With the World Juniors right around the corner, it’s about time we start sizing up some of the teams and some of the players. Today we’ll be taking a look not at the Leafs prospects playing in the tournament, but the players that could one day ultimately end up being Leafs prospects. Let’s take a look at the best players in this year’s World Juniors eligible for the 2016 draft.
Canada is bringing a young roster to the World Juniors this year. And yet as young as the team is, there’s only one player on the roster that’s actually draft-eligible: Val d’Or’s Julien Gauthier. The consensus 7th-best player for the upcoming draft as of right now, there’s a lot to like about Gauthier’s game. He’s 6″4′. He has 29 goals in 30 games played in the QMJHL so far this season. He’s got 109 shots on goal in those 30 games. He’s got a strong combination of a myriad of different skills: he gets around the ice well for his size, he can handle the puck, he can dish it off to a teammate if that’s the right play to make, and yes, he can really wire it. All of these factors combine to make Gauthier a likely top ten pick next June, and he’ll probably be the second Canadian to have his named called at the draft, just after Sarnia’s Jakob Chychrun, who was cut during Canada’s selection camp process.
It’s hard to say with certainty what role Gauthier will play for Canada at the tournament. He was one of Canada’s better players during the selection camp and exhibition game process, but he’s also a right-winger, a position also occupied by the likes of Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny on the team, meaning he’s likely a third-liner at best on the team. That said, he’s gotten plenty of powerplay time in pre-tournament action, and I get the impression that head coach Dave Lowry wants to keep him involved. In any event, he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on considering he’s the only draft-eligible on Canada’s team this year, and he’s a likely top-ten pick.
Considering the United States of America is God’s gift to planet earth, it only makes sense that grand ole U S of A would be icing the most intriguing roster when it comes to 2016 draft-eligibles. The team still has two cuts to make, so we can’t be certain that they’re going to be bringing along six highly-touted draft prospects to Helsinki, but we’re close enough to that being the case that we’re going to roll with that premise anyways. And hey, worst case scenario is that they only bring four. Not too shabby at all.
Headlining the group of course is Auston Matthews, the de facto first overall pick next June. Size, speed, skill, elite-level production, intangibles – Matthews has all the makings of a franchise center in the NHL. I won’t go into much more detail on Matthews since most of you are likely familiar with him by now, but needless to say, he should be one of the more entertaining players to watch at this year’s tournament.
Followed by Matthews is his former linemate for the U.S. National Team Development Program, Matthew Tkachuk. Yes, he’s the son of Keith. You’ve probably heard of him by now too. He’s a highly dynamic left winger currently playing for the London Knights, and figures, like Matthews, to be a lottery pick this June. I’ll say it again: Tkachuk is highly dynamic, meaning really skilled, meaning fun to watch. Keep your eyes peeled to him in this tournament if you want to see some dazzling play.
Listed at 5″7′ and 160 pounds, Erie Otters winger Alex DeBrincat came into the 2015-2016 hockey season somewhat under the radar. Yeah, he put up 104 points in the OHL last year, but that was with the potent Otters offense led by Connor McDavid. As it turns out, though, it looks like DeBrincat is a damn fine player in his own right: he’s got 56 points in 30 games so far this season. Yes, Dylan Strome is still in Erie. Yes, he’s small. But clearly, DeBrincat has a lot of talent on his own. He’s definitely an interesting player to watch in this tournament because there isn’t a ton of consensus yet on where he figures to be drafted – he could be a fairly high first-rounder, or he could slide well into the second. In any event, it’ll be an important tournament for DeBrincat as far as easing the worries of scouts not convinced of his ability.
On defense, the U.S. is on the verge of bringing two more players that I’m a pretty big fan of for the upcoming draft. Chad Krys is a two-way defenseman for the US NTDP not totally dissimilar to last year’s 5th overall pick Noah Hanifin. He’s currently considered a fringe first-rounder, and if he makes the American roster, this could be a pivotal tournament for him as far as potentially raising his draft stock goes.
Joining Krys is Charlie McAvoy, who plays for Boston University. McAvoy is, if we want to start getting semantical, a two-way defenseman that leans towards the defensive side of the game. He’s mobile, but he could serve to improve that part of his game. He’s got some offensive acumen, but again, he could be better in that area. Still, McAvoy is closer to being a consensus first-rounder than the aforementioned Krys, and if he makes Team USA, this will be a crucial tournament for him as well.
Headlining the cast of likely draft-eligibles on Sweden’s roster is Alexander Nylander, brother of William, playing for Mississauga in the OHL. He’s a great skater with great hands and loads of offensive flash. He’s, at this point in the season, a probable top-ten pick. He may not be in the Leafs range (the Leafs might have even better names staring them in the face in June), but hey, you never know. He’s a ton of fun to watch and him and Willy figure to be two of the most entertaining players at this year’s tournament.
4-0-målet. William Nylander Ass Alexander, Forsling pic.twitter.com/6gxJBSpYX2
— Henrik Sjöberg (@sjobergh) December 21, 2015
Forwards Rasmus Asplund and Carl Grundstrom are a couple of names to keep a eye on if they can crack Sweden’s roster, but their spot on the team isn’t guaranteed at this point. They also aren’t consensus first round guys, but they aren’t totally far off either, especially in the case of Asplund. If they make the team, keep an eye on them, because this might be the only chance you get to have a look at them before next June.
The host Finns have, next to the United States, the most exciting roster for draft geeks such as myself. Headlining the group is Jesse Puljujarvi, the dynamic winger who’s currently the consensus second overall pick ahead of next June’s draft. He made a few waves at last year’s tournament in Montreal and Toronto because of how dazzling he was, and it figures to be more of the same this year. He’ll need to be at his best if the Finns want to win gold.
Next up is Patrik Laine, who has climbed back up the draft boards in a big way this season after losing a little bit of hype last spring and summer. Laine is close to a surefire top-ten pick at this point and has big-time offensive upside in the big leagues. Keep an eye on him, he could very well be in the conversation with the Leafs’ first-round pick.
An even bigger riser than Laine, London defenseman Olli Juolevi has vaulted himself into the top half of the first round in lots of early 2016 draft rankings. He’s 6″2′ and has 23 points in 28 games so far this season, and his intelligent two-way play is leaving scouts impressed. People are going to compare him to Olli Maatta because both are two-way Finnish defenseman that played for the London Knights, and that comparison isn’t totally unfair. Both have a good blend of size, intelligence, puck movement, and efficiency. But they’re different players, and we shouldn’t assume Juolevi will be as good or as similar as Maatta. Nonetheless, he’s an intriguing name, and he too will need to be on his game if Finland wants to win it all.
That’s all folks. Merry Christmas, and enjoy the hockey.