Future Stars Shine at WJC’s

At the recently-completed World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY, some of the NHL’s top prospects delivered very impressive performances. Here’s a look at the best of the best…

Brayden Schenn (Forward): With 18 points in this year’s tournament, Schenn tied the team record set back in 1977 by Dale McCourt. Making his performance all the more impressive, Schenn managed to keep playing at an extremely high level despite suffering a separated shoulder during Canada’s quarterfinal match-up against Switzerland.

Selected fifth overall in the 2009 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings, Schenn has had quite the whirlwind of a season, spending time with the Kings, the Manchester Monarchs, the Brandon Wheat Kings and Team Canada already. And with the Wheat Kings well out of the playoff hunt in the WHL, there are rumors that Schenn might be dealt to the Saskatoon Blades to help them make a run at the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Schenn is a big, strong forward with exceptional playmaking ability and on-ice vision, and it’s more likely than not that he’ll be making a significant impact for the Kings in 2011-12.

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Forward): The Russian winger is absolutely dynamite with the puck, able to singlehandedly break trap defenses with his superior stickhandling and skating ability. The 26th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Kuznetsov would appear to be tailor-made for a spot alongside Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the Washington Capitals’ top line.

Judging from his play in the WJC’s, it’s clear that Kuznetsov would (and should) have been a much higher pick if not for concerns about his signability. But with Ovechkin playing the role of ambassador, it’s likely that the Caps will have a distinct advantage when trying to encourage Russian players to forsake the KHL to play in North America.

Ryan Johansen (Forward): Johansen was absolutely terrific throughout the tournament, demonstrating elite-level physical ability and hockey sense that belies his inexperience. An extremely reliable two-way player, Johansen’s play in the WJC’s was reminiscent of Mats Sundin in the prime of his fine career. From his laser-like shot and precise passing to his gritty board work and steady back-checking, Johansen is looking like the first-line center the Blue Jackets have never really had.

Many of Columbus’s high draft picks have faltered, a huge reason for their seemingly never-ended struggles, but it appears that in Johansen they’ve finally found a star to align with captain Rick Nash.

Vladimir Tarasenko (Forward): The Russian captain demonstrated tremendous tenacity in returning from a rib injury to help lead his team to a scintillating five-goal third period performance in the gold medal game against Canada. A very solid two-way player with a strong shot and terrific playmaking skills, Tarasenko was drafted 16th overall in 2010 by the St. Louis Blues.

Tarasenko’s father is his coach with HC Sibir Novosibirsk, and though it’s likely that Tarasenko will someday play in the NHL, his arrival in North America will be delayed while he continues his development under his father’s tutelage.

Ryan Ellis (Defense): The all-time leading scorer amongst defensemen at the WJC’s (he surpassed Reijo Ruotsalainen with this year’s strong performance), Ellis is a terrific puck-moving defenseman. He did an excellent job quarterbacking Canada’s power play throughout the tournament, and demonstrated surprising strength along the boards considering his diminutive stature (5’9″, 173 pounds).

Ellis, the 11th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, should have a very bright future ahead with the Nashville Predators, and it’s a good bet that he’ll make an immediate impact upon his expected arrival in 2011-12. Ellis’s play evokes the Red Wings’ Brian Rafalski, but with a bigger shot and more physical play.

Adam Larsson (Defense): The one player on this list who hasn’t yet been drafted by an NHL team, Larsson is one of the top prospects for the 2011 NHL Draft. A big, strong two-way defenseman with plenty of offensive ability, Larsson has drawn comparisons to a young Nicklas Lidstrom. His productivity has slipped a bit in the Swedish Elite League this season, but that’s attributed to a drop-off in power play ice time.

There isn’t a huge gap between Larsson and Canadian forwards Sean Coutourier and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; it will be interesting to see whether Larsson can finish strong in Sweden and emerge as the draft’s top prospect. He demonstrated flashes of brilliance at the WJCs (four points in six games) and considering the level of competition he was facing, it’s clear that he’s got an extremely bright future.

Jack Campbell (Goalie): A look at the box score for Team USA’s loss to Canada in the semifinals might yield the conclusion that Campbell didn’t play particularly well. But that couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, Campbell was the only reason the Americans were able to escape with a relatively respectable 4-1 final score. Campbell’s teammates hung him out to dry time and again, but the irrepressible Campbell made a slew of terrific saves to keep the game close. T

he 11th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Campbell made a case for himself at these WJC’s that he (and not Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markström) is the top goaltender not currently in the NHL. Without question, Campbell represents the future for the Dallas Stars, and it’s only a matter of time before he supplants the injury-prone Kari Lehtonen.

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