Canada announced its final roster for this year's IIHF World Junior Championship - we'll just stick with WJC for short - Wednesday, and as usual, it's as noticeable for its snubs and odd choices as for the star quality of its talent.
In truth, it's a curious team from front to back. While the No. 1 goalie will be 2010 first-round pick Mark Visentin of the Coyotes, his backup is Scott Wedgewood, a good-but-not-great Devils prospect selected in the third round in '10. Wedgewood is 15th in the OHL in save percentage, and most of the goalies ahead of him are Canadian. And better.
Stranger still, Devante Smith-Pelley was inexplicably sent off to WJC camp by the Ducks after they held onto him for 26 games, burning the first year of his entry-level contract. There's speculation he'll return to his junior team after the tournament, but I can't imagine why Anaheim would do that. Or why they'd send him off to the WJC in the first place. It certainly doesn't say a lot for how much he means to this year's team.
Then there are the cuts, and there are some whoppers. Tyler Toffoli, who's scoring nearly two points per game for Ottawa of the OHL this year, apparently wasn't good enough. Star-quality defenseman Ryan Murphy, taken 12th overall in 2011, wasn't good enough. Rangers prospect Christian Thomas, a 54-goal scorer for Oshawa last year, struggled out of the gate this year thanks to a concussion, but has looked mean lately, ripping off 12 points in his last three games. Not good enough.
Meanwhile, the ever-so-mildly impressive Boone Jenner and Michael Bournival crack the roster. Riddle me that.
But reality is what it is, and not every future star can make the tournament roster. (A couple more might, though, as Quinton Howden and Jonathan Huberdeau are banged up and may need to be replaced.) Those who do make the cut have a unique opportunity to make an impact on the world stage. International play is often what separates men from boys, as it's one thing to dominate in a league in which three-quarters of the players won't make the NHL, and it's quite another to shine in a tournament against the best players your age from every hockey-loving country. The intensity level of the WJC is positively NHL-esque - if you can raise your game and make yourself noticed there, you can easily find yourself on the fast track to the big leagues.
Kyle Palmieri, RW, ANA - With the way that Palmieri has developed quite suddenly, this is an actionable call-up. Through 18 games with Syracuse of the AHL, Palmieri has scored 17 goals - yes, seventeen! - and added nine assists. When a guy who's almost averaging a goal a game gets called up, you snap him up. When he gets put on a line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, as he was for his season debut Saturday, you can feel free to start drooling. The combo didn't produce much in that contest, but Palmieri played a solid game, putting three shots on goal and delivering a hit in 13:34 of ice time. The 2009 first-rounder (26th overall) produced 51 points in 62 games in the AHL last year, but he's taken his game to another level and savvy fantasy owners need to take notice.
Evgeny Grachev, C, STL - A training camp sensation after being acquired from the Rangers, Grachev played fourth-line minutes, got hurt, and then got sent down for a quick rehab stint. After three scoreless games with AHL Peoria, he's back with the Blues, with whom he's got a whole two assists in 17 games. He's just 21 years old, but it seems his development has been stunted - possibly by a premature graduation from juniors back in the day.
Roman Horak, LW, CGY - Horak was sent down to make room for Curtis Glencross last week, then was called right back up two games later. He went plus-1 in nearly 11 minutes of ice time Tuesday, but didn't register a shot on goal. Another ex-Rangers prospect, the 20-year-old's offensive contributions have been limited thus far at the NHL level, as he's got just nine points in 26 games. He collected an assist in his two-game AHL stint, too. His long-term upside is pretty good, but it could be a while before he realizes it.
Greg Nemisz, RW, CGY - Nemisz was called up Dec. 10 and sent down Dec. 11 to make room for Horak. The wildly overrated former first-rounder (25th overall in 2008) hasn't come close to realizing the power-forward potential the Flames thought they were getting when they drafted him, and it's not hard to see why when you look at what he did in juniors. Sure, on the surface, it's not so bad to average about a point per game with massive plus-minus every year, but it's not so hard to do that when you're playing on a team with Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Andrei Loktionov, Adam Henrique, Josh Bailey and Cam Fowler. On the bright side, Nemisz has 18 points in 26 games this year for AHL Abbotsford, a marked improvement over last year's 33 in 68.
Paul Szczechura, C, BUF - Szczechura barely qualifies for this column, if at all, as he's 26 years old and has played in 88 NHL games, but then again, I decide who qualifies for this column, and Szczechura is in by virtue of being able to score goals like this. He's got four points in five games in the NHL, including two in three since being recalled, and he's seeing some time on a line with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, so there's upside to be found here, even if Szczechura isn't a game-breaking scorer. He has one goal and eight points in 12 AHL games this year, but is coming off a 52-point season (22 goals, 30 assists in 79 games) last year. By the way, it's pronounced, if we can trust the Buffalo broadcasters, something like “Sahara.”
Matt Taormina, D, NJD - Taormina, who saw an injury-shortened 17 games of action with the Devils last year, got the call again before the weekend and has played in three games, receiving increasing ice time - including time on the power play - and registering a power-play assist thus far. On the down side, he's only taken one shot on goal in the three games and is quite undersized for a defenseman at 5-9, 190. The 25-year-old undrafted Michigander put up 50 points in his first AHL season back in '09-'10 and had 12 points in 23 games this year before his call-up, so he does have some offensive spark, but it's questionable whether it's enough to overcome his size disadvantage at the NHL level.
Blake Geoffrion, LW, NAS - Basically, Blake Geoffrion is not Boom-Boom Geoffrion. The 23-year-old, who's been battling an upper-body injury, had only two points - assists both - in 19 games this year. He made a little more of an impact last season, collecting six goals and a couple assists in 20 games, but that's not much to write home about either. Perhaps a ticket to the AHL, where he was solidly productive as a rookie last season, will be what the former University of Wisconsin standout (well, he only stood out as a senior) needs to get his game back together.
Jonathon Blum, D, NAS - A personal favorite of mine, Blum hasn't been able to find a consistent high level of play this year, and as a result he's been stuck with a minus-11 rating despite playing in front of one of the best goalies in the league. Even the rating would be forgivable if he was scoring, but Blum's offensive game has been absent as well, as he's managed just five points in 27 games this year and a total of 13 points in 50 NHL games between this season and last. Still, the talent is undeniable - this is a former first-round pick (23rd in 2007) who racked up 129 points in 115 games from the blue line in his final two seasons with the WHL's Vancouver Giants and who put up 11 goals and 41 points as a rookie in the AHL. He'll get it together.
Nikita Filatov, LW, OTT - After yet another failure to stick with the Senators, Filatov was finally sent to the KHL, where he'll try to find his game. And now I've written all the words I want to write about Nikita Filatov.
Kevin Poulin, G, NYI - Poulin didn't get a chance to play before being sent down, and he hasn't yet played in the AHL since being sent down. He's still the Isles' best long-term goalie prospect, in my view.
Evgenii Dadonov, RW, FLA - After alternating him between limited minutes and healthy scratches, the Panthers did the smart thing and finally sent Dadonov back to the AHL. The talented stick-handler is still having trouble with basically every other aspect of the game, so he'll try to get right in San Antonio. He has five points in 11 games there so far this year.
Joe Colborne, LW, TOR - Colborne's massive AHL production (21 points in 15 games) translated only to modest NHL production (four in nine), but he acquitted himself reasonably well despite somewhat limited ice time. He seemed a bit reluctant to get involved offensively, but he would have stuck around if not for Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur getting healthy.
The Future to Come
Every week in this space, I'll feature one college player and one junior player who are making their mark.
This week's college prospect is Andy Iles, a sophomore goalie at Cornell University. Undersized at 5-9, 180, Iles has succeeded at every level anyway, as the 19-year-old has dominated in Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) play this year, posting a ridiculous 1.62 GAA and .930 save percentage in 11 games, including four shutouts. This is a new level even for Iles, who put up a solid .914 in 18 games as a freshman last season, and before that a .915 with the U.S. National Development Team. Once regarded as one of the top American goaltending prospects in his youth, Iles has been passed over in the draft, as the conventional wisdom is that his lack of development size-wise will keep him from succeeding as he advances to the pros. Still, with his ability to make spectacular saves and play bigger than his size, it might be a bit early to count him out just yet. Besides, he's not much smaller than Tim Thomas.
Our junior prospect of the week is Ty Rattie of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. A second-round pick by the Blues (32nd overall) in this year's draft, Rattie was another of the notable snubs from Canada's WJC roster, as he's tied with Emerson Etem for second in the WHL scoring race - with a game in hand. With 32 goals and 27 assists, he's already just 20 points short of last year's total of 79, a number that he should blow by quite soon at this rate. Still slender at six feet tall and 167 pounds, Rattie is already known for his slick playmaking, ice vision and puck possession, skills that will suit him well in the NHL. He needs to bulk up, but if that's all he has to do to succeed at the next level, we'll be hearing his name for a long time.
Something to ask? Something to say? Prospects you're dying to hear about? You can contact me here.