As the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships is set to begin, NHL fans will be watching to see their favorite teams prospects represent their country and getting a glimpse of what’s to come in the future. However, for fans of teams in the lower end of the standings, they will be watching for a potential franchise player. It’s a chance for those fans to be hopeful about what’s to come and to not worry about the doom and gloom of the current NHL season.
While most of you reading this will more than likely know these names, it’s always good to get a refresher on a few potential NHL stars. Then, for those of you that don’t know these players, get to know them soon because two or three could become household names in no time.
5. Pavel Zacha, Czech Republic: The #5 spot was originally going to go to defenseman Oliver Kylington of Sweden, but due to an injury, Kylington will no longer be participating in the tournament. So now, Pavel Zacha is added to the list and deservedly so. Listed as a centre, Zacha has played most of his hockey in his home country of the Czech Republic, to this point of his career. He was able to play 38 games for the Bili Tygri Liberec men’s team, after being with their junior teams for many years. In those 38 games, Zacha registered only 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists) but it’s important to remember that Zacha was just 16 years old, playing with grown men. As for this year, Zacha decided to come to North America and is currently playing for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting where he has 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists) in 21 games.
Standing at 6’3, 205lbs Zacha already has pro-level size and he certainly uses it. His game is based around his big body presence as he’s a physical player and uses that size advantage to keep opponents from taking the puck away from him. He is already a solid two-way player and by going to the CHL, he will be able to refine his overall game even further. Offensively, he has a good shot and shows good creativity with the puck. Zacha’s strength is, well, using his strength to get to the front of the net and use his frame to create chances. The major knock on Zacha that will determine how high he goes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is how his skating improves. He’s a gifted player at both ends of the ice and should be a top 10 pick when the draft rolls around, but his skating will be the difference between being a top 5 pick or not. Zacha will get to play among the likes of David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana at the tournament as the Czechs will look to grab a medal with their skilled group.
4. Zach Werenski, United States of America: The first of three Americans to be featured in this list, defenseman Zach Werenski has had to jump many hurdles to reach where he is now. The Michigan native spent last year with the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP.) As an alternate captain with the U-17 U.S. National Team, Werenski posted 31 points (7 goals, 24 assists) in 47 games. This season, as a 17-year old, Werenski is playing for the University of Michigan Wolverines. Werenski, like four other American players his age, chose to skip his second year with the USNTDP and go straight to college. In 15 games with Michigan, Werenski has totaled 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists.)
Werenski, like Zacha, has pro-level size at 6’2, 214lbs but his game is not as predicated on size like Zacha’s. Werenski is a very good all-around player that does just about everything well. He shows poise with the puck and can control the flow of a game when he has the puck on his stick. He has a great first pass on the breakout and can jump into the rush with his smooth skating ability. However, Werenski is defensively responsible so he picks his spots when and where to jump into the rush as to not get caught out of position. He does a good job on the defensive end closing out along the wall and his gap control is improving. He’s able to play on both special teams, and play well on both. He works the point on the power play very effectively. Werenski needs to improve mainly on using his size more and being more aggressive in the defensive zone.
3. Noah Hanifin, United States of America: The more talked about of the two U.S. born defenders, Noah Hanifin is currently the consensus #3 ranked player by four different outlets. Hanifin captained the U.S. National U-17 Team last year, where he had 32 points (8 goals, 24 assists) and played 14 games with the U-18 team, posting 13 points (2 goals, 11 assists.) In both tournaments, Hanifin totaled 8 points (2 goals, 6 assists) in 13 games. Hanifin, just as Werenski did, chose to become a freshman in college at 17 years old and skip his second year with the USNTDP. Hanifin chose to play with the Boston College Eagles, who are ranked 15th in the Top 20 rankings, and has 7 points (2 goals, five assists) in 17 games.
Hanifin has good size at 6’2, 205lbs and should continue to grow as he’s just 17. Many people who watch Hanifin rave about how great of a skater he is, and for good reason. At his size, he’s a very good skater with explosive strides and makes it looks easy as he blows by opponents. His speed and acceleration help give him time and space to create plays and with his great intelligence and vision, he usually makes the right plays. Just like Werenski, Hanifin shows great poise with the puck and makes great plays under pressure. His defensive game may be just as good as his offensive game, he plays smart on defense and uses his size as he plays with more of an edge than Werenski does.
2. Jack Eichel, United States of America: The top rated American skater in the 2015 draft class, centre Jack Eichel may not be as good as the consensus #1 player, but he certainly has the potential to become a franchise-altering player for the team that has the opportunity to draft him. Eichel began with the USNTDP a year earlier than both Werenski and Hanifin, starting in 2012-13. That year, Eichel had 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists) in 36 games with the U-17 team as well as 18 points (10 goals, 8 assists) in 22 games with the U-18 team. The following year, Eichel had 87 points (38 goals, 49 assists) in 53 games with the U-18 team. In both years with the USNTDP Juniors team, Eichel posted 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists) in 59 games. Eichel played in the WJHC last year and registered 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists) in 5 games and was just named as the captain for this years team. Eichel is now with the Boston University Terriers, the current #1 ranked team in the Top 20 rankings.
Listed at 6’2, 195lbs Eichel is another sizable player who should fill out as he grows older. He uses his size as a big part of his game but also has great skill and can outmaneuver an opposing defender with his hands or drive by with his speed. Due to his size and strength, he’s tough to knock off the puck and is hard to beat on face-offs. His combination of vision, speed and smarts allow him to be able to go end-to-end with ease. Teams may end up shifting him to the wing because of his explosive speed and great work on the walls. He’s an unselfish player, but his shot is extremely lethal as well. He will be able to crack a top-six role in the NHL next year, no matter which position he plays. As he is a very good defensive player, I could see him staying at centre because he’s so gifted at both ends of the ice.
1. Connor McDavid, Canada: No surprise here. This might be the most talked about and hyped up junior player since John Tavares, maybe even Sidney Crosby. While I’m not saying McDavid will be better or worse as an NHL player than either Tavares or Crosby, he is certainly talked about just as much. In 2011-12, McDavid played for the Toronto Marlboros Minor Midget AAA team, where he amassed a whopping 209 points (79 goals, 130 assists) in 88 games. This helped him earn the exceptional player status that had only been given to the aforementioned Tavares and current Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad at that point. He was then taken first overall in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection by the Erie Otters. Since then, McDavid has played in 137 games for the Otters and has produced 216 points (69 goals, 147 assists) including 51 points (16 goals, 35 asissts) in 18 games this season, before he broke his hand. In 7 games with Team Canada last season at the WJHC, McDavid had 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists.) He will look for a much more impactful performance this time around.
At 6’1, 190lbs McDavid could be a little heavier but he has time to fill out his frame. Connor McDavid is just a generational talent, plain and simple. Whichever team drafts him, could be looking at the face of the franchise for a very long time and potentially the face of the NHL. He thinks the game so well and is always playing a couple of steps ahead of everyone else on the ice, he sees scoring chances before they’ve even happened. His skill-set is unmatched by anyone his age right now. His combination of speed, hands, and shooting ability makes him a threat every time he touches the puck. His gaudy assist numbers tell you that he makes his teammates better and can create plays at an elite level. McDavid has the ability to change the game whenever he’s on the ice. He will relied on to lead Canada back to World Junior glory and fans of whichever team drafts him will be hoping he turns into the player he has the potential to be. A quick search on YouTube and you can see why teams are trying to be bad in order to be in position to draft this potential superstar.
Honorable mentions go to Lawson Crouse (Canada), Mikko Rantanen (Finland) and Ivan Provorov (Russia).
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