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Monday, August 9, 2010

Ivan Hlinka: The 2010-11 hockey season begins today

The annual under-18 extravaganza in Piestany, Slovakia, the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament (named for the star Czech forward, IIHF Hall of Famer and former Pittsburgh Penguins coach who was killed in a car accident in 2004) gets underway today and the annual competition has become a who's who of the upcoming draft class.

The tournament, originally known as the Pacific Cup and Nations Cup , it differs from the April IIHF Under-18 World Championship tournament in that the Ivan Hlinka is not an official IIHF-sanctioned event. That said, it's usually a tournament that brings much more higher-end talent to the mix especially on Team Canada, because the CHL season is not yet underway and therefore the playoffs in the three major junior leagues do not conflict. As an example, Tyler Seguin led Team Canada's Ivan Hlinka squad (who won gold) in scoring last August, but did not play for the Under-18 championship team because Plymouth was in the process of getting swept by Taylor Hall and the Windsor Spitfires. Ryan Spooner was also on the Canada squad that took gold in '09.

Last year, Jeff Skinner used the Hlinka tourney as a springboard for his impressive run from being considered a non-1st-round pick in the preseason by many public scouting sources, to top-10 selection with what was a tremendous performance offensively.

Just to underscore Canada's dominance in the tourney since its inception in 1991, they've come away with the gold 14 times and have 17 total medals (failing to earn a medal just twice-- in 2003 and 2007). Russia/USSR (3), the United States (1) and Sweden (1) are the only other countries to capture gold.

This year, Canada looks stronger than ever, with a formidable roster lacking only in potential top pick Sean Couturier, who as a late '92 birthdate, is not eligible (Hall did not play for Canada last year for the same reason-- his late '91 status). Couturier did play in the '09 Hlinka, so he's at least gotten a taste of the storied competition.

Guys to watch up front for Canada as top-10 candidates in 2011 include: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer Rebels, WHL) not all that big (6-0, 166) but is tremendous with the puck and can create offense on the fly with his superior hockey sense and vision. He lost out on CHL Rookie of the Year honors to Matt Puempel of the Peterborough Petes, who followed Spooner as only the second 16-year-old in Petes history to score 30 goals in a season. Boone Jenner has a great name, and at almost 6-2, 197 pounds is a big man in the middle for the Oshawa Generals with skill and a knack for offense, not to mention the character and leadership that wins you hockey games. Phillip Danault of the Victoriaville Tigres is another player to watch in this tourney-- he could pull a Skinner and elevate his stock if he can keep putting the puck in the net, as he had quite a productive evaluation camp. Don't forget about tall, lanky center Jonathan Huberdeau, who had an excellent QMJHL playoffs for Saint John last spring. He's a stringbean at 6-2, 166 pounds, but has the skill level to make a run at a top-30 selection in June. I also like the look of Sarnia Sting power winger Brett Ritchie, who is already about 6-3 and tipping the scales at over 200 pounds. He's a decent skater who works hard and be a handful at this tourney with his big frame and willingness to do the dirty work along the walls and in front of the net. One forward who could generate some buzz this year is former St. Michael's (CCHL) winger Lucas Lessio. Originally committed to the University of Michigan, Lessio opted instead for the OHL and the Oshawa Generals (who acquired his draft rights from the Niagara Ice Dogs) and folks will get to see what kind of chemistry he can put together with Jenner in Slovakia. At 6-1, 195 he has good size, wheels and scored 30 goals and 72 points in 41 games last season for the Buzzers, so he's got some offensive pop, bringing Canada a real embarrassment of riches up front (so what else is new, eh?).

On defense, Canada left the small but ultra-skilled Kitchener Rangers star Ryan Murphy at home, which is a curious decision, as he has evoked a lot of comparisons to another player with the same first name and similar game in '09 top-rounder Ryan Ellis. It seems that Murphy is the kind of player tailor-made for this competition, so for him to be left off the Canada roster is an ongoing source of debate. If Canada wins it all as expected, there won't be an issue, but if they don't, then expect a lot of second-guessing to occur.

I like Mississauga defender Stuart Percy and am intrigued with him and how his season will unfold. He was the 15th overall pick by the St. Mike's in the '09 OHL priority selection and has nice size and skills, to go along with some toughness. Check out video of his two fights last season if you can find it on the web-- he can throw 'em. I got a tip from one of my Ontario sources that he could be a guy who shoots up the various draft boards between now and June because he has all the tools to do it. And, he'll be appealing to Boston because he's got some size (although he's not a monster at about 6-1) which would put him in a different category from the midget brigade the B's have assembled in their prospect stable thus far at the position. London Knights defenseman Scott Harrington is another two-way defenseman with some real skill and given Boston's time spent scouting Jared Knight and keeping tabs on Mike Hutchinson, expect that he's already on their radar in the first round.

Team USA will have their hands full in this tourney. The U.S. NTDP doesn't send the cream of their crop, giving players who come from other developmental programs a chance to compete. There aren't a lot of big-name players on this roster outside of Minnesota power forward Seth Ambroz, but there are several sons of former NHLers who could make names for themselves: Connor Murphy (son of former Bruin Gord Murphy), Lukas Sutter (Rich Sutter's boy, born in St. Louis when his dad played for the Blues) and Keegan Lowe (Edmonton Oilers president and 6-time Stanley Cup champion Kevin Lowe's son) are all on the squad. Ambroz is the top draft candidate on the USA roster at present, a big body who has the size, shot and edge to be a true power forward in the NHL someday.

For the Americans to have a chance, they're going to need great goaltending, and they don't ge the luxury of going to the well to use Jack Campbell this year. Connecticut native Steven Michalek and Jay Williams (from the hockey hotbed of Virginia) will have to shoulder the load. The team's medal hopes took a big body blow when skilled forwards Shane McColgan and Alex Gacek had to bow out because of injuries.

Team Sweden has a few interesting players on the roster, namely Mika Zibanejad and Victor Rask, who is big, skates very well and brings a high energy level with him. Rask was impressive in international play last season and could see some playing time with Leksands this year given his nice size (6-1, 195), skill level and maturity. He's definitely one to watch. Unfortunately for Sweden, Adam Larsson and Kitchener forward Gabriel Landeskog aren't playing by virtue of their late '92 birthdates. But fear not, you'll get to see Larsson and probably Landeskog as well in Buffalo this winter, skating for Team Sweden's WJC (Under-20) squad. Zibanejad has a high-end skill level to go with good size (6-1) and the kind of natural hockey sense and offensive creativity that could see him earn a first-round grade in the 2011 NHL draft. Zibanejad, who is a member of the Djurgården hockey club, opened a lot of eyes at the World Under-17 Challenge last year in Timmins, Ont. and he brings the kind of swagger to go with a very high upside that you normally don't see from the Scandinavian ranks.

On defense, the New Jersey-born Joakim Ryan is an interesting draft story for 2011. The son of Swedish tennis pro Catarina Lindqvist and agent Bill Ryan was cut by the U.S. NTDP, so Sweden grabbed the lanky, but skilled rearguard and added him to their national team. He's got nice wheels and good puck-moving ability; he can lead the rush or play a sound positional defense. He'll play this season in the USHL for the expansion Dubuque Fighting Saints and is headed to Cornell University next fall. He aappears to be one who got away for the Americans. Ryan's been a prolific scorer from the blue line over the past two seasons skating with the New Jersey Jr. Devils (midget AAA) and Christian Brothers Academy in his native Garden State.

The Czechs are more known for who isn't playing for them than who is. Lukáš Králík is a big, right-shooting forward who plays for HC Olomouc has shown some nice offensive potential, and is expected to carry much of the team's scoring duties. Also, keep an eye on Matěj Beran of HC Karlovy Vary, who has the tools and upside to break out in this, his draft season.

Czech skill forward Martin Frk is not playing (due to commitment to the Halifax Mooseheads), nor is huge defenseman David Musil (due to injury). Musil is already considered a top-five selection this season because of his size (6-5) and athleticism/upside. He is the son of former NHL rearguard (and current Edmonton scout) Frantisek Musil and Bobby Holik's sister, Andrea Holikova, who was a world-class tennis player. Holikova, you may not recall, actually attended the 1989 NHL Draft in her younger brother's stead to receive Holik's Hartford Whalers jersey when the team took him with the 10th overall pick (he was unable to travel to the U.S. back then because Czechoslovakia was still behind the Iron Curtain). With those bloodlines, the younger Musil is a raw, but very intriguing prospect with a very high ceiling.

I don't have a lot of detailed insight on Team Russia, Slovakia or Finland, but Markus Granlund, Mikael's younger brother, is skating in this tournament for Team Suomi. He doesn't have his older brother's sublime hockey sense and playmaking ability, but is still considered a player to watch this season.

Canada kicks off the play today with a match against Sweden, while USA takes on the Czech Republic, Slovakia versus Switzerland and Russia against Finland in four games split in two venues of Piestany and Breclav.

UPDATE: Canada defeated Sweden by a 6-3 score in the opening contest today-- no surprise. Also not surprisng was the fact that Nugent-Hopkins, Puempel and Lessio scored. Sault Ste. Marie forward Daniel Catenacci scored twice. Joachim Nemark had a goal and a helper in the loss.

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