Ah, it’s a mid-summer’s night dream. Quiet times around a pool, drinking cold beverages and, of course, watching some junior hockey players playing in Lake Placid in participation for a tournament almost half a year a way.
Every year, USA Hockey hosts a development camp, aimed at grooming together a team for the World Juniors in late December. Lucky for other nations, the Americans like to invite their friends from Sweden and Finland to come participate in a four team event, with the Americans suiting up two different squads. For the two European teams, they like to keep the same group of players together for as much as they possibly can before the World Juniors, something that has really worked out for them in the past few years. For the Americans, this is their best chance to find out what their top young talent can do when placed together, as most of them will be spread out around the NCAA and CHL.
For this list, I’ve taken a look at five players that are all fighting to prove something. Whether it be to defeat the odds and make their respective teams, earn more playing time or battle to help your draft status, there is a lot on the line for these five players.
5. Jake Walman, D (USA White): Walman may be the most underrated player on the list, but that’s also because almost nobody has heard of him. But did you know that the Toronto, Ontario native was actually invited to both the Canadian and American World Junior camps this summer, but decided to go with the Americans instead? A dual-citizen, Walman left the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Toronto Jr. Canadiens last year to pursue a deal with Providence College of the NCAA this past season, helping his school win the Frozen Four championships after a four point performance in the tournament. A solid puck-moving blue liner with quick feet, Walman had a very successful 2013-2014 season, becoming the CJHL Rookie of the Year, winning the OHA B.J. Monro Memorial Trophy as the Top Professional Prospect in the CJHL and got the same respective awards for his own league, the OJHL. Walman would go on to get drafted by the Peterbourgh Petes of the OHL last April, but his sights were still set on heading to the NCAA. The St. Louis Blues liked what they saw out of the quick-moving defenseman, drafting him in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft last year. Walman is surely a project player that needs to work on a few things first, and while he may be a long-shot for the World Junior team later this year, he chose the American camp for a reason: he has a chance.
4. Joel Eriksson Ek, F (Sweden): Almost unknown in the first half of the year this past season, Joel Eriksson Ek really turned his campaign around in the later portion of the campaign, eventually leading the Minnesota Wild to select him 20th overall at the 2015 NHL Draft. It was almost fitting for Minnesota to do so, as Eriksson Ek projects somewhat like Nino Niederreiter, who happens to already play for the Wild. Perhaps Eriksson Ek’s biggest moment came at the 2015 Under-18 tournament in Switzerland in April, scoring five goals and adding an assist to finish tied for first in scoring for his team. Dangerous with and without the puck, Eriksson Ek made it known that he wanted a full time spot in the Swedish Hockey League, and even earned a 34 game stint with Farjestad BK in both league and Champions Hockey League action. He wasn’t a lethal scoring threat at the men’s division, putting up just four goals and six points in a very limited role, but he did score 21 goals and 32 points in the Swedish junior league instead. He’ll most likely make the jump to a useful role with Farjestad’s SHL team this year, and in doing so, watch for his output to really start to improve. His big league skill should help him in Lake Placid, as he’ll face off for a chance to make a big impact at the World Juniors in December, a tournament he can really make an impact in.
3. Jesse Puljujärvi, F (Finland): It’s hard to believe it, but Puljujärvi will be chasing his second World Junior tournament this December at the age of 17. That’s right, while Canada and USA will almost never consider taking players at that age, Finland brought along Puljujärvi for the 2015 tournament and looked solid despite not recording a single point. There is a ton of hype for the youngster, and rightfully so: he’s been well over a point-per-game player in every single Junior league he’s competed in. While playing with the Kärpät U20 squad at the Jr. A SM-liiga last season, Puljujärvi finished with 23 points in 18 contests to go along with 14 points in 8 Jr. B games earlier in the year. This season, Puljujärvi put up a respectable 11 points in 21 games with Karpat in the top Finnish division, adding an extra 13 points in 15 games in the Mestis minor league. With Puljujärvi expected to be a top three NHL Draft pick later this year, Finland will want to showcase one of their next great young stars on home ice, so look for Puljujärvi to get some solid ice time in Lake Placid to prove his worth.
2. Brandon Fortunato, D (USA Blue): The Americans have a very good group of defensemen heading to camp this year, and while most of them are drafted (including previously mentioned Jake Walman), there are a few wildcards. One of those guys is Brandon Fortunato, the only undrafted defenseman on USA Blue heading into the tournament at Lake Placid. A puck-moving defenseman who can quarterback a power-play, Fortunato was the top scoring defenseman for the US National Development Team Program in 2013-2014, his final season within the system. During his time with the USNDTP, which spanned a year each with the U17 and U18 team’s respectively, Fortunato went on to win two medals at international events, including a bronze at the U17’s in 2012-2013 and a gold at the U18’s last year. Like Walman, Fortunato is going to have to work extra hard to get a chance with Americans at the World Juniors during the holiday season, but if Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin don’t end up showing up do to playing in the NHL, his chances could end up rising just a bit. That’s definetly a possibility, but he can’t count on that, so if he outplays his small stature and contributes a solid two-way game, it wouldn’t be crazy to think that Fortunato has a chance to make the squad out of Lake Placid.
1. Veini Vehviläinen, G (Finland): Vehviläinen was still relatively unknown to many people during his 2015 NHL Draft campaign, but that all changed this past Spring. Vehviläinen was named to the Finnish U18 World Junior team, and with USA, Russia, Czech Republic and Canada all bringing fairly strong rosters, it was going to be tough for the Finns to find themselves in the finals. As the cards were dealt, Finland indeed found themselves playing for a gold medal, large in part due to the play of Vehviläinen. One of the better goaltenders in the entire tournament, Vehviläinen made sure to save the best performance for last. Easily the best performer in the game, Vehviläinen made 60 saves in the final game against the Americans (including this magnificent grab near the end of the contest), a game which was as one-sided in the puck control department as it can get. Unfortunately, Finland would end up dropping a 2-1 decision in overtime, but regardless, it was easily one of the best goaltending performances by any draft prospect in 2015. Despite that, Vehviläinen went undrafted, so there’s even more for him to prove heading in to the World Juniors. He’ll surely fight for one of the top two goaltending spots on the team, so if he plays in Lake Placid and does a rather solid job, look for him to be one of the goalies to watch when the tournament heads to Finland in December.
Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.