Latvia's Zemgus Girgensons is lighting the lamp in the USHL with Dubuque and at the WJC's second tier tournament. (Photo courtesy the USHL)
The World Junior Championship in Buffalo is so close (Dec. 26), but while we wait for the annual deluge of elite prospects to do battle for country and glory, why not shine some light on the smaller hockey nations? The second tier of the world juniors is going on right now in Belarus and Slovenia, broken up into two divisions with the winner of each getting promoted to the top rung for next year’s edition in Calgary and Edmonton. True, these teams tend to be chum for the Canadas and Russias of the world, but it doesn’t mean they lack talent - just depth. Here’s a look at some of the noteworthy players in Divisions 1A and 1B.
An integral part of the Dubuque Fighting Saints attack, Girgensons has made a big impression on the United States League in his rookie year, tallying a point per game in 19 contests for the first-place squad. Coach Jim Montgomery lauded the Latvian’s heart when I interviewed him earlier in the season, comparing Girgensons’ drive to that of Jonathan Toews. A big kid at 6-foot-1, 181 pounds, Girgensons excels at puck protection and can dominate down the middle. He has five points in three games so far, all Latvian wins. Even more remarkably, he’s just 16 and not draft eligible until 2012.
Kristians Pelss, LW, Latvia
A late-round pick of the Oilers in 2010, the stocky Pelss is in his first year of Western League hockey with the Edmonton Oil Kings, where he has 10 points in 27 games. While that may not blow the doors off the hinges, the Latvian winger had six points in his past five games before leaving for international duty and continued the run with three points in Latvia’s first three games.
Nicklas Jensen, RW, Denmark
A flourishing member of the Oshawa Generals kiddie corps, Jensen has nine goals and 21 points in his first 26 Ontario League games, ranking him 11th among rookies. Some scouts see the Dane as very underrated, particularly because the Gens have other 2011 draft prospects such as Boone Jenner and Lucas Lessio in the lineup. Nevertheless, at 6-foot-3, 186 pounds, Jensen is tough to ignore on the wing thanks to his speed and physicality. He has five points in four Division 1B games for the Danes, who are also undefeated.
Thomas Spelling, RW, Denmark
The top-rated Dane still playing in Europe according to Central Scouting, Spelling is a 6-foot-2, 174-pound winger playing for Herning, the same team that spawned Jensen. Spelling had seven points through four games for Denmark. Back home, Spelling plays in the country’s top circuit and is fourth on his team with nine goals and fifth in points with 13 through 23 games.
OTHER WILD CARDS
Two other players of note are Slovenia’s Gasper Kopitar and Great Britain’s Robert Farmer. Kopitar is the younger brother of L.A. Kings star Anze Kopitar and played for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings, Portland Winterhawks (sparingly) and now the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers. Undrafted, he has a point per game for the host Slovenians, who blew out a couple opponents before losing a 2-1 decision to Denmark.
Farmer is intriguing because he was selected by the Ottawa 67’s in this year’s Canadian League Import Draft and there was a lot of fanfare around the 6-foot-3 winger because he was already playing for Sheffield in Britain’s top men’s league. Alas, Farmer lasted just one game in the OHL before being released (though he did get a fighting major in the contest), but landed on his feet with the U.K.’s Coventry Blaze. The Brits are 2-1 in their pool so far and Farmer has two points in three games. The search for the first British-trained NHLer continues.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday.
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