Top Players to Watch at World Juniors

It’s here. The 2017 World Junior Championship is finally here.

With its arrival comes a chance for national glory, rising draft stock, the biggest stage some players will ever see and some fast-paced, fun international hockey.

Here are some of the prospects you need to keep an eye on as the tournament progresses, including a couple from every team participating at this year’s tournament in Montreal and Toronto.

1. Rudolfs Balcers, LW, Latvia

He’s not a household name and he’s not on a team likely to be stealing headlines, but the 2015 fifth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks is giving people a reason to pay attention. He’s spent the last few years playing in Norway’s top league but made the jump to North America this season to play for the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers. So far, so good. He’s posted 20 goals and 38 points in 35 games, leading all WHL rookies in goals.

https://twitter.com/zakkthebear/status/801814119925968902

2. Henrik Borgstrom, C, Finland

The 2016 first-round pick has quickly found his place with the University of Denver, averaging over a point per game in his freshman season. He wasn’t a part of Finland’s gold medal-winning roster in 2016, but the 6-foot-3 forward could play a significant role this year. Unlike last year, Finland’s roster lacks superstars, but they’ll try to make up for it through roster depth and players like Borgstrom capable of performing above expectations.

https://youtu.be/omCpU30sbl4

3. Thomas Chabot, D, Canada

Chabot, an alternate captain this year, is going to be the pillar of the Canadian blue line. He’s a good skater and has impressive offensive IQ. His play at the other end of the rink isn’t as heralded, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the potential to be one of the best defenders in the tournament. His usage early on should be a good indication of how much trust he’s earned through camp.

4. Rasmus Dahlin, D, Sweden

The young Swede is an incredible talent. At age 16, he’s playing in Sweden’s top league against men and finding success. He’s already considered to be one of the top prospects available in the 2018 NHL Draft, but even so, his inclusion here is a big statement. The Swedish blue line is deep with prospects like Gabriel Carlsson, Jacob Larsson, Oliver Kylington and Jacob Moverare on the roster. Not to mention, he made the team over Wild prospect Gustav Bouramman and Timothy Liljegren, who is expected to be a top 10 draft pick in 2017.

5. Pierre-Luc Dubois, F, Canada

A bit like Dylan Strome (who we’ll get to), Dubois enters the tournament with something to prove. After Columbus flirted with giving him an NHL game, Dubois was returned to the QMJHL and it took a little while for him to get the juices flowing. He’s currently producing less than a point per game, which is far lower than should be expected for a player who was drafted third overall. This is a chance for him to prove his doubters wrong.

6. Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Sweden

Fresh off an impressive cup of coffee in the NHL, Eriksson Ek is set to captain Team Sweden. He’s a stronger, smarter player than he was last year and can play in absolutely any situation. He’ll be a key to Sweden’s success or lack thereof this year.

7. Mathias From, W, Denmark

Though he only registered two points in last year’s World Juniors, From played well. He’s proficient at both ends of the ice and on a team not known for being a World Juniors powerhouse, he could be in line for a lot of ice time and opportunity to make things happen. He has the potential to be one of the tournament’s pleasant surprises and it’ll be up to him and 6-foot-5 center Alexander True to drive the Danish offense.

8. Denis Gurianov, F, Russia

Now in his first North American season skating with the AHL’s Texas Stars, Gurianov came into his draft year as a highly regarded offensive talent. But last season’s KHL performance was unremarkable and he was a surprise cut for Team Russia last year after taking a dumb slashing penalty and game misconduct in an exhibition against Denmark. “Insanely disappointing,” he said after being cut, “because I wanted to play on this World Championship from the moment I started to be involved in the youth team… I do not know what came over me in the match against the Danes, but will make every effort to continue to control myself in any game, no matter how provoked by the opponent.” He has something to prove this year.

9. Carter Hart, G, Canada

Last year’s CHL Goaltender of the Year hopes to be the answer to the middling goaltending Canada has received in recent years. He enters the tournament playing outstanding in club play. He’s carrying a .928 save percentage for Everett and was WHL Goaltender of the Week two straight weeks before heading to camp. He kept that going by posting a shutout in his first pre-tournament scrimmage start.

10. Nico Hischier, C, Switzerland

The 17-year-old Swiss forward should be the star of the Swiss side, along with WHL standout and Blue Jackets prospect Calvin Thurkauf. He entered the season as a highly regarded draft-eligible and has been outstanding for the Halifax Mooseheads, increasing his draft stock significantly. He has 23 goals and 48 points in 31 games, and with so many players near the top of the draft injured, this is an opportunity for him to climb a little higher.

11. Adam Huska, G, Slovakia

The Slovakian netminder grabbed five games at last year’s World Juniors and it didn’t go great. That’s not entirely surprising given that few expect Slovakia to be the class of the tournament, but with another year under his belt, he has the potential to make a big impact at age 19. He’s grabbed 10 of 18 games in his freshman campaign with the University of Connecticut while posting a .926 save percentage.

12. Tyson Jost, LW, Canada

One of just two NCAA players on the Canadian roster, Jost has already shown he’s going to be a key piece of Team Canada during exhibition games. Selected 10th overall in 2016, Jost captained Canada’s U18 entry last year, averaging over two points per game. He also captained Canada West at the 2015 World Junior A Challenge, helped Canada to gold at the Ivan Hlinka and was MVP of the BCHL. Now, he’s averaging over a point per game as a rookie with North Dakota. He rises to the occasion with every new challenge set in front of him. World Juniors shouldn’t be any different.

13. Olli Juolevi, D, Finland

The defender was a key piece of Finland’s 2016 World Junior Championship gold medal on home ice. He’s an outstanding defenseman who can play in any situation. This year, he’ll face more pressure as an older player and as the captain of the Finnish side. He’ll also have to carry more of the load on a Finnish team that simply doesn’t have the same offensive might it had when they were carrying Mikko Rantanen, Kasperi Kapanen, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.

https://twitter.com/ryanbiech/status/800741187120304128

14. Kirill Kaprizov, W, Russia

Not quite a household name, Kaprizov could have a coming out party at the tournament. He’s having an incredible KHL season, posting the third-most points ever in a U20 season already and the season isn’t over. The only player to have a better U20 season in the KHL? Evgeni Kuznetsov. Kaprizov has now passed seasons by Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Buchnevich and Artemi Panarin, who rank among the best young forwards in KHL history.

15. Clayton Keller, C, United States

If you’re making bets on who will be the standout forward for the United States, it’s a guessing game. Jack Roslovic, Tage Thompson, Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, Jeremy Bracco… there are a lot of names that could wind up being the force that helps the U.S. rise, but Keller might be the greatest of these many talents. He’s a creative, shifty and intelligent forward. He’s coming off a season where he broke the USNTDP record for most assists in a season and posted the second most points ever at 107 in 62 games. Though he’s missed a good portion of his freshman campaign at Boston University to injury, he’s looked good at the next level as well.

16. Charlie McAvoy, D, United States

McAvoy could be this year’s Zach Werenski for Team USA. He comes to the tournament with experience at World Juniors and a strong start to his college career. He’s good in transition, plays a physical game and is a bit of a utility knife. Expect him to be on the ice for 22+ minutes every game. Overall, the American defense is so-so, which means McAvoy will be asked to pick up the slack and play in all situations.

17. Alexander Nylander, W, Sweden

One of the few players in the NHL or AHL that is being loaned out, the arrival of Nylander for Team Sweden is big. They’ve added a player who has the potential to be one of the most dynamic scorers in the tournament. His pro career is off to a bit of a slow start with the Rochester Americans. He needs a confidence booster and playing against players his own age might do the trick.

https://twitter.com/myregularface/status/681490853194534917

18. Kristian Reichel, C, Czech Republic

Coming off a standout performance at the World Junior A Challenge that earned him a spot on the all-tournament team, the son of former NHLer Robert Reichel is having a good year. He was passed over in last year’s draft but is playing like he wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

19. Adam Ruzicka, F, Slovakia

The 6-foot-4 forward is likely to be a name you hear called during the 2017 draft. He’s having a solid year for the Sarnia Sting at age 17, posting 12 goals and 22 points in 30 contests. Team Slovakia isn’t exactly the ’88 Oilers, but Ruzicka is a player to watch.

20. Ilya Samsonov, G, Russia

The Russian net is fairly deep this year, but Samsonov might be the best goaltender on any team. He has the ability to steal games and is going to make life hard on opposing players. He grabbed two games at the 2016 World Juniors, but he should carry the load this year. His .936 save percentage for Metallurg in the KHL is tied for ninth league-wide and he’s just 19.

21. Mikhail Sergachev, D, Russia

One of very few players in the tournament with NHL experience, Sergachev is a dominant defenseman for his age group. There’s little he doesn’t do well. He has soft hands, sees the ice well on breakouts and is offensively gifted.

22. Jonas Siegenthaler, D, Switzerland

The 6-foot-2 2015 draft pick (57th overall) is a smooth-skating defenseman who has a lot of intelligence to his game. He’s not wowing anyone with gaudy offensive numbers or an incredible shot, but he’s a steady presence who could quietly help the Swiss be a trap game for some of the top teams.

23. Dylan Strome, C, Canada

Strome was arguably Canada’s best player in last year’s disappointing tournament. This year, he’s the captain and has something to prove after being reassigned to juniors. He should be dominant. He played well in the pre-tournament games and has already shown that he’s taking his leadership role seriously, tempering the team’s expectations after they looked like the Harlem Globetrotters against Finland and the Czech Republic in pre-tournament exhibitions.

24. Tage Thompson, W, United States

Despite the absence of Logan Brown and Alex DeBrincat (plus an injury keeping Brock Boeser out), the U.S. has a deep forward group. Thompson might be one of the surprising names at the top of the list. The big winger has fantastic puck skills and showed that he’s a difference-maker both with Connecticut and at the August evaluation camp, where he might have been the best forward for the U.S. He’s got a big shot and isn’t scared to put a lot of pucks on net.

25. Eeli Tolvanen, C, Finland

Expected to be a top draft pick next summer, Tolvanen absolutely has the potential to be the draft-eligible breakout player of the tournament. The Boston College commit has 27 points (16-11-27) in 23 games for the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and showed flashes of top-tier offensive skill at August’s evaluation camp scrimmages.

26. Kristian Vesalainen, W, Finland

Along with Tolvanen, Vesalainen showed at evaluation camp that Finland’s best forwards could once again be a pair of draft eligibles. Like Tolvanen, Vesalainen is expected to be a first-round draft pick next summer and they could be difference-makers on the road to repeat for the Finns.

27. Jakub Zboril, D, Czech Republic

The 2015 first-round pick (13th overall) of the Bruins should be Team Czech Republic’s anchor. He’s entering his second World Junior tournament and is having a solid year in the QMJHL for the Saint John Sea Dogs. This year’s Czech team has the potential to surprise and if they do, Zboril and fellow defender Filip Hronek will be a big part of it.