Saturday afternoon, you'll find me at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Section 319, row six, seat nine.
I just might not be seated.
Canada squares off against Team USA in the World Junior match that will settle the top of Group B. It promises to be a fantastic match. And a great place to assess teenage hockey talent.
Heaven on earth.
The 2017 World Junior Championships are in full swing and I stuck a lot of toonies in my sock drawer over the last couple years, just so I could afford a ticket package to the games.
#wortheverypenny. Or toonies, since pennies have been outlawed here in Canada.
I have seen some spectacular plays and impressive performances by gifted young men. And I've come away impressed (and unimpressed) by a few.
Two big thumbs up to Canada's Matt Barzal (Isles) and Tyson Jost (Avs). Ditto Russia's Kiril Kaprizov (Wild) and Yegor Rykov (Devils), both of whom are complete steals. Sweden's Joel Eriksson Ek (Wild) and Alexander Nylander (Sabres), and the USA's Clayton Keller (Yotes) and Colin White (Sens) all look sharp.
And so do draft-eligible Swiss forward, Nico Hischier (2017), and Swedish defender, Rasmus Dahlin, who isn't eligible until 2018. These two guys are especially impressive against their older peers.
But some guys have left me wanting more. Canada's Dylan Strome (Yotes) is growing on me, although I'd like to see more from him at even strength. I keep waiting on Canada's Pierre-Luc Dubois (Jackets) to show me why he went third overall. I haven't seen it, other than on a single rush against soon-to-be relegated Latvia.
Big fish in a little pond?
And honestly, I expected complete dominance from Russia's Mikhail Sergachev (Habs). Maybe he's not leaping out because he's not making mistakes.
I'd like to at least notice him, though. Sheesh.
Now, let's look at who caught my eye this week.
Mikael Backlund, C, Calgary (20 percent Yahoo! owned) - Four goals, seven points and a plus-6 rating. In one week. He only delivers in spurts, but those spurts are like geysers. Bottle some of it. NOW.
Jason Demers, D, Florida (10 percent) - Demers has been playing like a man possessed in the last couple weeks. He has six points, including three goals, in his last six games and he has already equaled his career mark of seven goals … in just 37 games! Now, his shooting rate is almost three times his career mark, so it will not last. But hot is hot.
Kristers Gudlevskis, G, Tampa Bay (0 percent) - Canadian fans remember Gudlevskis only too well – he nearly pulled off the ultimate Cinderella story against a stacked Canadian squad at the 2014 Olympics. The lovable Latvian has continued to develop in the AHL, but hasn't been able to recapture any of his Olympic glory. And this season has been queasy at best, with an .884 save percentage with the Syracuse Crunch. Still, Gudlevskis has been summoned to Tampa now that Ben Bishop is hurt (again) and there's a shot that he'll actually see some action. Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn't exactly bricked up the twine tent in Tampa.
Anthony Mantha, LW/RW, Detroit (7 percent) - Get him. Now. He is on a five-game, six-point, plus-7 streak. We've all been waiting on the cavalry to replace Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Mantha has arrived. Yes, he's that good. Mantha is a pure goal scorer with a wicked wrister and a big body to fight through traffic. I'm buying in.
Patrick Maroon, LW, Edmonton (2 percent) - Burgundy boy has three goals in his last four games and is on a 25-goal pace. Yes – 25 goals! And he'll get it. Maroon only needs to put his stick down to tap in passes from guys like Connor McDavid. And Leon Draisatl. And … you get the picture.
Curtis McElhinney, G, Columbus (2 percent) - The Jackets are hot and Sergei Bobrovsky is a huge part of that success. In fact, Bob the Goalie's play is Vezina worthy. But he's on pace to start 72 games and that's completely unsustainable. Enter Mr. McElhinney, who is bound to see a bit more time once the Jackets' current winning streak ends. Stash him. The team is at or near the top of the league in both goals scored and goals against. So, McElhinney won't be able to do anything but deliver when he's in the blue paint.
P.A. Parenteau, RW, New Jersey (4 percent) - Something is brewing in the Prudential Centre. Parenteau has bounced around the league in his career, but he has proven that he can produce if he likes the fit. He resurrected his career last year in Toronto, and he was supposed to skate beside John Tavares on the Isles this season. Instead, he was put on waivers and snapped up by the Devils. Parenteau struggled to adjust and put up just eight points in his first 24 games. But he has eight more, including five goals, in his last 10 games. Again, hot is hot.
Juuse Saros, G, Nashville (5 percent) - Saros flat-out sizzled against a strong St. Louis squad on Friday night. He doesn't get much action – this was just his sixth start of the season. But it's clear he deserves a lot more (and he might just get it sooner rather than later). Saros rang up his first career shutout Friday night and has allowed just seven goals all season. In six starts. And three of them came in the same game. Wuh! Saros doesn't fit the Nashville mold of monster goalies, but he's highly athletic, technically sound and mentally tough, and that bodes well for continued strong play, now and in the future. Yes – seven goals in six bloody games.
Jordan Schroeder, C, Minnesota (2 percent) - Schroeder is part of the Vancouver draft vacuum. He was the Orcas' first rounder in 2009. But that team pretty much struck out between 2007 and 2012, so nobody took this Minnesota kid seriously. Schroeder has talent, but it hasn't shown at the NHL level. Until the last week – maybe it's the home cooking or maybe it's finally some maturity. Schroeder has four points, including two goals, in his last four games. Minnesota is riding an incredible wave; maybe it'll carry this little guy along, too.
Ryan Spooner, RW/C, Boston (9 percent) - Spooner has six points (three goals, three assists) in his last four games and nine points, including five assists, in his last nine games. THIS is the Spooner who finished one point from 50 last season. And he has the talent to deliver at a 50, or even 65-point pace going forward. Seriously.
Anthony Stolarz, G, Philadelphia (3 percent) - Steve Mason left Friday's game with yet ANOTHER boo-boo, this time to his blocker hand. You'll excuse my cynicism – the dude seems as "fra-gee-lay" as that ugly leg lamp in A Christmas Story. Stash Stolarz just in case Mason's injury is bad. And drop him if it isn't. But it is Mason, after all – if it isn't bad now, it will be soon enough.
Back to the World Juniors.
I came into the tourney thinking Sweden, the U.S., Russia and Canada were the cream of the crop.
Russia isn't as good as I thought and Canada is actually better.
Saturday will be another exciting Canada-U.S. game. Canada needs to stay out of the penalty box to win. They got away with stupid penalties against the lightweight Latvians.
That won't work against the deep and fast Americans. And it sure as shooting won't work against Sweden, if they face them in the medal rounds.
I may not have a voice left after Saturday, but I don't care one little bit. I heart #worldjuniors. Absolutely and unapologetically.
Until next week.