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Three recent top draft picks will take part in Canada-Sweden semifinal game

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Three recent top draft picks will take part in Canada-Sweden semifinal game

The Canadian Press
By:

Less than 11 months later, the trio of teenagers will skate in Saturday's Canada-Sweden semifinal game at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

"Obviously teams know what they're doing when they're drafting," Staal said after Canada's practice on Friday. "It's great that all these guys are playing in this tournament.

"Hopefully we can show our stuff."

Erik Johnson and Phil Kessel, last year's first and fifth picks in the draft, also played here for the U.S. before being knocked out in the quarter-finals.

While the young guys are getting some valuable international experience in Russia, they're also contributing. Staal has recently moved up to a line with older brother Eric and winger Mike Cammalleri, Toews has put up six points while seeing plenty of power-play time and Backstrom has played plenty of minutes for the Swedes.

"It's remarkable for them," said Canadian defenceman Nick Schultz. "And it's pretty important for countries to have those young players that they can rely on to come over to tournaments like this and produce and play well."

All three will likely be playing in the NHL next year. Staal, 18, will be a sophomore after scoring 29 goals during his rookie season with Pittsburgh and earning a nomination for rookie of the year.

Toews, 19, has yet to announce a final decision on whether he'll return to the University of North Dakota, but it's hard to imagine him not joining Chicago's lineup.

Backstrom's agent is currently in negotiations with Washington and the 19-year-old expects to be in North America in the fall.

The three could conceivably spend the next 10 or 15 years being compared to each other and are already aware of what the others are doing.

"Toews is killing me in points right now so it kind of bugs me," said Staal, who has yet to record a point here. "It pushes you to be a better player."

Canadian captain Shane Doan was selected seventh overall by Winnipeg in 1995 and says he still keeps an eye on players like Jarome Iginla, Kyle McLaren and Chad Kilger, all first-round draft picks that year.

"I remember they always said that my draft was really weak," he said. "I look back at the guys who were taken and it's turned out to be OK.

"During your career, you kind of see how everyone's doing and you hope for those guys."

The winner of Saturday's semifinal will play the winner of the Finland-Russia semi in Sunday's championship game.

The Canada-Sweden showdown features two teams with plenty of similarities.

In addition to the teens, each has relied on lesser-known players during this tournament and put the emphasis on playing together.

It's been an easier task for the Swedes because the core of their team played four tournaments around Europe together over the winter.

Alex Steen, their lone NHLer, was given a pretty clear job description after joining that group.

"For me it's just been to get in this lineup and not really mix anything up," said Steen. "Just sort of blend in and be a part of it."

Staal, Toews and Backstrom know the feeling. They've all been careful to show proper respect to the veterans, with Toews even volunteering to travel from the 25th floor at the team hotel earlier in the tournament to get Doan a bottle of water.

Toews has already secured a place in Canadian hockey lore with the three shootout goals he scored against the U.S. in a semifinal win at the world junior championship in Sweden in January.

Canadian coach Andy Murray had his team working on the shootout in practice Friday and it would hard to imagine Toews not being included if the team has to play one. Still, he has no secret ambitions of getting another shot at semifinal glory.

"Heck no," said Toews. "It would be tough to get that lucky twice.

The game represents a rematch of last year's semifinal, which Sweden won 5-4 on the way to capturing the gold medal.

Murray watched that semifinal on tape and didn't find many secrets while breaking down the result.

"Sweden was really good and Canada wasn't good enough," he said.

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Three recent top draft picks will take part in Canada-Sweden semifinal game