Morgan Rielly is a defense prospect to keep a close eye on. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament finished off this week and once again it was Canada coming home with the title - its fourth consecutive.
The tournament is generally regarded as the best indication of international talent for a given age group as it is scheduled at a time when almost all of the best players for each country are available to participate. There are obviously exceptions as some players are injured or unavailable for a variety of other reasons.
The U.S. team had a major hole on its blueline without top rearguard's Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba and Finland also found itself without its top defender, Olli Maatta - all were participating with their country’s U-20 programs. The players who did participate, however, put on a very competitive and high-level display of skill, which backed up the hype for the next two NHL draft classes.
So, I thought I would dish out my own all-star nods for the players who improved their draft stock at this tournament the most. Some were the best players there; others I felt deserved a tip of the old hat.
Filip Forsberg, Sweden - It would be impossible to start a list about impressive performers from this tournament without Forsberg. The Swedish captain was simply brilliant and although he was already regarded as a top 15 prospect, he may have vaulted himself into top five consideration. If I'm a GM picking in the top three for this year's NHL draft and I need a forward, the idea of getting a talent such as Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko or Forsberg third is almost unfathomable. Forsberg, a tremendous multi-directional playmaker, outplayed, outworked and outmatched almost every single player in the tournament improved his stock the most.
Aleksandr Barkov, Finland - Amazing that a 1995-born player can be so dominant on almost every shift playing against an age group above his own. We have got used to undersized Finnish forward prospects who have ridiculous technical skill packages, but not only does Barkov have the skill package, he also has the size. He is extremely instinctual and always seems to make plays that leave you wondering how he did it. As if the offensive wow factor wasn't enough, Barkov also showed off some good two-way desire and all-situations ability. When your top offensive playmaker is blocking shots on the penalty kill, you've got something special.
Cristoval Nieves, USA - The U.S. team seemed to lack the star power of previous years, but it hasn't had a player as impressive around the puck as Nieves in a long time. A very smooth and aesthetically appealing player, Nieves can really dangle, but relies more on making good, smart plays and creating space for his teammates. Nieves is most dangerous off the transition and has that extra gear to turn to when crunch time hits. This kid makes those around him better and would be a great fit on almost any team in any league.
Morgan Rielly, Canada - I can't hide the fact Matt Dumba was my favorite player, period, but Rielly continued to develop into a serious contender for that favoritism. Rielly is the poster boy for poise and decision-making with the puck. He has also come a long way with his defensive abilities and his play in this tournament was nothing short of dominant. Rielly went plus-9 in five games, which was tops in the tournament. He doesn't always stand out, but when he does the puck is usually in the net or in an area that makes the opponent panic. Very smooth and very confident, Rielly is an absolute gem and somehow keeps getting better.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Finland - One simply cannot say enough about the potential this kid has. He’s a big, intelligent and instinctual defender who does his job, no matter what it is. He can bring flashes of smooth offensive play and quarterback ability, but is consistent in his positional defensive play. A late ‘94 birthday, Ristolainen isn't eligible to play in this tournament again next year, but also isn't eligible for the NHL draft until 2013. Expect him to challenge for a spot on the Finnish U-20 squad and pencil him in as a player with bona-fide first round potential in two years.
Oscar Dansk, Sweden - Although his team didn't win in the final, it was dominant throughout the tournament. The Swedes were able to play an aggressive, physical and intense brand of forechecking hockey because they could rely on their goaltender if the risk didn't pay off. Dansk has the look of a pro already, but still manages to showcase some serious potential for improvement as well. I'm not of the school of thought that you should draft goaltenders in the early rounds of the NHL draft, but Dansk is one of the few to come along that makes me second-guess that opinion.
The Ivan Hlinka is one of the most exciting events on the schedule and its profile continues to grow every year. It’s a shame it does not receive the media attention and coverage it deserves, as the quality of talent is top-tier.
Congratulations to the winners, Canada, and all of the extremely impressive and deserving athletes who will soon get more of the attention that is due to them.
Ross MacLean is the head scout for International Scouting Services and is considered one of the rising stars of the business. A young, diverse and versatile hockey mind, MacLean leads ISS' network of scouts and puts his domestic and international hockey experience and knowledge towards ranking and providing industry-leading profiles and information on draft eligible players around the world.