The 32nd World Junior Championships are being held in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic, making it the fifth time that the tournament is being held in this country.
The Canadian junior team will try for its fourth straight gold medal and 10th medal in a row. Russia will try to win its 13th gold medal to equal the Canadian mark.
A total of 220 players from ten countries will compete. At the time this article is written, Canada, USA, Finland, Sweden and Denmark have already published their final roster while Czech Republic (one goaltender), Slovakia (one goaltender, one forward), Russia (one defenseman, one forward), Switzerland (one goaltender) and Kazakhstan (three defensemen) have still to cut their preliminary roster to get to 22 players.
A lot of talent
A record of nine eligible players won’t be part of the WJC because they are already playing in the NHL and their team didn’t release them for the tournament. Thus, Team Canada will miss six players (Milan Lucic/BOS, Jordan Staal/PIT, James Sheppard/MIN, Jonathan Toews/CHI, David Perron/STL, Sam Gagner/EDM) and Team USA three (Erik Johnson/STL, Pat Kane/CHI, Peter Mueller/PHO). These are high numbers for both teams.
Nevertheless, there will be lots of great young players to watch in Czech Republic as a total of 21 NHL first-round prospects will show off, including US players James vanRiemsdyk (PHI, 2nd overall, 2007) and Kyle Okposo (NYI, 7th overall, 2006), Canadian players Kyle Turris (PHO, 3rd overall, 2007), Thomas Hickey (LAK, 4th overall, 2007), Karl Alzner (WAS, 5th overall, 2007), Brandon Sutter (CAR, 10th overall, 2007), Jonathan Bernier (LAK, 11th overall, 2006), Czech player Michael Frolik (FLA, 10th overall, 2006) and Danish player Lars Eller (STL, 13th overall, 2007).
Overall, there will be 71 NHL drafted players competing in Pardubice and Liberec.
The NHL scouts and the fans will also closely watch the 60 or so prospects that are eligible for the 2008 NHL draft, including the No. 1 prospect on any scouting list so far – Steve Stamkos from Canada. Indeed, four of the top five prospects listed on the ISS Top 30 for December will play at the 2008 WJC. The other three are Drew Doughty (Canada, 3rd), Luke Schenn (Canada, 4th) and Nikita Filatov (Russia, 5th). The young Danish Mikkel Boedker, who is listed at the 20th rank by ISS will also have a lot of eyes watching him play for the Denmark team.
So far, a total of 160 NHL scouts and 17 NHL general managers have registered for the 2008 WJC. These experts will have the chance to see the undisputed No. 1 prospect for the 2009 NHL draft, John Tavares (Canada). Tavares entered the OHL in 2005-06 a few days before reaching the age of 15. He completed his first season among the top of goal scorers with 45. The next season, 2006-07, Tavares broke one of the oldest record of the CHL while he scored 72 goals at the age of 16, two more than Wayne Gretzky did at the same age in 1977-78.
New York Rangers top the NHL teams
Unless some late changes occur, the NHL team with the most players in the tournament will be the New York Rangers (Bobby Sanguinetti, Alexei Cherepanov, Artem Anisimov, David Kveton, David Skokan and Carl Hagelin), with six draftees. The Rangers also co-led among NHL teams last year with six prospects at the 2007 WJC.
The New York Islanders are among the teams not far behind with five prospects, including the first-rounders Kyle Okposo (NYI). The Philadelphia Flyers also have five with (James vanRiemsdyk, Claude Giroux, Jakub Kovar, Mario Kempe and Joonas Lehtivuori), as do the Los Angeles Kings (Thomas Hickey (CAN), Wayne Simmonds (CAN), Jonathan Bernier (CAN), Oscar Moller (SWE), and Niclas Andresen (SWE)).
Five NHL teams have none in Pardubice and Liberec – Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim. For the last two, this is the second year in a row without having any representative at the most important international junior competition of the year. Note that the Canucks should have seen Ilya Kablukov (Russia) at this year’s tournament but the Russian team announced less than a week before the WJC that Kablukov had a passport problem that wouldn’t permit him to stay in the Czech Republic.
CHL well represented again
Of the 220 players participating in the 2008 tournament, 52 have CHL roots. Unsurprisingly, Team Canada leads the pack with 21 CHL players. The Czech squad is second with 10.
Russia and Kazakhstan are the only teams without members from the CHL in their roster.
The NCAA will be represented by 19 players, the USHL two (both for Finland – Siim Livik and Jan-Mikael Juutilainen) and the AHL one (Artem Anisimov, NYR, 2nd round). These two players playing at the WJC for the Finland team may be another indication that the USHL is gaining more and more respect in the world of junior hockey.
A new mark for USA
Team USA leads all the countries, including Canada, with 20 players already drafted. This is a record for the USA junior team. This is also the first time that Canada does not lead the countries for the number of drafted players at the WJC.
With seven apiece, USA and Canada co-lead the countries at the WJC for the number of prospects selected in the first round.
Very young players to watch
The WJC is recognized as a tournament for the 19-year-old players. So, most of the players are in their last junior year. This year’s tournament will also involve 21 players born in 1990 (17-year-olds) and three born as late as 1991 (aged of only 16).
Two of the three players born in 1991 are Danes – Sebastian Svendsen (the youngest of this year’s tourney)and Simon Gronvaldt. The third one is Magnus Svensson Paajarvi (Sweden).
Denmark is the youngest team with 13 of its crew aged 18 or younger. It is also the lightest team with an average of 171 pounds per player which is far from the 193 pounds for USA who tops all the teams this year.