The World Under-18 Championship preliminary round is in the books. We'll see quarterfinal games tomorrow: Russia and Finland go at it, and Canada and Germany, with USA and Sweden earning byes to the semifinal games as the Group A and B winners.
Czech Republic is in relegation, which is a shame because it speaks to the fall off in talent for that country and that of Slovakia. Of course, hurting both is the fact that some of the best players that could have helped their clubs were still competing in the CHL playoffs in North America and weren't available.
With all due respect to host club Germany, they got blown out by the USA yesterday and figure to suffer a similar fate against Canada. This means a likely USA-Canada tilt will be a Clash of the Titans. Back in the WJC (U20) the USA blew it against Canada in the semifinal round after cruising in preliminaries. This squad will need a top game from John Gibson and does have a little more size and balance than the USA U20 club did. I really did think it was a tactical mistake on USA Hockey's part not to bring a little more size on the wings to Buffalo with them.
As for Russia-Sweden, that should be a hard-fought contest as well, but Sweden looks to be set up for another run to the gold medal game. They've lost each of the championship contests in the past two years to USA.
Here are some notes and observations on 2011 eligible players for your digestion.
Mika Zibanejad, F- Continues to elevate his stock at this tournament as he has done for most of the season. Had an explosive game versus Norway and leads Team Sweden in scoring with four goals and seven points in four contests. Zibanejad has been a B2011DW favorite because he can skate and has good hands, but brings size and a high energy level with him to the ice. This is a kid who loves to play and never stops moving his feet. He goes hard to the net, does the honest work in the corners and loves to use the body. He's nowhere near as as strong as he will be, so it's encouraging to see how effective he is on the physical side of things already. The only real concerns with the Persian Prince (his father is Iranian) is whether his abilities will translate into a high-end scorer at the NHL level. Most think he has solid top-six forward potential, but that's what will see him earn a draft grade around or even inside the top-10. B2011DW will have much more on Zibanejad when the tournament wraps and we get to see how he competes in the medal round.
Rasmus Bengtsson, D- Started the year slowly, but really came on in the second half after he got his bearings in the Allsvenskan. He's a strong skater with good four-way mobility and the kind of agility that allows him to smoothly transition/open up the hips for fluid chances of direction. He also has a pretty big point shot- just needs to refine a few things on his release and accuracy. He's been making smart decisions with the puck and hitting on his passes. He's a strong puck mover who plays an intelligent game and has no real glaring weaknesses in any aspect of what he brings to the mix. We're hearing that a lot of teams are hoping to steal Bengtsson later on in the draft, but after his solid four-assist performance and effective defensive play, that's probably not happening.
Jonas Brodin, D- Nothing that Brodin does on the surface jumps out at you, although he is a mobile skater who plays a smooth game in transition. However, when you watch this kid closely, you realize how mature he is in terms of his development and understanding of situations on the ice. His reads are outstanding, and he makes split-second decisions that may not garner a lot of attention, but keep the play moving. His stats are never anything to write home about, but hockey isn't just about the stats. The ones who can think the game at a higher level and don't make mental mistakes are always prized because in the right system with strong talent around the individual, the production will come. Brodin will likely be a coveted option for the team that snatches him. First round or bust. If he somehow slips to the second, the team that lands him will have excellent value.
Victor Rask, F- He is looking like the guy who excited scouts a year ago at the U18s again. He struggled in the Allsvenskan this season and even got demoted to his club's junior squad for a spell, but the big and skilled centerman is producing again. He had a strong game against Canada, which will certainly earn him some high marks from scouts who needed him to not only show off his impressive offensive talents, but a heartbeat in the process. He did that and more. We're not wild about his skating; his acceleration is not what it should be, but if he can pick up a step, the rest of his game translates into a player who could play a scoring role for his NHL club some day. It's good to see him get his mojo back a bit, but the real expectations will be met or exceeded in the coming days when the games mean a great deal more.
Oscar Klefbom, D- Sweden's top puck rusher is Brodin's teammate in Farjestad and is a much flashier prospect because he zooms up the ice like he's been shot from a cannon, fires the puck hard and plays a more aggressive, dynamic style. He may not be Brodin's equal defensively or even in how he processes and thinks the game, but we love the way he activates at the right time and will jump into the play. When he's on his game, he will attack defenses with speed and can gain the zone on his own. He instinctively sees the shooting lanes opening up and takes advantage- he's not afraid to get the puck on net and likes to hammer it at the goalie as much as he can. Klefbom does have the vision and hands to hit his teammates with passes. If teams are looking for a defender who loves to rush the puck over your more classic puck mover, than Klefbom is their guy.
Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall, F- Rotevall has arguably been Sweden's most opportunistic scorer, with three goals in four games, but hitting on an impressive 27.7 shooting percentage. He's been deceptive, a lot like Reid Boucher in that he doesn't jump out at you every time he's on the ice, but will then cruise into the prime scoring areas and bury one. He doesn't have the flash and dash of Zibanejad, but we think this forward is underrated and could in time develop as a nice NHL option as a player who isn't likely to be a high pick but has the talent and upside to make an impact eventually.
Dmitri Jaskin, F- Aside from the skating, this kid has everything you want in a power forward. He found the back of the net three times in the tourney and can really rip it, with a rapid release, heavy shot and good accuracy. He bulls his way to the dirty areas of the ice and has a nose for the net. We really respect his intensity and effort levels, even though he doesn't have the smooth skating stride and agility/speed that are ideal in a top-15 candidate. However, he protects the puck well and makes up for his lack of foot speed with excellent anticipation and a passion for the game. First rounder? Yes. All that remains is to discover which team is confident enough that they can fix some of the flaws in his skating to help him become the kind of player he has some real potential to be in the NHL one day.
David Musil, D- After watching him a bit in this tourney, we can see why Musil's stock has fallen off from where it was coming into 2010-11. He does a lot of nice things, but isn't the kind of dominant force on the back line that justifies taking him in the top-10 or even top-15. The blood lines are excellent, but at the end of the day, he's skating is good, not great. His shot is OK and while he can be a physical player willing to take the body, he tends to be inconsistent in his approach. In our view, he's spent a little too much time trying to play the puck instead of using his natural size and strength to blow guys off it. Musil is another guy who a team will take early enough (20-30?) because they are convinced that his flaws are minor and can be tweaked with relative ease. However, it's disappointing that a player with as much potential as he showed last season just kind of went through the motions and didn't take that expected next step.
Matej Matovsky, G- Given how mediocre Matovsky was in the couple of games we watched, it's kind of hard to figure out why he got all four starts while Jaroslav Pavelka got none. Matovsky is a modern prototype with the size and athletic ability to get the job done, but he was pretty inconsistent, going 2-2 with just an .890 save percentage and in his case, the stats really do tell the story. After the promise he showed with Brampton this season, more was expected.
Joel Armia, F- You can see why he's so highly regarded given his size and skill level. His production has been terrific in the tourney as well, with two goals and nine points in four games. We haven't been huge fans of Armia here on this blog, simply because we'd like to see more of an effort from him when he doesn't have the puck.That said, when he's got it going in the offensive zone, his hands, vision and creativity are first-rate and you can see how much he wants the puck on his stick. When he's in close, he's very difficult to contain and will only become more of a threat as he fills out his lanky frame and gets stronger.
Miikka Salomaki, F- We're not really seeing much potential with this player, to be honest. We felt the same way in Buffalo, too. He skates well enough, and looks like a solid defensive player at this level, but his overall skill level just doesn't warrant much in the way of a high draft pick or any excitement in our view. We just have a hard time figuring out what his role and payoff would be in the NHL. We have no doubt he can be an effective SM-Liiga player, but Salomaki just doesn't do it for us as a viable NHL prospect.
Samu Perhonen, G- Disappointing is putting it mildly. Really struggled against Canada- looking shaky all game long and then going to pieces in the final 10 minutes. Came back to post a 1-1 record after Richard Ullberg got lit up by Sweden, but it wasn't a very good tournament for the top netminder on Central's European list. This guy has the size and tools to be a very good stopper, but where John Gibson has flourished thus far, Perhonen took a couple of steps back. It isn't like he plays on a poor team, either. The potential's there, but Perhonen has a lot of developing to do, and we wouldn't be surprised to see Swedish overager Magnus Hellberg go off the board first in June.