Wrapping Up Day Three of the World Juniors

If yesterday’s contests were a who’s-who of the up and comers, today’s slate of competition at the World Juniors was a veritable Clash of the Titans.

The days festivities began with a match between former compatriots in the Slovaks and Czech’s. However resilient, the Slovakian side couldn’t hold the fort against the top end talent of their Czech rivals, dropping a 2-0 victory on the second half of a back-to-back. Meanwhile the Swedish were able to eek out a 1-0 victory against the United States, without their best player in William Nylander. The Canadians made quick work of the Danish, defeating them 6-1. Arguably the game of the day though was the Russian victory over the Finns, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win 6-4.

Draft eligible players were in high supply and given the circumstances, there’s a wealth of draft relevant analysis worth putting on display.

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Czech Republic vs Slovakia

Yesterday I went at length to discuss some of the challenges Slovakia faces in the rapidly changing international hockey landscape. Still, they pose a challenge to any they encounter with a strong mix of D+1 and D+2 talent and a wealth of size throughout their lineup.

Meanwhile the Czech Republic’s lineup is buoyed at the top end by youth in the form of third-round selection, Michael Spacek. There’s a great mix of international experience and high end talent throughout their middle-six, in spite of their leaving Lukas Jasek behind.

In terms of draft eligibles, the Czech lineup has Simon Stransky on the wing, used primarily as their 13th forward today and defender Filip Hronek. Both are considered to be top end talents in this years draft, with the consensus ranking to this point bearing Stransky in the first round and Hronek in the second or third.

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Getting a read on Stransky was difficult, but I am fairly certain this is a wagon we’ll circle if not later in the tournament, most certainly at the draft. Stransky is currently plying his trade with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL, where he’s enjoying a successful second season in North America. CSS has given Stransky a ‘A’ grade, which means they view him as a first round prospect worth paying attention to. Mostly, he is mocked to the second round in these early draft proceedings. 

There was much more meat on the bone for Hronek. The Czechs relied on Hronek primarily as a shutdown piece, at the bottom half of their defence. I’ve long held to the truism that “stay at home defender” is code word for bad, but Hronek’s game was clear of the genuine hallmarks of the aforementioned qualifier. His in-zone reads were great and I counted several breakout passes of note, from his own end. 

I feel as though Hronek is a players whose merits would be reflected quite favourably in the dearly departed PCS. While Hronek is one of the older members of his draft class, it bears mentioning that he’s played 22-games to this point in the Czech men’s league this season – potting one assist for his troubles. It’s fair to wonder what limitations can be placed on Hronek’s game, but his is a name that bears watching down the stretch.

Canada vs Denmark

This game likely drew the most attention of Canucks fans and with good reason. Within the Canadian roster is exactly 50% of the Vancouver contingent in this tournament, represented by Jake Virtanen. Beyond that there were a wealth of draft eligible players, including one on the higher end of the scale in Julien Gauthier.

While it remains encouraging that Virtanen has spent time in the NHL this season, red flags abound with his game and there are still more questions than answers after a performance like todays. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Virtanen’s inability to process the game (even at the junior level) is every bit as apparent as the physical tools on which he hangs hit hat.

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It’s not so much the plays that are made with the puck, as his inability to find lanes and work within the construct of Canada’s system without. Virtanen’s skill set doesn’t lend itself well to a sustained presence below the hashmarks, yet he’s constantly in screen, three feet away from his linemates in this exact position. You want to see him make lanes, create space and put himself in a position to use his best asset, which is inarguably his shot. Instead I’m left hearing the wheels turn and oh, it’s an ugly sound.

One of the players I was keen to key in on was the aforementioned Gauthier. Unfortunately, Gauthier was reeling from a flu or food poisoning and was limited in his action today, being used primarily as the Canadians 13th forward.

Getting a clear read on some of the Danish players I highlighted yesterday was difficult, given the discrepancy in overall talent between the two rosters. One player who stuck out in every which way, was Mathias From. His physical toolbox is relatively complete, but his inability to use his linemates must be frustrating for everyone involved. Although From assisted on the only Danish goal of the day, his 1-on-5 rushes could be counted on both hands and most resulted in neutral zone turnovers.

Finland vs Russia

This is my candidate for game of the day. I only wish I had the time to watch it all the way through. Never has the state of Finnish hockey been so prosperous, as their forward ranks are bolstered by presumptive top-five talents in Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine. Another step back, their top-four defenders are bolstered by the presence of Olli Juolevi, who plays for the London Knights of the OHL.

There’s a wealth of literature already on the three Finnish prospects I’ve profiled and I can’t profess to have an original thought on their standing. All the same, I left today’s game with the impression was entirely deserved, especially where Puljujarvi is concerned. 

There was ample chemistry between Puljujarvi and Laine, as they connected on multiple occasions today to auger the Finnish attack. Puljujarvi appears to be the more dynamic and engaged of the two and remains my favourite if I’m standing at the podium. All the same, Laine wouldn’t be far behind.

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Meanwhile, Russia remains a peculiar lot. There’s no shortage of talent on their roster, but one can’t help themselves and wonder how they justified keeping a talent like Denis Guryanov off their final roster. 

In spite of their best efforts to the contrary, this roster is one which aims to compete for Gold and has the horses to do so. One of the unfortunate consequences of this, is that there isn’t much to analyze in terms of prospects. Everyone there has been drafted, or just passed out of relevance after going unclaimed in their first year.

That said, they do have one player who caught my eye in Alexander Polunin. Although undersized, there’s plenty to like about Polunin as a prospect. Polunin is hovering at near a half-point per game pace in the KHL, playing against adults. Of course, his 5’8 frame will keep him from gaining high end recognition, this player is screaming market inefficiency in the biggest way.

Although Polunin was used primarily as the 13th forward on Russia, he was able to score Russia’s fifth goal all the same. Most encouragingly, he did so picking up the trash in the crease and throwing himself onto the puck with reckless abandon.

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Sweden vs. USA

Any team that opts to leave Kyle Connor, Jeremy Bracco and Jack Roslovic home in favour of players “better suited to a checking role” deserves to lose as many 1-0 contests as a tournament can throw them. The Americans weren’t spared this fate, running into a hot Swedish netminder and dropping this decision to the upstart Swedes.

Even with some of these more peculiar omissions, the Americans have one of the more talented rosters going into the tournament. It’s ripe with first round, draft eligible talent and a presumptive first overall pick in Auston Matthews. There’s also the matter of Canucks 2015 first-round selection, Brock Boeser.

Again, I wasn’t overly impressed by the play of Boeser, especially in the early proceedings. And, again, Boeser was promoted to the first line by the second, in place of an injured Alex DeBrincat. It’s fascinating to watch the deployment of Boeser throughout this tournament, as so much has been made of his chemistry with fellow North Dakota teammate, Nick Schmaltz. 

Boesers best moments came on the power play, where the Americans deploy him as more of a rover, than a net front presence. Boeser launched a few good shots from the slot, but most wound up just a foot wide or blocked. 

Meanwhile, the Tre Kronor have some top end talent themselves, even accounting for the absence of William Nylander to injury. William’s brother, Alex Nylander, was still in play and projects to be a top-ten pick in the upcoming draft. The list of draft eligibles doesn’t end there, as the Swedes also have Rasmus Asplund and Carl Grundstrom as first year draft eligibles in their forward ranks. 

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I still haven’t forgiven the Canucks for passing on William Nylander to take Jake Virtanen sixth overall in the 2014 draft, so his younger brother was of course a player I keyed in on. Alex is currently plying his trade with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL and is well over a point per game player.

Nylander, I speak of course of Alex, was also the sole goal scorer in this contest, given the Swedes a 1-0 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The Swedes lean on Alex Nylander on the power play, but use him primarily on the point. I was impressed by his ability to carry the puck and use his linemates. I imagine this a player we’ll be dissecting in much more detail as we inch towards the draft.