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Sunday, April 24, 2011

2011 World Under-18: Risers and Fallers

The 2011 World Under-18 Championship is in the books, and Team USA achieved a first- winning three consecutive gold medals for the first time in USA Hockey history.

The 2009 squad did it on home soil in North Dakota, winning gold mainly thanks to 17-year-old Jack Campbell's arrival on the international stage as a force to be reckoned with, the precursor to the following season when he would capture championships at the 2010 Under-20 and again the Under-18 tourney in Belarus.

This time, the USA team, not considered by most as exceptional as the force of nature that blew through the field a year ago, got the goaltending from new star John Gibson, and then a host of balanced, opportunistic two-way play by the rest of the team led by forwards J.T. Miller (leading scorer with 13 points in six games), Reid Boucher (top goal-getter with eight), Robbie Russo (captain and strong two-way performance- eight points, +5 rating) and of course, the heroics of Rocco Grimaldi, who may not have shot out the lights on the scoreboard, but made myriad contributions to the championship in other areas.

Still, Team Sweden came to within just 1:29 of capturing that country's first gold medal in Under-18 tournament history (remarkable that the Tre Kronor have never accomplished this feat given Sweden's status as a two-time Olympic champion and global hockey power).

The defense corps, led by Jonas Brodin and captain Oscar Klefbom, performed in outstanding fashion throughout the tourney. Along with Rasmus Bengtsson and Albin Blomkvist, they formed one of the most effective top-four back line units you will see in hockey. The Swedish D didn't make many mistakes, but unfortunately when they did, it resulted in a spectacularly devastating loss at the hands of the Americans in overtime.

Russia captured bronze, and got a ridiculous offensive explosion from forward Nikita Kucherov, scoring 11 goals and 21 points in just 8 games. It was Alexander Ovechkin-like production, and the enigmatic winger certainly succeeded in raising his stock for the 2011 draft. Just how much, remains to be seen, however. More on Kucherov later.

Other big stories for the Russians were the performances of 2012 eligibles Nail Yakupov (6 goals, 13 points) and Mikhail Grigorenko (4 goals, 18 points) in seven games. Yakupov started slowly, but came on strong in the final couple of games of the the preliminary round and in the last two against Sweden and Canada. Grigorenko was consistently excellent throughout, and we could be looking at a possible 1-2 Russian class of Yakupov and Grigorenko or vice versa just as we saw in 2004 with Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Of course, if Canadian stud defender Ryan Murray has anything to say about it, he'll crash the top-two party in 2012. He was tremendous as the captain and as a stalwart dual-threat on the back end. Although Ryan Murphy won top defenseman honors with a brilliant 13-point performance to set a Team Canada scoring record (that's right- forwards too- Murphy scored more points than any Canadian player in U18 tourney history- wow!), it took Murphy's four-point day in a losing cause for the bronze medal to secure the honors, otherwise, it just might have been Murray.

Once again, the history of the U18 tourney having positive and negative effects on the upcoming draft class proved true, and scouts are no doubt eagerly anticipating the race to 2012, with so many intriguing story lines emerging in Germany.

Now, let's look at some players who helped and hurt themselves in this tournament in our view. We can't dedicate this space to each and every one, so consider this the cliff's notes version.

Risers

Nikita Kucherov, F Russia- We're going to start calling him "Midas" because everything he touched turned to gold. Unbelievable offensive performance by one of the more skilled prospects in the entire class, but who hurt his standing this season by looking disinterested and acting at times petulant in earlier tournaments. Kucherov saved his best for last, putting on a tour-de-force that no doubt will have some NHL teams who do not fear drafting out of Europe readjusting their previous thinking on him. Before the tourney we would have thought there was no way Kucherov would be a first-round pick, but if you're a club picking in the final few spots of this draft, why wouldn't try to swing for the fences? If he does drop into the second, the wait won't be a long one. Showed enough game-breaking speed, quick hands and an absolutely serial killer instinct when it came to finishing off chances.

Ryan Murphy, D Canada- When you've been one of the most talked-about prospects for the top-10 of the NHL draft all season, is it actually possible to raise your stock? Well, the Aurora, Ontario native and Kitchener Rangers star did it in Germany. The production was record-setting in itself, but it was how Murphy scored the points that had tongues a-wagging. Whether firing up the ice like he had rockets on his skates, or slithering through defenses while showing off several gears and superlative edge control/balance or making 360-degree spin moves and blind passes on the stick tape of teammates, Murphy was as dynamic as they come. Bruins fans who were hoping he would fall to the ninth spot now can only hope that if he is Boston's target, that the team can move up to secure him, because we just don't see him dropping very far out of the top-five (if at all even) after the kind of season, OHL playoffs and now Under-18 performance he just had. In fact, B2011DW wouldn't be at all surprised if the New Jersey Devils grabbed him as high as fourth overall. Sure, it will depend on who drops to them, but for a team who knew exactly what it had with Scott Niedermayer for over a decade, this kid's high-end offensive chops aren't far off.

J.T. Miller, C USA- One of the bigger disappointments this season for the U.S. NTDP because his production never seemed to be commensurate with his excellent physical tools, Miller finally broke through with the kind of dominant, consistent scoring performance scouts have been waiting for. The 6-1 center from Ohio scored four goals (and some big ones at that) and was a consistent passer and playmaker. The top line of Miller, Boucher and Grimaldi gave other teams fits throughout the tourney and Miller was often the one who found himself with the time and space to make things happen with. To his credit, he did. It helped to have a linemate in Boucher who was shooting the lights out in critical situations, but Miller looked and played like a solid first-round pick. Someone who liked his tools but was concerned with the lack of production just might have seen enough to grab him top-20. Even if he slips out of that bracket, we can't imagine he'd miss on the opening 30 picks. Too much talent and upside there.

Jonas Brodin, D Sweden- The controller; we were pretty impressed at how smoothly and effectively Brodin took charge of the Swedish defense corps, turning them into the prettiest transition unit in the entire field. The way Sweden broke out of their end was poetry in motion, and it all started with Brodin who isn't a flashy player (just one assist in four games), but seems to see the ice and think many steps ahead of everyone else like a chess grandmaster. He's got the head and feet to orchestrate the attack, even if he lacks the strength and overpowering shot to be a big point getter. If intelligent puck movers are at a premium, then don't expect Brodin to last very long on June 24th- he's slick and when it comes down to it, a pretty commanding presence. He doesn't get enough credit for what he brings to the table in our view.

Mark Scheifele, C Canada- Young colt lived up to his Barrie namesake with a very good offensive performance. Scored one of the more memorable goals of anyone in the tourney against Finland when he read a bungled pass, split the defense, fought off a hook from behind and still managed to put the puck in the net with a nice backhand deke. 6-3 guys don't typically move the way he does with that ability to separate, so there is a lot of raw material to work with. At about 175, he's nowhere near as strong as he needs to be. However, he more than solidified a first-round draft grade in our view. He's a poor man's Ryan Johansen at this stage we feel- won't go as high, but his progress and potentially high ceiling will see him picked ahead of other higher-profile players who are bigger names and have been in draft discussions longer. Classic guy who came into the U18s with some questions to answer and passed with flying colors. Happens every year.

Joel Armia, F Finland- Took charge up front for Finland and proved himself a solid first-round selection with his offensive performance. His big frame needs work to add mass and strength, but he's got a long stride and the ability to generate speed and separation. He's still a little gangly and not overly strong on his skates, but getting there. A vicious killer between the hashmarks- wants the puck and knows what to do with it when he gets it. One of the best pure goal scorers in the draft and impressed us with his vision and playmaking skills in this tourney as well. Creative and a better puck distributor than we gave him credit for. Not very physical, but not a soft player, either. Uses his trunk and long limbs to create space and bull his way to the net. Doesn't speak English very well yet, but uses two very important words often: "puck" and "score". His effort without the puck is what is holding him back from a top-10 selection in our view. He can be lackadaisical and is inconsistent in his backchecking efforts. If its a maturity thing, he could be a homerun pick, but if he's only motivated offensively, then he's a one-dimensional guy and may never be as good a player as he should be.

Victor Rask, C Sweden- Got his sliding value going in the other direction with a very good preliminary round performance, especially against Canada to earn the top seed in group. Big, offensively-savy centerman who isn't a great skater but gets from point A to B well enough. He'll get more balanced and stronger on his skates, and while he'll never be a speed demon, he goes to the net with some power. Soft hands for passing and can unleash a good, heavy shot. Not much of a showing against the USA in the gold medal game, but we're grading the overall tournament performance and he did some nice things reminiscent of what scouts were expecting from him after his performance in this same tournament a year ago. Will some team take him in the 1st round? Possibly- don't bet against it. However, his season overall is still a disappointment given the expectations he had coming in. Good rebound, but he won't get anywhere near the bounce of a Kucherov, for example.

Reid Boucher, F USA- Gutsy little scorer found the back of the net eight times in the tournament, which wasn't at the top of the charts, but his timing was tremendous. Michigan State recruit is undersized and not all that fast a skater, but he more than makes up with it for his natural anticipation and knack for finding open ice and a wicked shot that he can unleash from anywhere. He did this at the Five Nations in February and raised a few eyebrows, but the encore performance on an even bigger stage should have done enough to see him secure second-round status. Scorers like Boucher don't grow on trees, and while he's not the showman Grimaldi is in terms of being noticeable on every shift, he's highly dangerous and just knows how to be clutch. Also led his team in plus/minus with +9, so he's responsible defensively and kills penalties, too. One of Ron Rolston's go-to guys who delivered.

John Gibson, G USA- What more can we say about this guy that we haven't already? Super size, quickness and technique. Makes things look easy when they aren't. But the best thing about him is his calm and poise. He weathered the storm of a Canada comeback yesterday to secure an overtime win, then hung in with his team down a couple of goals to make every stop the rest of the way in yet another overtime victory to clinch gold. We were looking for him to step out from behind Campbell's international shadow, and the Pittsburgh native did precisely that. Awesome performance from the tournament's top netminder, and he's all but sewn up status as the first goaltender off the board in June.

Robbie Russo, D USA- It's no secret that B2011DW was pretty critical of Russo's performance during earlier viewings of him this season, and we weren't hearing great things about him from sources either. But, he pulled it together in time to have an excellent tournament befitting of some of the hype. He's headed to Notre Dame next season and should make a pretty immediate impact if he plays in the NCAA like he did in Germany. Smart, crisp puck mover all tournament long and worked with Connor Murphy to set up the winning goal against Sweden. Wasn't as strong as the tourney went on as he was in the beginning, but what can we say? He at least looked like the PMD some circles were hyping him as.

Connor Murphy, D USA- This was a make-or-break tourney for Murphy to land in the top-60 and he looks to have made it. Big, talented two-way defender who won't put up a ton of points, but is an effective point man with a big shot. Miami University recruit is staying in his home state to play for the Redhawks, and the only real questions he needs to answer are ones about his durability. Kid can play and looks to have more offensive potential than his dad, Gord, who was a solid NHL stay-at-homer in his day.

Dmitrij Jaskin, F CZE- Power winger helped himself with four goals in five games, showing off his wicked release and powerful shot. Heavy feet, yes, but competes hard and is a physical player with a North American flavor to his game already. Below average skaters always have it in tough to make it in the NHL, which is a skating man's league, but when they are big, strong, intelligent and passionate about the game the way Jaskin is, they usually find a way to make it. If he could get a little faster he has top-six potential for sure.


Fallers

Tyler Biggs, F USA- Tough tournament for a kid who is unfairly becoming a whipping boy, but we also have to call it the way we see it. He hurt his team with way too many penalties. Now in fairness, some of the calls that went against him were the classic- he's bigger (no pun intended) than the other guy and the hits looked worse than they were- type infractions that tend to get whistled more during international play. However, he also took his share of lazy, undisciplined calls and that's what drives us crazy. The roughing call he took against Canada just after Boucher made it 4-1 was particularly galling because it was completely unnecessary and also sparked that team's comeback. Biggs is a powerful skater with a heavy shot, but we didn't see him creating much on his own offensively other than scoring the winning goal against Canada in OT that several onlookers felt goaltender Malcolm Subban should have stopped. Biggs was unfairly rated too high by Central scouting at mid-term and he's the easy target right now because he didn't produce consistently while others on his squad did. Right or wrong, fair or unfair- it is what it is.

Joachim Nermark, F SWE- Ugh. Just a disappointing showing for a guy who was tremendous at the Ivan Hlinka but has been all downhill since. One goal in five games...invisible against the USA. One scout we talked to said, 'We have no use for him." Ouch. He may yet be a top-60 pick because of what he did in Slovakia, but we wouldn't touch him in that range based on what we saw here. Risky pick and we're not even sure of the payoff. Did not help himself at all.

Samu Perhonen, G FIN- Brutal is a polite way to put this promising netminder's performance. He was shaky from jump street against Canada and never recovered, stopping a putrid 87.5% of his shots and going 2-2 in the process. We thought this cat would challenge Gibson for top netminder honors at the 2011 draft, and now we don't even think Perhonen will be the first European picked (Magnus Hellberg). He's still a top-two or three-round pick, but after seeing him and Gibson in the same competition, they seem light years apart. Perhonen's lack of poise was what was particularly troublesome- just couldn't seem to make the big save when his team needed it. However, Perhonen still has the size and athletic ability/upside to be a high-end stopper in the NHL one day. If he slides, that could be great news for the team that grabs him.

Reece Scarlett, D CAN- Has showed some impressive traits and potential in flashes, but this was a tough tourney for the WHL defender. He's not where he needs to be in terms of his physical development and strength. He also made some bad pinches and decisions that proved costly. Seemed hesitant at times and was caught in no man's land. Real smooth stride and mobility, but in this game, that split second delayed reaction will burn you even if you skate well. He wasn't quite ready for primetime and opponents exploited him.

Daniel Catenacci, F CAN- Just two assists for this speedy, skilled and even dynamic forward were a major disappointment. Capable of so much more, yet went invisible for long stretches. On top of that, took a lot of bad penalties and never could seem to get out of his own way. All of this from a guy some on the internet are talking about as a potential first-rounder in June? We don't think so. Soo Greyhounds teammate Nick Cousins skated circles around him (4-4-8) and was one of the guys who emerged as a big-time clutch performer.

Miikka Salomaki, F FIN- We weren't very impressed with this guy's NHL upside, but kept hearing that teams were keeping an eye out for him. Well, after watching him at the WJC over the winter and on video at the U18s, we can't see him being a top-three round pick. He might get there, but that could be a mistake. Doesn't do anything particularly well, and just seems like a solid Euro leaguer and nothing more.

B2011DW will be back with a look at some sleepers who may have emerged from the shadows a bit, and even if some were more known, appear to have the inside track on hearing their names called in Minnesota.

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