The February international break is especially interesting this year. While the Euro Hockey Tour and European Ice Hockey Challenge continue on as usual, the Youth Olympics, as well as the next round of the Olympic Qualifiers, begin this week after a couple years off. For the Youth Olympic Games, heading into just its second year of competition after the 2012 tournament four years ago, is off to Kristins Hall in Lillehammer, Norway this year. Five teams are taking place in the event, with Norway getting joined by Canada, USA, Russia and Finland in a chance for hockey glory.
The tournament will feature some of the best hockey prospects born in the year 2000, which, for Canada, is an exciting birth year. Canada will have no shortage of top end talent trying to make major junior next year, and it’s no secret the team will be much stronger than the bronze medal squad from 2012. Take a look at five players worth watching at the event this week, which is set to take place from February 12th-21st.
5. Dennis Busby, D: After a few years with the Don Mills Flyers, Busby made the interesting decision to sign with the Barrie Colts AAA team for his final year of minor midget hockey. In a rare instance, Busby spent all of last season with the Flyers Minor Midget team, a year earlier than the rest of the age group. Probably the best defenseman in the entire ETA Minor Midget league, Busby is a talented, two-way blue-liner who focuses a lot on making sure his own end is taken care of before making a play at the other end. Busby is a very mobile defender who makes a great first pass and can follow it up by covering up any holes in his own zone if he does in fact make a mistake. Busby is a very good skater that doesn’t need to worry about getting caught with the puck if he does rush it, but he doesn’t play very physical due to his smaller frame. Of course, at just 16, Busby still has a few years to grow his frame and likely will if he intends on ever making it to pro, but Busby has top end skill to be one of the best prospects in the OHL Draft this year. He could likely see top four ice time at the Youth Olympics for Canada, and wouldn’t be a bad option alongside Ryan Merkley on the top pairing. No matter what, though, make sure to keep an eye on him before he makes the jump to the Ontario Hockey League in 2016-2017.
4. Olivier Rodrigue, G: Rodrigue could likely be a top five pick in this year’s QMJHL Draft, and considering goalies typically aren’t picked early anywhere, that’s saying something. The Canton Tremblay, QC. native has starred for the Jonquière Élites in the Quebec AAA league this year, putting up some of the best numbers out of any goalie in midget. A quick moving puck stopper, Rodrique will split time with Alexis Gravel in the Canadian net, creating likely the best goaltending duo in the country. Rodrique, however, should get the slight edge, having dominated the Quebec midget division all season long. With his team currently first in the league, Rodrique has shown skill well above his peers and at a level no other goalie has been able to match, and with a tremendous glove hand and incredible quickness like he has, it’s not a surprise he’s as regarded as he is.
3. Jared McIsaac, D: Strong defense is a key trait in minor midget this year, and Jared McIsaac is definitely no exception. An assistant captain with Nova Scotia AAA club Cole Harbour, McIsaac is currently in his second year of playing with the major midget team. After 33 games, McIsaac put up an impressive 36 points, good for 17th in overall league scoring despite being two years younger than most of the players in front of him. Thanks to playing in the league a year early, McIsaac is currently sitting fourth in defensive scoring in the entire history of the Nova Scotian AAA Major Midget league. McIsaac will likely finish as the greatest defenseman ever to play in the league, and with a chance at number one overall in the QMJHL Draft this year, his career has only just begun. The competitive defenseman has the ability to go end-to-end with the puck without giving the opposition a chance to really challenge him and can make goalies look silly with his moves around the ice. Every year, there’s always a few players that look too good for minor midget and it’s obvious that McIsaac is one of those players. It will be interesting to see if he skates with Ryan Merkley or if they decide to split them up due to playing very similar styles. Regardless, watch for McIsaac to compete for the top scoring defenseman in the entire tournament.
2. Benoît-Olivier Groulx, F: There’s a good chance Groulx could be the best CHL Draft forward in all of Canada right now, and that’s saying something. A 16-year-old with a solid 6’1 frame, Groulx is a natural goal scorer with a very lethal shot. Groulx uses his strength to his advantage, and he can skate faster and more fluently than a good portion of the draft crop. A French/Canadian dual citizen, Groulx is the son of two time Canadian World Junior coach and former Granby Bisons captain Benoit Groulx, a dominant offensive threat during his time in minor midget in his own right. The younger Groulx currently plays for the mid-pack midget club Gatineau Intrepide, where he sits first in team scoring with 44 points despite playing against older competition. Groulx should go in the top two of the QMJHL Draft this spring and could be a player who makes an effective jump up to major junior next fall. Some scouts think Groulx is a player a team would themselves around, so if that’s the case, he’s going to be one heck of a player, not only for Canada at this tournament, but in the NHL some day.
1. Ryan Merkley, D: For years, Ontario based hockey fans have been treated to the dominant play of Ryan Merkley, a young defenseman with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens Minor Midget AAA club in the GTHL. After playing a game against 16-year-olds at just 13 years old, Merkley made the jump to minor midget a whole season early last year to much success. Merkley would spend the whole season with the top-ranked 1999-born Jr. Canadiens, who finished the season on top with a 60-17-5 record through regular season games and tournaments. At the end of the season, Merkley put up an impressive five points in as many games at the elite OHL Cup event, helping the Jr. Canadiens to a semi-final appearance while playing some key minutes. This year, Merkley has done everything but disappoint. A leading player every time the Jr. Canadiens take to the ice, Merkley started off the year with 16 points at the Toronto Titans tournament, good to beat out teammate Alexander Dipaolo by three points for the top scoring honours in the tournament despite being a defenseman. By January, most teams had Merkley as a top three pick in this year’s OHL Draft, a testament to how well the offensive defenseman has proven himself this year. Merkley should be one of the best, if not the best, defenseman at the Youth Olympics and he should also be a top selection when the NHL Draft takes place in 2018.
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