The Big Easy: Eric Lindros is healthy and happy after blazing a trail for player safety

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It’s a bright fall day on a tree-lined street in one of Toronto’s most exclusive neighborhoods, but the rich and/or famous are nowhere to be seen. Things are pleasantly quiet on this Thursday morning in mid-November. It’s no more than a mile or so north of the bedlam that is downtown, but here, amid a mass of bright yellow leaves, there is nothing but calm and serenity.

On one of the houses, there’s a makeshift sign from a torn cardboard box posted on the front door that reads in black magic marker ink: “Dear Guest: Please refrain from knocking at this time. Thank you.”

The door opens and a mountain of a man stands in the doorway. His hands look as though they could still swallow you whole, then crumple you up and throw you away like a piece of scrap paper. He’s unshaven and graying at the temples, wearing blue sweat pants and a T-shirt with a Batman logo on the chest.

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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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