WJC: 10 Draft Eligibles To Watch

Be sure to check out other instalments in this WJC series:

The world juniors are always a hotbed for hockey scouts.

This year’s tournament will be more under the microscope than most, because of the marquee matchup between Canada’s Connor McDavid and Team USA’s Jack Eichel. They go head-to-head on New Year’s Eve, then may not cross paths again until June at the NHL draft in Florida when they are projected to go first and second overall. McDavid is the odds-on favourite for No. 1, but Eichel could close that gap with a stronger showing on this international stage.

Don’t rule out a medal-round rematch. Wouldn’t that be something — McDavid-verus-Eichel for gold? Dare to dream.

They aren’t the only draft-eligible players trying to impress the scouts and improve their stock over the next couple weeks in Toronto and Montreal. Here are 10 prospects that could make substantial impacts for their respective nations:

Connor McDavid (F, Canada)

He’s been called a generational talent and compared to Sidney Crosby for years. He does almost everything on another level from his peers, and although he’s still an under-ager in this tournament, McDavid should be the biggest standout — the best of the bunch, if the hype is true.

McDavid could be a bit rusty out of the gate, having just returned from a broken hand suffered in an OHL fight on Nov. 11. But he was averaging upwards of 3 points per game before getting hurt, and it wasn’t a concussion, so he shouldn’t have forgotten how to generate offence. He’ll get to play behind Sam Reinhart, the second overall pick in 2014, so that might take some of the pressure off, but all eyes will still be on McDavid to lead Canada to gold for the first time since 2009. By all accounts, he’s good enough to get the job done.

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Jack Eichel (F, United States)

Eichel got the better of McDavid at last year’s tournament — putting up 5 points to his 4 — and he’ll be looking for a more resounding encore. Some scouts already believe it is a neck-and-neck race, that Eichel is bigger, faster, stronger than McDavid and is capable of going No. 1. That isn’t the consensus thought, so it’ll be up to Eichel to win over more scouts and winning gold, especially over McDavid, would certainly help his cause.

Eichel was named captain of the American team, which should give him some added motivation, albeit with inherent pressure. If he rises to the occasion and makes a statement at the world juniors, then all bets are off come June.

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Noah Hanifin (D, United States)

Hanifin is widely regarded as the best defenceman in this draft class and the third-best prospect overall. He’s a two-way guy that excels at both ends of the ice, with a calm effectiveness to his game. There aren’t many flaws and the upside is similar, if not better than that of Seth Jones.

Hanifin is going to play a key role, in all situations, for Team USA. He’ll see power-play time and probably kill some penalties too. He’ll be expected to generate offence from the back end but also to shut down the likes of McDavid. That’s quite the challenge, but Hanifin has the skill-set to not just survive but to thrive in this environment.

Lawson Crouse (F, Canada)

Crouse is a big, hard-driving winger with a real good set of hands around the net. The prototypical power forward, if you will. The speed of the game, at this level, might be an adjustment, but he’ll create time and space for his linemates — whoever they might be — and be there to bang in the rebounds. There is no shame in scoring garbage goals, especially with gold up for grabs.

That’s not to diminish Crouse’s overall skills. He worked his way onto Canada’s roster, proving he belonged despite being an underdog when selection camp began. There is room for his role to increase as the tournament progresses and provided he doesn’t look out of place, Crouse should be a lock for a top-5 pick in June.

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Ivan Provorov (D, Russia)

This spot was reserved for Swedish defender Oliver Kylington but an injury is keeping him out of the tournament. Enter Provorov, who stands to benefit the most from Kylington’s absence. If Provorov shines on this stage, he could leapfrog Kylington and be the second blue-liner selected in June.

Provorov has been a draft riser ever since arriving in North America, and specifically in Brandon where he plays for the WHL’s Wheat Kings. He’s been a solid, at times spectacular, addition for that Memorial Cup contender and his winning vibes could rub off on Russia. Like Hanifin, Provorov will likely log big minutes and be on the ice at key times, which will have the scouts watching closely.

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Pavel Zacha (F, Czech Republic)

Zacha is another potential top-10 pick who could be knocking at the door of the top 5 with a breakout performance in this tournament. The Czech team is going to be dangerous offensively, and Zacha could end up being flanked by 2014 first-rounders David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins) and Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals). That would be a potent trio and a real threat on the power play too.

Zacha showed flashes despite being held pointless at last year’s tournament, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be kept off the scoresheet again. There’s a better chance that he’ll finish top 10 in tournament scoring and help lead the Czechs into the medal round.

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Timo Meier (F, Switzerland)

Meier’s the next big thing out of a country that is starting to produce NHL talent on a regular basis. This tournament has also been a launching pad for Meier’s compatriots in recent years, with Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi and Kevin Fiala all emerging as standouts and going on to become first-round picks. Meier could very well join that list.

Not much is expected of Switzerland in a stacked Group B, but Meier, Fiala and Mirco Mueller of the San Jose Sharks will do their best to get the Swiss past the quarter-finals.

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Mikko Rantanen (F, Finland)

Rantanen is quite similar to Sasha Barkov of the Florida Panthers, a big playmaker that creates a ton of chances. If he skates alongside Kasperi Kapanen and-or Finnish captain Artturi Lehkonen, then Rantanen could be a pleasant surprise in this tournament. His role appears undefined heading in, so his play will likely dictate his ice-time and whether he’ll be setting up shop in man-advantage situations.

Finland’s forward group might not be as deep as years past, so Rantanen will be counted on to step up and be productive a year ahead of his time. That is asking a lot and time will tell whether he can deliver the goods.

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Zach Werenski (D, United States)

Werenski could be Hanifin’s partner, forming an under-age pairing for the Americans. They have played together before and stayed together throughout pre-tournament action, so that seems to be the plan. They seem to complement each other and play a very similar style, with Werenski also a good skater possessing high-end hockey sense and maybe even more offensive upside between the two. If they are thinking the game on the same level, then it makes sense to keep them together and hope for the best going forward.

David Trinkberger (D, Germany)

Germany is going to get steamrolled in this tournament and won’t win a game, barring a miracle. There is very little reason to watch games involving Germany — not without Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers — but Trinkberger might be worth keeping an eye on. He stands 6-foot-5 and plays for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, so he’s familiar with the North American game. He’s also garnering some interest from NHL scouts as a potential mid-round pick, so if he can hold his own — at least float, not sink — against the Canadians and Americans in their pool games, then he’ll have a good chance at getting drafted. The next Uwe Krupp? Perhaps.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.