For Canucks fans, the 2015 World Junior Championships will be one of the more interesting ones in recent memory, as Vancouver has three prospects participating: Canada’s Jake Virtanen, USA’s Thatcher Demko, and Sweden’s Gustav Forsling. While fan of teams like the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs will get to enjoy their prospects be stars of their native teams (I’m looking at you William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers), only Demko expected is expected to play a critical role for his team, as Virtanen and Fosling look to be penciled in to their lineups as supporting players.
The cream of the 2015 draft crop will also be playing, including Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Noah Hanafin, but these names will likely be long gone by the time the Canucks come to make a selection with their 2015 first round draft pick. So who are some of the lesser known names that Canucks fans should keep an eye on during the tournament? Find out after the jump.
Lawson Crouse, LW, #28 Canada (projected draft rank: top-20)
In true Hockey Canada fashion, management selected the 6’4, 212 lb man-child from London, Ontario, over draft eligible scoring wizards like Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, and Nick Merkley. The big question mark with Crouse is his scoring, which so far does not appear to project at a rate consistent with an NHL prospect. He scored at a .43 point/game rate last year in his 16 year-old season, which is consistent with players like Todd Bertuzzi, Jason Arnott, Devante Smith-Pelley, Dane Fox, but the vast majority of players who scored at this level in their 16 year old season never made it. He’s improved his scoring somewhat to .67 point/game in the first 24 games of this OHL season, which is in the range of players like Adam Henrique, James Neal, Cole Cassels, but similar to the rate he scored at in his 16 year old season, very few players that scored at this rate ever amounted to anything at the NHL level.
In Crouse’s favour is that he has always appeared to be a more impressive player than his very modest point totals indicate. He forechecks well and has impressive speed to go along with a massive frame. Of course, there’s lots of season left for Crouse, but the World Junior stage will be critical for Crouse to prove himself, and for scouts to figure out just what kind of player he is.
Mikko Rantanen, C/RW, #16 Finland (projected draft rank: 1st round)
2014-15 is the third season Rantanen has played in Finland’s top league, Liiga. The peer group of other finish player to play in the top league at such a young age includes Mikael Granlund, Kasperi Kapanen, and Aleksander Barkov, and he’s been dominant in U20 play. Eliteprospects.com bills Rantanen as “A combination of elite level hockey sense, silky smooth hands, and nimble skating.” At 6’3 and 194 lbs, he won’t be discounted by NHL scouts based on size, and could very well be a steal if he falls to the Canucks. Rantanen is one I’ll be watching closely.
Pavel Zacha, C, #11 Czech Republic (projected draft rank: top-20)
Like Rantanen, Zacha spent considerable time in the top Czech league in his 17 year-old season, putting him in a class with players like Jiri Hudler, Petr Sykora, and Jaromir Jagr. He has a big frame at 6’3, 203lbs, so like Rantanen, there aren’t concerns with his size at the NHL level. He joined the OHL’s Sarnia Sting this season, and has adapted relatively well, scoring at a near point-per-game pace on a middle of the pack Sarnia team. Now that he’s got accustomed to the CHL game, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his scoring were to take off in the second half of the season.
Ivan Provorov, D, Russia (projected draft rank: top-20)
Provorov is lighting up the WHL in his first season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. The slick puck-moving defender has scored 37 points in his first 35 games, for a points/game rate that compares favorable with recent highly touted CHL defense picks like Aaron Ekblad and Seth Jones. He was a bit of a surprise to join the Russian team, as he’s the only 1997 born player they have brought to the tournament, but in the end the Russian team couldn’t pass up his great skating and elite offensive instincts.
Erik Cernak, D, Slovakia (projected draft rank: 2nd-3rd round)
Last season, Cernak joined a very exclusive list of 16 year old defensemen to play a full season in the top Slovak league. At 6’3/200lbs, he’s already playing with an NHL ready frame. Due to his size, mobility and skill, he’s been on the prospect radar for a while now, and could be a steal if he slips to the Canucks in the 2nd round.
Michael Spacek, C/RW, #21 Czech Republic (projected draft rank: 2nd round)
Spacek is one of only five U18 players to play in the top Czech league this year, and one of only three 17 year olds to be added to the Czech roster for the WJC (including Zacha and goalie Daniel Vladar). He’s pegged as being a good all around player. At 5’11/187 lbs he’s not huge, but as a top scorer among his fellow U-20 Czechs already, he looks like he may have NHL-calibre offensive upside.
Jens Looke, RW/LW, #24 Sweden (projected draft rank: 2nd round)
Looke was the only 17 year-old invited to join the Swedish team, but is not expected to be a first round pick. He’s currently playing in his first season in the SHL, along with only 18 other U18s. He has registered 6 points in 28 SHL games, which isn’t too far off William Nylander’s 7 points in 22 in 2013-14, so he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on throughout the tournament.
Timo Meier, RW, Switzerland (projected draft rank: 2nd round)
Meier has shown outstanding progression in his second year with the Halifax Mooseheads, improving from 0.52 points/game in 2013-14 to 1.33 points/game so far this year. This is due in part to increased ice time as a result of the departure of Jonathan Drouin, amongst others. However, the key driver of his increased scoring is likely the result of moving onto a line with the Danish Rocket, Nikolaj Ehlers. The big-bodied winger is also managing a staggering 5.5 shots per game for the Mooseheads, which is 3rd in the QMJHL and 2nd amongst draft eligible players, behind only Anthony Beauvillier. His draft stock is rising, so it’ll be interesting to see how he performs for Switzerland without the benefit of his electrifying Moosehead linemate.
Kay Schweri, RW, Switzerland (projected draft rank: 3rd round)
Schweri is currently a consensus third round pick mainly because of his size (5’10/174lbs), but I expect he could be one of the fastest riser by June. He’s currently the 4th highest scoring draft eligible forward in the QMJHL (45 points in 33 games), which is very impressive for his first year in North America. He has outstanding skill and speed, and definite playmaking ability (only Nick Merkley and Dylan Strome have more assists among first-time draft eligible players) so there’s definitely NHL potential to look out for. With a strong WJC tournament, and continued progression in the second half of his QMJHL year, he could be one of the most intriguing “off-the-radar” picks when the draft rolls around in June.
Sebastian Aho, LW, #26 Finland (projected draft rank: early 2nd round)
Sebastian Aho, the finish forward, is one of two Sebastian Aho’s at the World Junior’s this year, the other being a second-time draft eligible Swedish defender. While both players are projected to go in the first two rounds, the Finnish Aho is the more highly regarded.
He is currently playing in the top Finnish league, scoring 5 points in 17 games as a young 17-year old with Karpat in the Liiga, and he tallied 59 points in 44 games as a 16-year old in Finland’s best U-20 league in 2013-14 – the highest total for a U-17 player on record. His draft stock has been rising after scoring 5 goals and 2 assists in 4 games at the U18 tournament earlier this year.