2008 World Junior ‘A’ Challenge review

By Guy Flaming

After a long, hard-fought week of games between teams from five different nations, the United States walked away with the gold medal victory thanks to a dominating performance in the championship game.

It’s a little odd looking back on the event now and seeing that the two tournament finalists actually lost their opening games against teams most predicted to be fodder for the traditional power house clubs.

The small rural prairie city of Camrose has a rich history of hosting international hockey events dating back nearly three decades with the Viking Cup, so the community knows how to welcome foreign visitors. Although there were plenty of tickets available throughout the week, the crowds were grew thicker with each game at the still new and top-notch Edgeworth Centre.

NHL teams were well represented by scouts and executives, as were several NCAA programs and CHL clubs. With two Canadian teams consisting almost entirely of NCAA bound players (some committed and some still being recruited) as well as an American side representing the best of the USHL, tier I junior hockey in North America was showcased for eight full days.

Here is a look at how the three North American and three European teams performed in reverse order of their final standing.

6th Place – Germany

The Germans entered a team with the intent of using the tournament as a tool as they prepare for the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa. They didn’t have a few of their top players as they were unavailable to play; top goalie Timo Pielmeier (SJ) being a prime example as he will be the starter at the WJC but missed this tournament because of his commitment to his QMJHL club in Shawinigan.

Germany’s best forward in the tournament was undrafted center Stephen Rupprich who notched three goals and six points in four games. Assistant coach Jeff Tomlinson, a transplanted Canadian who had a lengthy pro career in Germany, described Rupprich a late bloomer who has become an integral part of the national program.

Another noteworthy player wearing black, gold and red was Jerome Flaake who missed one game nursing a minor injury but still contributed a couple points in the tournament. He was named Player of the Game against Russia in a lopsided 8-2 loss but his combination of size and skill was noticeable.

Other Germans who performed well in Camrose were David Wolf, Toni Ritter, Andre Huebscher and defenseman Patrick Pohl. Conor Morrison, the son of Maple Leafs Director of Amateur Scouting, was born in Switzerland but was able to use some German lineage to qualify. He played well enough that he’ll likely miss more time from his BCHL club team at Christmas to play in the WJC in Ottawa.

“We’re smarter today that we were when we got here,” said Tomlinson at the end of the tournament. “That was the whole point in coming here; to get smart and figure out who can play and who can’t. There are guys who just can’t play at this level and we saw that and that is good for us to [determine].”

So from Camrose it’s a shift of focus to the WJC in December. The Germans will hold a camp early in the month but you can be sure that this tournament went a long way to determining who will and who won’t be on the final roster in Ottawa.

“There are guys that are still on the bubble, some that are not on the bubble anymore, guys that have played themselves onto the team and guys who have played themselves off the team so we’ve got every scenario which is great for us to see,” Tomlinson said who believes test driving his guys on the smaller ice surface in Camrose will pay dividends in Ottawa. “That’s exactly why we needed to come here and play in this tournament. All these guys can play on the big ice back home where there isn’t a lot of contact so it was good to see who showed up. We got to see who can make decisions under pressure and that was good.”

Overall, Germany scored the second fewest goals (15) but allowed the second most (23) of the six teams, the biggest reason that they finished in last place.

5th Place – Russia

They were both the youngest team and arguably the most individually skilled team in the tournament in that the Russians were made up entirely of players born in 1991 and 1992, making them all either 2009 or 2010-eligible. Like Germany, this event was viewed as a tune-up for the Russians as they look ahead to the U18’s in Fargo, North Dakota this spring. It’s not hard to see the abundance of talent in this age group from Russia and although it’s not an overly strong draft year for that nation in 2009, 2010 is going to be a banner year.

Netminder Eduard Reyzvikh was impressive even in games where his club lost by large margins. He’s very athletic, positionally sound yet can scramble to make acrobatic saves as well. His stats certainly don’t reflect the way that he performed as an individual and although his team lost 5-2 against Canada West, he was named Player of the Game for Russia.

Dmitry Orlov and Georgy Berdyukov were the top defensive pairing for Russia and were used on the top power play unit as well as key moments when games were close. Mike Oke, head scout from International Scouting Services, liked what he saw from both players.

“[Orlov] got stronger as games went on,” said Oke. “I thought those two guys were a nice combination and Berdyukov was tremendous at times as well. Those are a couple of defensemen that I think could potentially go in the earlier rounds of the draft. That said, there is a lot of hockey left to be played.” 

Russia’s strength though was definitely up front with several extremely talented forwards, some of which are already considered top prospects for the 2010 draft, although all of them had their youth and relative inexperience show in the tournament as well.

Maxim Kitsin had four points in as many games but at 6’2 and 194 lbs, the scouting community was all smiles watching him drive to the net, win battles in the corners or generally create offensive chances. Perhaps it was an isolated instance, but this week Kitsin’s hands betrayed him; despite numerous scoring opportunities he was only able to score twice. He was awarded a penalty shot against Germany but gave an almost embarrassingly bad attempt that was easily stopped with a poke check. He was either dominant or snake bitten; there was little grey area this week for Kitsin.

The player getting the most hype for 2010 is Kirill Kabanov, the dynamic Russian forward who is already getting wooed by CHL teams like the London Knights, Windsor Spitfires and Quebec Remparts where family friend Alex Radulov played.

“He’s a nice combination of size and skill,” said Oke. “It’s a long way out from the 2010 draft but he’s a legitimate pro prospect and someone that will get that top-five consideration at that time.”

Kabanov had seven points for Russia, third best on the team, and also collected his fair share of penalty minutes thanks to a competitive nature that got the best of him at times, especially against Canada West where poor officiating led to undisciplined behaviour. Still, Kabanov said he much preferred the North American style of game to what he’s used to back home which is a large part of why he wants to play in the CHL next year.

“It was a hard game [against Canada West] but it was [North American style]. I think it’s OK, our coach is not thinking it is OK,” Kabanov smiled. “In Russia we don’t play hockey like [boxing] we play more technical. This is more [physical] hockey. It’s very hard to play here because when you are going you can be [hit] in the back or the face maybe but I like it. It’s for real men, it’s real hockey.

“In Russia we have the big ice so you can skate more,” he added. “Here you have to pass and you have to think faster. I like this more.”

The prettiest goal of the tournament came off the stick, foot and then stick again of speedy forward Vladimir Tarasenko who absolutely undressed a Canadian defender on his way to opening the scoring in a losing effort.

“He’s coming down the wing and he kicks the puck in between his feet and then back up to his stick, around the defenseman and then goes high to beat a goalie and you think ‘hey, you’re not supposed to be able to do that in a game, that stuff is supposed to only work in practice’ but it was a tremendous play,” complimented Oke.

Tarasenko isn’t big at 5’11 but his 202 lbs makes him sturdy and a tough competitor along the boards. He didn’t receive any recognition as a game star but he did lead the Russians in tournament scoring with nine points and at least one Western Conference NHL scout that HF spoke with now has him on his list.

Sixteen-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov is an extremely talented player whose skills are matched only by his immaturity. During the play he’ll dazzle with his playmaking, his vision or his speed but as soon as the whistle blows he’s slamming his stick against the boards, shaking his head at teammates or whining to the referee. It’s no wonder he led his team with 26 penalty minutes; maturity will do wonders for this prospect.

Finally, Alexander Burmistrov was solid all week but outstanding in Russia’s final game.

Three of Russia’s games ended in routs including 10-4 and 8-2 wins over Belarus and Germany so it’s not surprising that the 22 goals they totalled in four games was second highest in the tournament. This will be a very strong team at the U18 tournament in April and for the next couple of years after that at the WJC.

4th Place – Belarus

The Belarusians were an afterthought to most tournament watchers and apparently the host team as well. Belarus stunned the local fan base with their 4-3 shootout win over Canada West on opening night and although they were soundly trounced by Russia the next day, they could already consider the event a success.

Mikalai Susla was the lone ’91 on the team and the better of the two players who are eligible for the NHL draft this June for the first time. He’s a bit lanky at 6’1 and only 175 lbs but Susla does have some ability to play the game. He wasn’t a top line player for Belarus but did contribute two goals and 24 penalty minutes during the week.

Forward Siarhei Drozd led his team in scoring with seven goals and nine points setting a new WJAC record; 3:46 was the span it took him to register a natural hat trick during a 7-5 win over Germany. Drozd was certainly the top skater for Belarus and although he went undrafted last year, he might be a player who gets late-round consideration as a 19-year-old at the 2009 draft.

Arguably the top Belarusian in Camrose was netminder Vitali Bialinski who faced a ton of rubber, played the most minutes of any goalie and subsequently allowed the most goals as well. Bialinski stopped all three shooters he faced in the opening night shootout against Canada West and was also named Player of the Game against the same opponent in their semi-final rematch as he allowed one goal on 43 shots.

Belarus placed fourth in the event with two wins and three losses scoring 17 goals but surrendering a tournament high 31.

3rd – Canada East

After two years of second place finishes at the WJAC, Canada East was hoping they could improve their record this year. Unfortunately their roster featured many good but no great players and they fell short of their previous success at the event.

Netminding was not strong. Neither Shawn Sirman nor Andrew Hare were particularly impressive nor awful, they were simply adequate. Sirman’s .907 save percentage was second best in the tournament but he only played 90 minutes.

Canada East’s two drafted players, both defensemen, were among the best and most consistent performers. Braden Birch (CHI) and Nick D’Agostino (PGH) were both fairly impressive, especially the former in a 5-3 loss against USA. Dustin Darou and David Pratt were physical and threw some of the bigger hits of the week.

From the forward lines, the top player was clearly Brandon Pirri, a 2009-eligible player from Toronto. Pirri describes himself as ‘a playmaker that works really hard and buries his chances’ and he did that this week in Camrose. He led his team in scoring with seven points in four games, fifth overall in tournament scoring.

Pirri will attend RPI beginning next year, with Canada East teammate Jacob Laliberte, and expects that the ECAC program will be a strong one and believes the strength of the coaching staff will help take him to a higher level.

In Camrose, Pirri had a lot of chemistry with Zach Hervato who was passed over in his draft year because of his 5’7 frame. Hervato, Marty O’Grady, Reilly Smith and Stephen Horyl provided their share of moments but none could be considered top-tier prospects based on their performance at the tournament.

Head coach Mark Grady agreed that his team’s downfall was that they couldn’t match up well with the size, strength and maturity of teams like USA.

“Maybe that played a big factor in the battles that we lost down low and certainly with the battles for loose pucks in front of the net.” coach Grady said. “We should have been motivated having lost to [the Americans] in that close game and we didn’t really have the passion.”

Canada East lost to USA in the round robin portion by a 5-3 score before a much more uneven 5-1 win in the semi-finals. East scored 19 goals for and allowed 14 which ranks third in each category so a third place finish in the tournament seems pretty reasonable.

2nd Place – Canada West

Expectations were huge for the host squad as two-time defending champions who also had a coach in Boris Rybalka who shared that same record. On paper, Canada West certainly had enough talent, leadership and determination to get the job done.

The loss to Belarus woke the team up but they were dominated in the first period against Russia as well. Once they turned up the dial on their physical play they took the Russians out of their game and on the strength of five power-play goals Canada West won a controversial 5-2 victory.

The 4-1 win over Belarus in the semi-finals was far from overpowering and in fact the game was extremely close through the first 40 minutes. To that point, both the coach and the players agreed that they hadn’t played up to their potential and would need to in the gold medal game.

“We’ve competed hard but I don’t think we’ve brought that ‘A’ game and if we do tomorrow we’re going to be untouchable I think,” suggested forward Derek Grant (OTT), who had a decent tournament with two goals in four games.

However, Canada West was no match for the American side in the final game and were 7-1 losers in what was a very anticlimactic finish to the week.

Defensemen Dylan Olsen and Andrew MacWilliam (TOR) both play for the AJHL’s Camrose Kodiaks and put on a good show for the local fans. Both played physically, especially MacWilliam who was on the good end of numerous collisions all week long.

Sixteen-year-old Jaden Schwartz and his 18-year-old brother Rylan were consistent for Canada West. The brothers are teammates at Notre Dame (SJHL) and are both recruits of Colorado College although the WHL’s Tri-City Americans own the junior rights to the elder and would certainly like to add him to their team as well.

AJHL Rookie of the Year Matt Mackay had three points in the tournament but had moments that made people sit up and scribble down notes. Denver Manderson, a 19-year-old with the Penticton Vees (BCHL), shared the team scoring lead with Olsen as both managed five points.

Kevin Genoe was solid in two of his starts, but really faltered in the gold medal game allowing two backbreaking goals in the first period that Canada never recovered from. Unfortunately his last game likely overshadows the tremendous performance he had against Russian when his team came out completely flat in the first period.

Canada West scored only 13 times in the entire tournament – the biggest reason they didn’t win a third straight title. They managed to keep the goals against to a bare minimum (14) aside from the seven they gave up in the final.

1st Place – United States

It took a couple of games to get going, but once the Americans started to roll there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Coach Mark Carlson had to quickly assemble his team and try and create some chemistry very early and that played a large role in the 5-2 loss to Germany. However, Carlson got his troops reorganized and refocused in time for the first meeting with Canada East and his club never looked back.

“It was a learning experience and showed us that we weren’t going to walk through anyone in this tournament without working hard,” said eventual tournament MVP Mike Cichy of the Tri-City Strom.

USA scored 25 goals in the next four games and only allowed seven against, which is a testament to the way they dominated and controlled the games but also shows how well 18-year-old Mike Lee performed. The Fargo Force netminder was by far the best between the pipes all week and even in the rare times when his team was outplayed, never allowed the opposition much momentum by getting beat.

“Mike kind of personified out whole team; very composed, never got rattled and just like the team he never got shaken by anything and just kept making saves,” said coach Carlson of the St. Cloud-bound netminder.

Cichy, a North Dakota recruit, led the tournament in scoring with 10 points but credits his linemates for his personal accolades. Most notably, eight of Cichy’s 10 points came during 5-on-5 play.

“I played with David Gerths and Pat Mullane and I think when we got the puck down low we kept it, we played hard and that’s how we put our points up on the board,” the 19-year-old said. “I got the MVP but any of those guys deserve it just as much as I do.”

Danny Kristo (MTL) was dynamic in the games against Canadian teams despite being hampered by a sore ankle. A puck magnate, Kristo is able to create plays, skate hard and set the tempo of the game all at a high speed and in control of the puck. Unlike a lot of skilled players who seem to fade as the physical play increases, Kristo rose to the challenge and ended the week with seven points in three games.

“That was kind of an interesting side story here. Obviously physical hockey is part of the game and it seemed to be a common theme that some teams were going to try and get physical with us here but that stuff doesn’t bother the American player,” chuckled Carlson after his team won the final game. “Danny Kristo bounced right back up and got out there and was involved in the offense.”

Several American players deserve recognition but the more notable include defenders Matt Donovan (NYI) and Max NiCastro (DET), Nick Larson (CGY), 2009 draft-eligible Josh Birkholz, Lee Moffie, John Moore and Josh Balch.

Seth Helgeson, a highly-touted blueliner according to ISS, was much better as the tournament went on. He was very strong in the final game but during the round robin he was not an impact player at all aside from a bad pinch that led to a goal against versus Canada East.

The USHL spawned team scored a tournament high 27 goals and allowed a tournament low 12 goals against. The latter stat is more impressive when you consider that USA and Belarus were the only two teams that played five games.

“I was very impressed with their work ethic,” said Canada West coach Boris Rybalka after dropping the final. “They were strong down low, they dominated the corners, the defensemen jumped in, their power play clicked and their big players produced and that was the difference. I give them a lot of credit because they deserved that gold medal.”

Awards

Tournament MVP – Mike Cichy (USA)

All-Star team:
Forwards – Mike Cichy (USA), Craig Smith (USA) and Jaden Schwartz (CAN W)
Defense – Matt Donovan (USA), Andrew MacWilliam (CAN W)
Goalie – Mike Lee (USA)