaluate potential prospects for the Dec. 26 tournament to be held this season in Ufa, Russia.
Russia and Canada are in the midst of a four-game exhibition series marking the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series, which for many put international hockey on the map in North America. The Russia-Canada series moves to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Monday, when I'll get a chance to get my eyes on those prospects in person. Meanwhile, in Lake Placid, N.Y., defending WJC champion Sweden is playing in a four-team tournament that features Finland and an American team divided into two squads -- Team White and Team Blue. A total of nine games will have been played when all is said and done, with USA's White and Blue rosters combining to form Team USA for the final games of the schedule.
While the staffs of the national teams will be evaluating players for the World Juniors, NHL scouts in attendance will be sizing up prospects for June's 2013 draft, as well as eyeing some of their past picks to see what sort of progress they have made. Having spoken to some of the scouts in attendance and watched the action via live video feed, here's the latest buzz from Lake Placid.
It's important to remember that -- even with the importance placed on the World Juniors -- in the eyes of NHL scouts this is still summer hockey and evaluations must be put into some perspective. Usually for the bigger players it is more difficult to raise their level of game. And that's particularly true for the tall, underdeveloped players who have spent most of the offseason gaining weight and adding muscle. Still, the August action has provided a few key takeaways for me.
Sweden looks primed to try to defend its gold medal with a very impressive group of players that includes many future NHL players. Filip Forsberg (Washington Capitals, 2012 draft) and Mika Zibanejad (Ottawa Senators, 2011) head up that list, with both displaying their speed and puck skills.
Forsberg, who went later than expected in last year's draft, is out to prove teams wrong and looks like he wants to make an impact sooner rather than later. His size is enhanced now that he is stronger, six months removed from the 2012 World Juniors, and with that strength comes added confidence. Zibanejad looks like a fully developed man, and his skating and size make him a possibility to play in the NHL next year.
"Zibanejad looks like he will be in the NHL and not playing for Sweden come December," one Eastern Conference scout said. Too bad for Sweden, but it should be a nice boost for the Senators.
Defensemen Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim Ducks, 2012) and Oscar Klefbom (Edmonton Oilers, 2011) also have been impressive for the defending champions. Lindholm has turned heads with his elite skating and puck moving, while Klefbom plays the position like a general on the back end, directing traffic and always in the right position.
Neighboring Finland has not medaled at the World Juniors since a bronze in 2006, but this year the talent pool appears better than in years past with forwards Joel Armia (Buffalo Sabres, 2011) and Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago Blackhawks, 2012) leading the way. Both players have shown signs of brilliance with puck skills and offensive ability. The knock on both has been occasional complacency.
"They need to show more willingness to battle for loose pucks," one Western Conference scout said.
For me, this is where the summer hockey factor comes into play, but both forwards have been inconsistent at times when I've watched.
Defenseman Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2012) heads up a blue-line group that is more about substance than flash. Rasmus Ristolainen, a 2013 draft eligible defensemen, has been very impressive, as his place on my early 2013 top-10 list suggested he would be. His dominating size and maturity for his age have been very noticeable in this tryout event. One scout said Ristolainen will push to be a top-5 pick by the time the draft rolls around.
Forward Alexander Barkov is also slated to be drafted this June. His puck protection is said to be excellent at this event, but he also looks heavy and slow-footed (again, see early caveats about summer hockey). I tend to think it's a product of being big and his summer training methods magnifying the lack of jump in his skating.
For Team USA, defenseman Seth Jones has long held the status of an elite prospect for the 2013 draft class. After an injury forced him out of last year's World Juniors, Jones will get another crack at it. So far at Lake Placid, he continues to show why he is talked about in the same breath as ballyhooed Halifax forward Nathan MacKinnon for first overall in 2013. Jones combines skating and size with talent and tons of effort. I believe he will lead a strong group of defenseman for the U.S. in Ufa. Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg Jets, 2012), Brady Skjei (New York Rangers, 2012) and Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets, 2011) will join Jones on the blue line.
The decisions as to who will make up the forward core will be tough, as a number of players are fighting for spots. Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens, 2012) has been OK from my vantage point. Understandably, he is working off some rust after missing an entire season with a major knee injury last year in Sarnia. Tyler Biggs (Toronto Maple Leafs, 2011) is big and tough, but sometimes if he is not engaged in the physical part of the game he can look ordinary. I am sure USA Hockey knows what it gets with this gritty forward, though. It was a quiet beginning to the tryout for him, but he assisted on two goals and finished many more hits later in the week.
J.T. Miller (New York Rangers, 2011) wills his way around the ice and brings a great combination of skating, skill and work ethic. Meanwhile, Mario Lucia (Minnesota, 2011) has gotten stronger and looks ready to make the step as an offensive skilled forward, according to many I have talked to who are at the event. The lanky Wild pick is showing his skill and offensive ability and with added strength is now more capable of battling for ice.
Meanwhile, Sean Kuraly (San Jose Sharks, 2011) is emerging as a diamond in the rough.
"Whatever round this kid was taken in, it should have been the first," one scout said of Kuraly, selected 133rd overall in the fifth round.
Kuraly is a player I know very well -- I wanted our staff in Atlanta to give him much more attention in his draft year. He is strong, can skate and has displayed a never-give-up attitude every time I have watched him. The thing that is surprising to some is he is now producing offensively. In the USHL he put up very modest numbers in his draft year, and I think teams shied away from him because of his lack of production. Kuraly is causing many to rethink the way they look at players. At this age, if a player has at least one NHL quality, he has a chance. And Kuraly seems to be seizing his.