Things are not always what they seem. Behind any great performance, there is always a supporting cast in the backdrop. One that typically gets overlooked.
The United States’ Casey Mittelstadt has been flying away with – sometimes quite literally – the scoring race here at the 2018 World Junior Championships in Buffalo. Through the four preliminary games, he has scored four goals and five assists. Mittelstadt has scored a point in each game. His two finest outpourings were the outdoor game against Canada when registered three assists, and USA’s final prelim game which was against Finland when he had a goal and two assists.
But is anyone truly surprised? Not really. Mittelstadt is projected to be a top-notch talent for years to come. Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill is believed to have made a steal of sorts by getting him with the eighth pick of the NHL Draft over the summer. In many ways, these World Juniors were to belong to Mittelstadt. He has not disappointed.
But in this instance, we are more concerned with the “helping hands” of the tournament. The players who have been more of a supporting cast, or who have flown under the radar. Let us give them their proper dues. Should any NHL teams be able to get a hold of one of these talents, at least the ones not already taken, they may have made a steal of their own.
THW presents the top five unsung heroes of the Buffalo World Juniors through the prelim games:
#5. Scott Perunovich (D), USA
The United States’ Scott Perunovich has played much larger than his slim frame. At 5-feet-10 inches and shy of 170 pounds, few would surmise that he plays as physical as he does. Perunovich will turn 20 years old in August. He is presently playing in his first year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but played last year in the USHL.
In the four prelim games at the WJC Perunovich has scored a goal and an assist. In the outdoor game against Canada, Perunovich stepped up into the front slot and put it home against Carter Hart. He also made a beautiful play from the point in the USA’s 5-4 win over Finland when he spotted an open Brady Tkachuk who got the puck over to Mittelstadt for the finish. Surprisingly, Perunovich was not credited with an assist on the play.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 29, 2017
Perunovich has been passed over in two previous NHL drafts. It does not make sense, unless teams are hesitant over his size. At UMD he has had 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 19 games. Perunovich is also only one of four USA defenders to be plus players through the four games. Some NHL team really ought to give this young man a shot.
#4. Vojtech Zelenak (D), Slovakia
If you want to talk about a player with a mean streak, look no further than Slovakia’s Vojtech Zelenak. He is a giant-sized defender at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. For each of Slovakia’s four prelim games Zelenak has shown up in ill-humor. This was never more apparent than in the shocking 3-2 win over the United States. Any time a USA skater got near Zelenak’s goaltender Roman Durny, Zelenak would put them on their backside. More than a few episodes of extracurricular activities after the whistle featured Zelenak.
#HCSparta nemá na @HC_WJC zástupce jen v českém týmu. Za Slovensko ?? se šampionátu účastní obránce Vojtěch #Zeleňák, jehož tým v noci senzačně zdolal USA 3⃣:2⃣?? #WorldJuniors pic.twitter.com/uFmzqqQM9B
— HC Sparta Praha (@HCSpartaPraha) December 29, 2017
The big defender has been pointless at the tournament, but scoring is not what he is here for anyway. Zelenak is to provide muscle and an intimidation factor for Slovakia. The style he plays was a major factor in why Slovakia defeated the USA. They allowed the faster Americans no room and routinely forced them to the outside using brute force as needed If a Kieffer Bellows or Kailer Yamamoto did make it to the front of the net, well, then they had to reckon with a defender like Zelenak.
The sizable defender plays for HK Orange 20 in the Slovak Extraliga. This year he has two goals and six assists in 17 games. Zelenak may not make an NHL roster, but he has still been of utmost importance for the two wins Slovakia has generated in Buffalo.
#3. Nikolaj Krag Christensen (F), Denmark
Unfortunately, Denmark has not had a good tournament whatsoever. A far performance from 2017 when they finished fifth place overall. No one expected Denmark to grab a medal in Buffalo, but relegation was not expected either. Relegation is exactly what the Danes are facing though, as they failed to win any games of the preliminary round and now must face Belarus, hoping that they can stave off being relegated to the lower Division I A tournament.
The one saving grace for Denmark has been Nikolaj Krag Christensen. The seventh round selection of the St. Louis Blues in 2016 was the player they needed to be at his best, and Krag Christensen has done the best that he can. Through the tournament he has had minimal to no support, but has still managed to be Denmark’s leading scorer with a goal and assist in four games.
That might not seem like much, but Denmark has only scored two goals all tournament long. The fact that Krag Christensen was involved in both has to say something. Separately, despite the shellackings that Denmark has endured such as a 9-0 loss to the USA and a 8-0 loss to Canada, Krag Christensen has been defensively responsible too. His minus-two should be considered the best on the team, as Christoffer Gath’s minus-one – the only better number – would be tough to say is the best, considering that he did not see the ice against Canada at all and only played 1:47 against the USA.
Krag Christensen has been Denmark’s best player, it just hasn’t been enough.
#2. Maxime Comtois (F), Canada
The Anaheim Ducks took Maxime Comtois as the 50th choice overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. Here in Buffalo, Comtois has been an ace in the hole for Canada, and typifies the idea of flying under the radar. He has been getting the job done, but has not received much notice in the process. Comtois has been so steady that at times you forget he is on this roster because of his efficiency.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has a goal and an assist for Canada through four games. Comtois’ lone tally came in a 6-0 victory over Slovakia. Throughout the tournament he has put forth seven total shots. His plus-three rating is rather nice too.
Comtois is a point per game player in the QMJHL this season. Playing for the Victoriaville Tigres he has scored 15 goals and 14 assists in 29 games. While Comtois has served mostly as a depth player for Canada, he has the scoring prowess to an important contributor in the medal rounds. It would not be surprising if he accounted for a game-winner or a key tally in the latter games.
#1. Yegor Sharangovich (F), Belarus
The elder statesman of this year’s tournament in Belarus’ Yegor Sharangovich. Only a handful of players here in Buffalo have played in three straight U20 tournaments. This year marks Sharagovich’s third, including last year’s Division I A tourney for the Belorussians that got them to Buffalo.
Similar to Denmark, Belarus is now facing relegation after not winning a single prelim game in Group B. The difference though is that Belarus has actually been scoring and Sharangovich has been the greatest factor in that regard. In four games he has scored three goals – the most of any player for Belarus. Those three tallies also have him tied for second for team scoring, trailing only the Belarus captain Maksim Sushko who has a goal and three assists.
Outside of the WJC tournament, Sharangovich plays in the KHL for Dinamo Minsk. In 41 games this season he has scored four goals and six assists. His previous experience and his skill set are ringing true at this final U20 of his career. If Sharangovich can keep his offensive threat scoring in relegation against Denmark – a team starved for offense – then Belarus will find themselves in British Columbia for 2019.