Prospect Need to Know: Meet Sweden’s top 2016 NHL draft hopeful

Rasmus Asplund  (Photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)

The CHL Top Prospects Game runs this Thursday in Vancouver and it will be a strange year for the showdown. To begin with, three of the top four prospects in the NHL draft aren’t even eligible to participate – Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi all play in Europe. On top of that, hometown hero Tyler Benson of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants will miss the contest due to a lingering injury, so his captaincy of Team Cherry has been ceded to top defenseman Jakob Chychrun instead. The other bad news out west is that Red Deer center Conner Bleackley (Colorado) will miss six weeks with a fractured kneecap. The Rebels host the Memorial Cup, so at least his season’s not finished. Let’s get to the rest of the prospect world:

 

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Top 30 draft rankings for 2016: Laine and Puljujarvi ride golden wave

Patrik Laine (#29) and Jesse Puljujarvi (photo by Heikki Saukkomaa/AFP/Getty Images)

The world juniors in Finland were almost unprecedented in terms of draft influence. Four of the six tournament all-stars (as chosen by the media) were 2016 prospects: Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Olli Juolevi and overall MVP Jesse Puljujarvi. The kids aren’t supposed to dominate like that, but here we are. With Alexander Nylander and Matthew Tkachuk also having strong tournaments, the big question around the campfire right now is where to slot defenseman Jakob Chychrun.

The OHL Sarnia star did not make Team Canada, but he’s the only defenseman in the top echelon right now – though Juolevi is seriously threatening that. One exec I spoke with believes Chychrun is in a positional class by himself, while another team scout told me Juolevi is pushing his way into the conversation.

So what happens on draft day? Top D-men are hard to find, but those elite forwards are awfully tempting. Since we’re nowhere near knowing which teams will be selecting early, I’m keeping things conservative, as I generally do. Here’s a look at my current top-30:

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Prospect Need to Know: Sabres pick Will Borgen proud of his Spud roots

Will Borgen (photo courtesy of St. Cloud State)

I’m back from Finland and things are not slowing down. The home team took gold at the world juniors in one of the best games I’ve ever seen live and the talent overall was incredible in Helsinki. But a whole slew of trades have gone down in the CHL since we last gathered, while the USHL Top Prospects Game runs tonight in Omaha. Names to watch in Nebraska include Cam Morrison (Notre Dame commit), William Knierim (Miami) and Matt Filipe (Northeastern). As for everything else prospect, let’s get to the list.

 

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Why Finland is the best hockey country in the world

Finland celebrates Kasperi Kapanen's overtime winner (MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images)

(Note to reader: This column originally appeared in the World Junior Championship Preview in The Hockey News. It has been altered to reflect the outcome of the tournament.)

Finland entered the World Junior Championship this year much as it does every other, as one of five countries with a legitimate chance to win. And when the plucky Finns surprised everyone and ended up at the top of the podium, they actually didn’t surprise anyone at all.

There’s a lot we know about Finland. It has the highest child literacy rate in the world. It’s the only country that fully repaid its debt from World War II and it did so in an incredible seven years. It is home to the greatest number of off-the-grid world championships in the world – including global tournaments in wife carrying (where the winner gets his wife’s weight in beer), mobile phone throwing, mosquito catching, swamp soccer, sauna and air guitar. It was the first country in the world to make internet access a legal right and it is a global leader in recycling, which explains why Teemu Selanne kept making all those comebacks.

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How Matthew Tkachuk kept up with the other WJC draft titans

Matthew Tkachuk (Photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)

HELSINKI, FINLAND – It has been the year of the draft phenom at the world juniors. Auston Matthews flirted with an American goal-scoring record, Alexander Nylander put up points in his injured brother’s stead, while Finland got gigantic performances from Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi (my choice for tourney MVP).

But let’s not forget Matthew Tkachuk. The American left winger ended his tournament on a high note, posting up two goals and three points in an 8-3 wiping out of Sweden, winning himself a bronze medal in the process. With his size, smarts and skills, Tkachuk is firmly entrenched in the top-five for me, with Nylander behind him (and perhaps Jakob Chychrun, though being the only defenseman in the conversation may help him on draft day).

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Big, strong Russians put the boots to Team USA

The Russians celebrate against Team USA  (Photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)

HELSINKI, FINLAND – In a classic Cold War battle, the Russians had the better strategy, beating Team USA 2-1 in a grinding war on ice. The Americans’ top line of Auston Matthews, Colin White and Matthew Tkachuk was held off the scoreboard, despite an inordinate amount of ice time given to them by coach Ron Wilson. And while Tkachuk, a top prospect for the 2016 draft, hit a crossbar and came close on several other great chances, the crease in front of goalie and Washington Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov was largely a no-go zone for Americans.

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Canada has lost its perspective when it comes to World Juniors

Team Canada after its 6-5 quarterfinal loss to Finland MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images)

When Hockey Canada president Tom Renney emerged to speak with reporters the day after Canada’s dismissal from the World Junior Championship, it seemed about the only thing missing in the backdrop was a constant loop of The Funeral March by Chopin.

(Full disclosure: I’m not actually at the WJC this year. Our junior hockey ace, Ryan Kennedy, is proudly carrying the THN banner at the tournament in Helsinki.)

Renney looked grim and answered his first question by saying, “We’re dealing with it OK,” as though he were talking about a death in the family. He went on to talk about how Hockey Canada, “has to own this,” and “take a real good, hard look at this.”

It’s of almost no consolation to the young men who tried their best for their country and were sent home early, but this is not the end of the world for them or for Hockey Canada. As far as their own careers, this is not a bell weather of how they’re going to fare as NHL players, if indeed they make it to that level at all. Roberto Luongo, Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay were all part of the 1998 Canadian team that finished eighth and lost to Kazakhstan, while Scott Niedermayer, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya all played for the 1992 team that finished sixth.

By contrast, the two most dominant teams Canada has ever produced were in 2005 and ’06 and Cam Barker was on both of those teams. Ever wonder what happened to Dan Bertram, Sasha Pokulok and Ryan O’Marra? So do a lot of other people, but they were on the team that won in 2006 in Vancouver and might have been the most dominant defensive team Canada has ever produced. For all the greatness on the 2005 team that included Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Shea Weber, you might recall the goaltending tandem was Jeff Glass and Rejean Beauchemin and included the likes of Shawn Belle, Danny Syvret, Jeremy Colliton and Stephen Dixon. Martin Brodeur was cut from the 1992 team and in 2004, Cam Ward was lit up like a Christmas tree in the selection camp and was released, two years before winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy.

Which is to say that the WJC is a snapshot and in the 2016 snapshot, the photographer got Hockey Canada’s bad side. It was not a particularly bountiful year for 1996-born players, the goaltending was shaky to be sure and the team was a little too small and not quite skilled enough. But this does not have to provide a referendum on the state of hockey in Canada. Pretty tough to look at the likes of Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point and 2017 potential first overall pick Nolan Patrick and argue Canada is not producing enough skill players. In fact, go to a minor hockey arena near you and you’ll see kids doing some wonderful things on the ice. The fact is players have never been more skilled or better coached than they are in Canada now. (If you want to address something, you might want to start with goaltending. Just saying.)

The fact is that sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t. Renney talked about Canada always wanting to be in the hunt for medals and it always is. It was in this tournament, but came out on the wrong side of a one-game elimination because of a variety of factors. It happens. Canada will be back in the hunt next year on home ice. In fact, it will be right there the next three years when it will scarcely have to leave its own backyard.

For all the arrogance Ron Wilson has displayed at this tournament, there is no doubt he was onto something when he talked about the “unconscionable pressure” placed on the Canadian players. Wilson blamed TSN, but he missed the mark by a little. TSN is only trying to make a buck in a tough, competitive industry. The real culprit here, in your correspondent’s humble opinion, is Hockey Canada. It is the governing body of hockey in Canada that is at the controls here and it is the one that has allowed the hype for this tournament to run amok. You want unconscionable? A major hockey Canada sponsor telling 11- and 12-year-old kids that preparations for the 2023 WJC begin now. “If you do all that,” it counsels kids, “you’ll get noticed.” That’s unconscionable.

And has anyone ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s this approach to the tournament that is behind Canada’s lack of success. Now I get wanting to win every year and doing everything in your power to make that happen. Of course you’re going to do those things. and you never, ever want to get complacent about your place in the hockey universe. But just because it doesn’t go well doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “own it” and go through every flaw with a fine-tooth comb. How are those kids going to feel next year if they can’t win it at home after Hockey Canada has vowed to make things right?

It’s all about perspective. And when it comes to perspective, Canada has lost it when it comes to the World Junior Championship. And that loss of perspective starts right at the top of the food chain.