January 01 2017 06:25PM
It's the most wonderful time of the year! The hectic holiday frenzy is dying down, you've survived another round of extended family visits, and 2017 dawns like a blank canvas full of unlocked potential. More importantly, though, we're done with the group stage of World Juniors and are heading into quarterfinals!
The shocker this year is, of course, Finland in the relegation round. Beyond that, things have shaken out about as we all expected. Sweden, USA, Canada, and Russia are probably the teams that will challenge for the gold, barring a miracle run from one of the other four teams. (If a miracle run happens, no doubt plenty of people would be thrilled if it came from the upstart Danes, who have already captured our hearts with their... visor spray celebrations?)
In any case, one of the best things about World Juniors is the chance to watch top prospects with your own two eyes in glorious high definition, rather than depending on scouting reports or shoddy streams of questionable legality.
In honor of the bracket play starting tomorrow, here's a list of #fun prospects to keep an eye on as we watch a bunch of teenagers. Some have been drafted already, some are draft-eligible this year, and one notable name is eligible in 2018. The only thing they have in common is that they're all skaters. (No goalies, at least not until we have a slightly larger #SampleSize.) Seriously, it's just a bunch of guys you should watch, because they are probably going to be doing cool things.
Here we go, folks. In no particular order, nine players you should keep an eye on as we head into the intense part of the tournament:
Alex Nylander (SWE)
Draft Info: Drafted 8th overall in 2016 by BUF
Look, I know I said "in no particular order," but when I think of someone who's looked like the best player on the ice for a majority of his shifts, it's Nylander. He was Sweden's leading scorer last year, and it's looking like he's well on his way to reprising that role this time around, too. With 4 goals and 5 assists through 4 games played, Nylander leads tournament scoring with 9 points.
He's been playing on a line with Minnesota prospect and Sweden captain Joel Eriksson-Ek, and the two are dominant on the ice, controlling the pace of play and generally making opponents look dramatically outmatched. If you want to see fun things happen, make sure you're paying attention when Nylander hops over those boards.
Taylor Raddysh (CAN)
Draft Info: Drafted 58th overall in 2016 by TBL
Raddysh was the OHL's points leader at the holiday break (23-38--61), so it's not like he's coming out of nowhere. But it's true that most of the hockey world wouldn't have pegged him as the primary candidate to have a four-goal game. Well, folks, here he is. He's got 5 goals and 1 assist through 4 games, and will be looking to add to that. He's not a playmaker the likes of his teammates Mat Barzal or Dylan Strome, but he's more than capable of putting the puck in the back of the net. He's going particularly effective as a net-front presence, and don't underestimate him on the power play going forward.
Matthias From (DEN)
Draft Info: Drafted 143rd overall in 2016 by CHI
From missed Denmark's first two games with an ankle injury sustained during training camp, but was able to return for the latter half of the group stage. He's got 2 goals and 1 assist through 2 games played, and in his first game back, he led the Danes to an upset over the Czech Republic, scoring an OT game-winner that may have been the goal of the tournament so far.
Denmark is the Cinderella story this year, as most people probably had them slated for the relegation round, and if they keep that going, Mathias From will have to build on his strong start and continue to drive the team's offense as he's been doing since his return.
Nico Hischier (SUI)
Draft Info: Eligible for 2017 Entry Draft
For the 2017 Draft, it's Nolan Patrick, Timothy Liljegren, and this fellow right here. Both Patrick and Liljegren have missed time this season due to injury or illness, and neither are playing in this tournament. Hischier is, and he's looked great. He leads the Swiss with 2 goals and 3 assists through four games, and has impressed through the group stage. His best game, though, was probably Switzerland's upset over the Czech Republic squad, in which he registered two assists and the OT game-winner. Hischier is electric on the ice, with blazing speed and the stickhandling to match. If Switzerland makes a medal run, you can bet Hischier will be right in the middle of it.
Clayton Keller (USA)
Draft Info: Drafted 7th overall in 2016 by ARI
Keller, who predictably draws comparisons to Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau because he's a small, very skilled American forward, is already a game breaker. One of six Boston University players on the USA roster (and yes, BU does play a game later this week), Keller paces the Americans with 3 goals and 4 assists through 4 games.
The Americans are strong this year, but Keller manages to stand out. He's noticeable every time he's on the ice, and is constantly creating scoring chances. Keller is by far one of the most creative players in the tournament, with great vision and the skill to execute plays most guys wouldn't even think to try. Conclusion? Keep your eyes glued to this one.
Mat Barzal (CAN)
Draft Info: Drafted 16th overall in 2015 by NYI
If there's been one Canadian skater who's seriously wowed spectators this tournament, it's Mat Barzal. His great hands have been on full display so far, and he's been all over the ice. He's been very noticeable, and at times looks like he's toying with his opponents. Remember this?
Barzal only got two games with the Islanders this year before being sent back to the Seattle Thunderbirds, and frankly, is making the Islanders look silly for doing so. More than anyone else on the Canadian squad this year, Barzal is capable of creating offense out of nothing, and if Canada hopes to capture the gold medal on home soil, they're going to need him at his very best. Luckily for them, he looks to be there.
Rasmus Dahlin (SWE)
Draft Info: Eligible for 2018 Entry Draft
I would like to remind you all that Dahlin is a 16 year-old playing largely against guys two or three years older than him, and he's more than holding his own. His most impressive game may have been Sweden's tournament opener against Denmark, in which he registered a goal and an assist with limited ice time.
Since then, he's been quiet offensively, but his poise and vision are off the charts for such a young player. The best thing about watching Dahlin is seeing how good he already is and imagining how much he'll grow between now and when he's draft-eligible. Let's just go ahead and start the "All in for Dahlin" campaigns now.
Kirill Kaprizov (RUS)
Draft Info: Drafted 135th overall in 2015 by MIN
Kaprizov is one of the players most of us on this side of the ocean don't really get to see too often, since he plays over in the KHL. He's certainly been turning heads this tournament, registering 5 goals and 3 assists over 3 games. After the group stage, he trails only Alex Nylander in points and shares the lead in goals with Taylor Raddysh. Kaprizov has been especially deadly on the power play, tallying four of his five goals on the man advantage. He's made up a large portion of Russia's offense through their first games of the tournament, and if they hope to have any success in bracket play, Kaprizov is going to have to continue his strong play.
Eeli Tolvanen (FIN)
Draft Info: Eligible for 2017 Entry Draft
After winning it all last year in dramatic fashion (shoutout to Kasperi Kapanen!), the Finns have had a very rough time. They're headed to the relegation round, but that doesn't change the fact that Tolvanen is projected to be a top-10 draft pick this summer. Like the rest of his team, Tolvanen had a slow start, but he's looked much better in the last two games. Sure, 1 goal and 2 assists over 4 games isn't what anyone expected from the dynamic winger, but Tolvanen still has at least two games left to play and all the motivation in the world to come up with a stronger showing.
Don't skip out on viewing the relegation round this year -- we didn't expect Finland to be there, but they are, and so is Tolvanen. If he gets going, he's absolutely worth watching.
Alex DeBrincat (USA)
Draft Info: Drafted 39th overall in 2016 by CHI
Despite the fact that DeBrincat has scored more goals in the past two and a half years than any American player currently on the roster, USA Hockey saw fit to cut him after one exhibition game. Now, this could be because USA Hockey tends to show a bias against CHL players, or it could be because DeBrincat is 5'7" and had a poor showing in the tournament last year. Or it could be that they've filled their quota of "smaller skilled players" with Clayton Keller and Jeremy Bracco. (Do you guys think the braintrust is aware that they could have Keller, Bracco, and DeBrincat? Evidence seems to suggest: no.) Whatever the rationale may be, it's flawed if you're leaving a two-time OHL 50-goal scorer off your roster.
Since the OHL season started back up after the break, DeBrincat has added a goal and three assists to take over the OHL scoring lead (from his linemate, Taylor Raddysh). He's on pace for 60 goals this season. But yeah, I don't think I could have found a spot for him in my lineup either.
The beauty of World Juniors is that while the players named above may indeed be the stars of the tournament, it's just as likely that someone is going to come out of nowhere and steal the show. That's at least half the fun of watching a bunch of teenagers play high-intensity, high-speed, high-emotion hockey.
In fact, the only thing we can say for sure is that we're in for a fun ride. Here's to underdogs and hometown heroes and #narratives for the ages. Let's start 2017 off with a bang.