If you’re a hockey prospects kind of person, this is truly the most wonderful time of the year. The IIHF World Junior Championships continues straight through into 2015, and all kinds of rosy-cheeked phenoms will get a chance to strut their stuff. As the tournament progresses, I’ll provide updates on both the kids who have already been drafted (92 players participating in the tournament have already been selected by NHL clubs, with the Winnipeg Jets leading the pack by having six of their prospects rostered) and those who are still draft-eligible.
There were only two games on the schedule Sunday, as Russia crushed Switzerland and the US cruised to an easy win over Germany.
Russia 7, Switzerland 0
After having to scramble to beat Denmark, the Russians wasted no time in smacking down the Swiss and demonstrating why they are one of the tournament favorites. Igor Shestyorkin (NYR, 4th rd 2014) and his posts stymied every opportunity Switzerland had, while 12 different Russians found the score sheet as their attacks came in waves. This was possibly a more impressive ass-whupping than the one Canada laid on Slovakia, if only because the Swiss showed more fight and got basically the same result.
Top prospect performers:
Russia’s dynamic duo of Ivan Barbashyov (STL, 2nd rd 2014) and Pavel Buchnevich (NYR, 3rd rd 2013) kicked off the rout in style, factoring in on two first period goals. Buchnevich is a world class sniper with good size and speed and great hands, and his flick into the top corner as he was falling down was arguably the biggest highlight reel goal of the tourney so far. Barbashyov is the perfect complement for him, a slick and skilled player who’s not afraid to do the dirty work necessary to get his teammates prime scoring chances. His drop pass on Buchnevich’s goal as he cruised through the slot and drew the defense’s attention was good, but better was his contribution to Russia’s first goal, as he camped in front of Swiss goalie Gauthier Descloux and set a perfect screen, then lifted his leg at the last possible second to let a slapshot from Rushan Rafikov (CGY, 7th rd 2013) blur into the net. Both of Russia’s killer Bs should figure heavily in their respective NHL clubs’ top six plans in a couple of years.
Top undrafted performers:
Luca Fazzini is your typical waterbug forward, showing good speed and elusiveness plus a knack for finding open ice in the offensive zone. Most of the scoring chances Switzerland had seemed to involve him, and Shestyorkin’s best stop of the game was a toe save to deny Fazzini when he seemed to have an open net. Inconceivable! At a listed five-foot-nine he may not attract much NHL attention, but I could see Fazzini being the leading sniper for some Spengler Cup-winning HC Davos squad down the road.
United States 6, Germany 0
It’s hard not to feel for the Germans, having to start the tournament with games against their group’s two juggernauts, Canada and the US. The Americans showed them no mercy though, controlling the contest pretty much from opening whistle to final horn. Dylan Larkin (DET, 1st rd 2014) scored twice and added an assist, and he’s their third line center! He profiles more as third line glue guy than top offensive performer, but the Wings have to love the way he’s playing right now.
Top prospect performers:
Despite Larkin’s production, Sonny Milano (CLM, 1st rd 2014) was the drafted player making the most noise with his play. He has a rep for being a bit of a selfish player, which isn’t necessarily a bad trait to have in a born sniper, but can you blame him? When God reaches down and blesses you with hands that talented, it would be a crime to waste them doing anything else. (Unless he became a masseur, I suppose.) Milano had a number of scoring chances early in the game that just missed, but his goal came when he actually tried to pass it across the crease, only for the German defenseman to slap it right back to him. Milano took the hint from up above and buried the puck in the back of the net.
On the US blue line, Will Butcher (COL, 5th rd 2013) has a very nice game, smoothly quarterbacking the power play and cleaning up the occasional mess in his own end. He doesn’t have ideal size for an NHL defenseman, but his passing ability and vision will make him a two-way asset and Butcher’s not afraid to get a bit physical when necessary. The Avalanche look like they got a bit of a steal with this pick.
Top undrafted performers:
So if Jack Eichel is the number one center and Larkin slots in as the number three, who’s the team’s second line pivot? That honor belongs to 17-year-old Auston Matthews, who due to a birth date fluke won’t be eligible for the NHL draft until 2016. Matthews is a bulldog who’s currently listed at six-foot and 200 lbs, although he might yet grow a couple of inches, and his package of offensive skills is nearly comparable to Eichel’s. In the Americans’ first game Matthews appeared tentative on the big stage, but against the Germans he outplayed his more heralded teammate, looking more responsible with his defensive assignments while matching Eichel deke for deke and goal for goal (literally: Matthews opened the scoring for the US with a beautiful wraparound goal, which Eichel then had to top with his own wraparound tally in the third period.) Watching the two continue to try and one-up each other is going to be one of the true pleasures of this tournament.