By Scott Billeck – @scottbilleck
Twas the night before the World Juniors, when all through the house
Not a soul was sleeping, not even that mouse.
The Team Canada jerseys were worn by the TV with care,
In hopes that Jonathan Drouin and Co. soon would be there.
Yes, it is that time of the year again. The marquee event on the world of junior hockey calendar is almost here and hopes, as usual, are high for the Canadian national team led by head coach Brent Sutter and his carefully selected team of high-caliber NHL prospects.
Canada is a favourite this year, as virtually every year before it, though a betting individual would probably place their money on the squad from the host country, Sweden.
Fact is, Team Canada has a solid, talented core of players. The consensus best player in junior hockey today, Jonathan Drouin has shaken off a mild concussion sustained at the beginning of the month and is ready to lead his team onto the ice on Thursday against the Germans.
Canada will be well represented by future NHL-hopefuls. Returning this year are the likes of Drouin, Griffin Reinhart, Charles Hudon and Jake Paterson, who will start the tournament as Canada’s top netminder.
Head Coach Brent Sutter, who coached Team Canada to two Gold Medal wins in 2005 and 2006, has a reputation of sticking with the goalie he starts the annual event with; so expect to see a lot of Paterson unless something catastrophic happens.
Eyes will be on 16-year old forward Connor McDavid who will make his first appearance for the Red and White in Malmo. McDavid, who received exceptional status as a 15-year old, allowing him to play in the Ontario Hockey League one year earlier than most, will have the eyes of a country focused on him.
McDavid is a member of the OHL’s Erie Otters, has 50 points in 31 games this season. In three pre-tournament games for Canada, McDavid has racked up a goal and an assist, playing some big minutes for the Canadians.
The tournament will also be a stage for the projected one-two in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Forward Sam Reinhart and defenceman Aaron Ekblad will both be counted on for Team Canada going into the tournament. A strong performance from Ekblad will be essential as the Canadians will be without their most experienced stalwart, defenceman Griffin Reinhart, who will miss the first three games due to suspension.
Winnipeg Jets fans will get a good look at two of their bright young stars. Nic Petan, selected in the third round in 2013 by the Jets is projected to play on Team Canada’s top line while first-rounder Josh Morrissey will be counted on to play a 200-foot game for the Canadians.
Scott Laughton will captain the hopes of a nation, while Jonathan Drouin and Matthew Dumba will assist Laughton as alternates throughout the tournament.
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Canada’s biggest competition will not come south of the border this year. While the USA is always a threat, the team from Sweden — one that beat Canada 3-0 in pre-tournament play — will present the toughest obstacle on Canada’s quest for their 16th gold medal.
Sweden’s undeniable talent will be led by Sebastian Collberg and Alexander Wennberg and the country will be looking for their second gold medal in the past three years. Collberg is an exceptional talent, possessing speed, vision and an elite, quick shot. Wennberg, taken 14th overall last season by the Columbus Blue Jackets, is an top-notch two-way centreman. He also possesses superb skills, primary in his vision and work ethic on and off the ice.
You can never count out the Americans. The rivalry between Canada and their southern neighbours is unmatched in this tournament, with the USA having the upper-edge, winning gold in last year’s rendition.
6-foot-5 netminder, Jon Gilles, will have his work cut out for him. After playing second-fiddle to John Gibson last year, Gilles will need to be at the top of his game if the US team wants to repeat. Gilles, despite his size, is quick and agile, playing a butterfly style. Gilles is 10-1-3 this year playing at Providence College in the NCAA, posting a 1.88 GAA with a .941 save percentage with three shutouts.
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Other notables to watch in the tournament are Finland’s Teuvo Teravainen and Rasmus Ristolainen as well as Nikita Zadarov. Teravainen narrowly missed out on cracking the Chicago Blackhawks roster this year. The 2012 first-round pick scored 11 points in last year’s tournament and this is no doubt that his experience will only benefit him in the 2014 tournament.
Ristolainen is one of a few Buffalo Sabres’ top prospects in the tournament. Playing this season with the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League, Ristolainen possesses speed and physicality. He is a smart on the defensive side of the puck, displaying composure and confidence.
Zadarov, a future teammate of Ristolainen’s in the Sabres’ lineup, will be a handful for the top lines of each country in the tournament. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Zadarov is a force to be reckoned with in the rearguard of the Russian national team.
Canada opens its 2014 account against Germany on Boxing Day at 6am CST.