The Best Tournament You're Not Watching
It's the holiday season. And in Canada, the holidays mean the World Juniors. Boxing Day rolls around, family members invade your house and there are two respites left to entrance them and keep them from antagonizing you to within an inch of your sanity.
Alcohol and the World Juniors. Have you been to a liquor store at this time of year?
That's what I thought.
But the future of scouting isn't at the World Junior tournament. Yes, you will see Canada's Sean Couturier, Sweden's Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog and the Czech Republic's Martin Frk in Buffalo this week. But most of the other big names for this draft were at the Under 17 World Hockey Challenge last year. Most of the names for next year's draft are at that exact same tournament this year. They're in Winnipeg this week.
You've heard of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Ryan Murphy? They played for Team Pacific and Team Ontario at this tournament last year. Canada gets divided into five teams for this tournament. Players from the Atlantic Provinces play for team Atlantic; those from Quebec play for Quebec; those from Ontario play for Ontario; those from Saskatchewan and Manitoba play for team West and those from British Columbia and Alberta play for Team Pacific. The Russians, Americans and Finns regularly send entries while the Slovaks, Czechs, Germans and Swedes rotate in and out of the tournament.
This is the tournament where Hockey Canada first gets looks at players for future Under 18 teams and for future World Junior teams. It's where pro scouts get an early look at some of the players who've been identified as possible major prospects for drafts to come.
I went to my first U-17 Tournament in 2008 in London, Ontario. The rest of the Junior hockey world was focused on Pardubice in the Czech Republic. They were watching Drew Doughty, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares help Canada lock up a fourth consecutive gold medal. I was in London and Strathroy and Woodstock and St. Thomas watching Brayden Schenn, Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Cam Fowler and Ryan Ellis.
But the player who made a great first impression on me at the tournament was Drew Shore playing for the United States. I spend a lot of time watching OHL hockey, so I'd seen Hall and Duchene and Ellis during the regular season. So I tried to catch players I didn't regularly get to see. I've always had a preference for big forwards and I honed in on Shore. I wasn't familiar with him, but I walked away from the game thinking I'd just seen a forward who was going to spend a lot of the next two decades terrorizing Team Canadas playing for the United States. I was sure he'd be a first rounder, how could he not be, right? He was listed at 6'1" or 6'2" then but he's listed as 6'3" now. He produced at better than a point per game pace, he was a strong skater and he was a centre.
Shore eventually went 44th Overall in the next year's draft. The first impression stuck with me though, and he didn't slip out of my personal Top 20 all season.
That's the great thing about an event like this. You go in looking to have your eyes opened. To see players you're not going to see otherwise until they play in the World Juniors. I enjoyed London so much in 2008, I went back to Timmins for last year's tournament. I keyed in on another big forward. 6'2" Mika Zibanejad from Sweden. He made a strong impression in a game against Team West and it's stuck with me ever since.
TSN has done a good job of delivering on this tournament in recent years by showing the gold medal game on the night before the World Junior Gold Medal Game. With their new TSN2 channel and the proliferation of Canadian teams in this tournament, the two would seem a natural fit. Maybe not the whole tournament, given the sheer amount of games, but at least the medal round games.
So, as a little primer for this year's tournament, I'll give you a few players to keep your eyes on.
Matia Marcantuoni: The Captain of Team Ontario has a lot of upside. He's got incredible speed and a great release on his wrister. Don't be surprised if you see him get his nose dirty.
Slater Koekkoek: A minute munching defenseman for the OHL's Peterborough Petes, Koekkoek can contribute offensively, defensively and physically and look for him to do just that for Team Ontario.
Matt Dumba: The top defenseman on Team Pacific, Dumba is an offensive whiz.
Nathan MacKinnon: A Mighty mite from the Maritimes, MacKinnon is pretty well a full year younger than most of the players at this tournament. The Dartmouth native, has highly touted hockey sense and is plying his trade for Shattuck-St.Mary's Prep.
Luca Ciampini: The goal scorer for the Halifax Moosehead looks like he might have what it takes to be the next big thing from the province of Quebec.
Derrick Pouliot: Solid size and already putting up some very respectable offensive numbers for one of the Dub's best teams. He could be the Dub defenseman to watch in the 2012 draft.
Jacob Trouba: Size, nastiness and a booming slapshot. Some have said he could be 6'4" before he stops growing. A horse on the American blueline.
Seth Jones: Already had his own story in The Hockey News. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. Jones is big and a slick skater with, as yet, untapped offensive upside. His late birthday makes him 2013 Draft eligible. He could be the first African-American selected first overall in an NHL Draft. He and Trouba are the Pillars of the US Defence core.